Start your day with the news you need from the Bay Area and beyond.
Sign up for our new Morning Report weekday newsletter .
Blaine “Sumo” Sato became known around town as the “Surfers’ Savior.”
The Hawaiian surfing pastor with the long, white beard and big, boisterous laugh lost his battle with colon cancer Sunday, March 11, surrounded by family and friends at his home in Huntington Beach. Sumo, as he was known by most people, was 55.
“He was just the most inspirational guy, it seemed like he closed the gap between good and bad and right and wrong,” said friend Rick “Rockin’ Fig” Fignetti, who got to say goodbye to Sato on Sunday. “It didn’t matter if someone was the mayor or they could be a homeless person — everyone was the same to him. He tried to help everyone out. He just had the biggest heart.”
Sato, a longtime pastor who ran the H20 church out of the International Surfing Museum, also served as the Huntington Beach Marine Safety lifeguard chaplain and in 2016 was inducted into the Surfers’ Hall of Fame at Main Street and Pacific Coast Highway, his imprints reading “TRUST GOD.”
And even in the hardest of times, through the pain that came with the cancer that spread through his body, he did.
“He was one tough guy, he was a warrior,” Fignetti said. “I think of all the pain. I never heard him complain once. He always kept his faith, never said ‘why me’.”
Aaron Pai, owner of Huntington Surf and Sport, added Sato to the Surfers’ Hall of Fame because of his influence on the surfing community.
“He meant everything to me, to our family and to the surfing community. He changed our little world for the better,” Pai said.
“He was a light. He was just loved by everybody. I call him my best friend, but he’s everybody’s best friend. The words ‘larger than life’ were said about Sumo. He was larger than life. He was Sumo.”
At the induction ceremony, Sato said his placement in the Hall of Fame was a “gift,” and thanked the surfers on the north side of the pier for accepting a transplant from Hawaii.
“It’s unreal, I love this community,” he said. “I’ve learned that when you trust God, all things fall into place.”
Like our Facebook page for more conversation and news coverage from the Bay Area and beyond.
After learning about his fight with cancer, he encouraged people to get a colonoscopy regularly. “If I got mine when I was 50,” he said during his induction speech, “I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Sato wasn’t quiet about his journey — he was open about his struggles early in life in Hawaii’s drug scene.
When he was approached by a missionary who talked to him about Jesus, Sato said, he felt an instant transformation.
He went to church, and members explained to him what he already suspected – that God was putting him on a path.
In 1983, Sato met Raul Ries, who told him about a Bible college in West Covina, and it wasn’t long before Sato packed his bags for the mainland to enroll in the two-year program. He moved back to Hawaii and met another influential figure in the church community, Ralph Moore, who started Hope Chapel in Hermosa Beach and has since started more than 800 churches. Sato became his disciple, helping to open churches on the islands.
Sato wanted to continue his education and moved back to California in 1990 to get his Master of Divinity degree, then spent years moving between Hawaii and California forming churches. At one point, he lived near Wrightwood and had to drive two hours to get to the waves.
He teamed up with the Ettinger family, which includes pro surfer Brad Ettinger, in 2011 and formed H20.
Sato’s role in the surf community was an emotionally difficult one, as he was often called on to officiate at paddle-out ceremonies after a surfer had died. He addressed the crowd of thousands who showed up when three-time world champ Andy Irons – a friend of Sato’s from Hawaii – died in 2010 . When Surfline founder Sean Collins died, Sato was the one who comforted thousands of mourners.
“If anything went wrong, he was always there,” Fignetti said. “I’d tell him, ‘You got the toughest job, you have to go there and comfort the people.’ He just embraced it. He said, ‘That’s what I do.'”
Santa Cruz loses ‘Godfather’ of surfing: Vince Collier, 1960-2018
Huntington Beach lifeguards a few years ago named Sato one of two official chaplains for the department. When guards need counseling after a drowning, or just wanted someone to talk to, they called on him.
Get top headlines in your inbox every afternoon. Get the free PM Report newsletter.
When professional surfer Bethany Hamilton, who lost her arm in a shark attack, earned the “Waterman of the Year” award in Laguna Beach, she asked Sato to address the crowd and talk about how faith helped give her strength.
As his cancer struggle continued, the community rallied. A “Luau of Love” was held in his honor, drawing hundreds of supporters. A surf contest was held in his honor a few months ago.
Fignetti, on Sunday, thanked Sato on behalf of the entire community.
“We’re going to be surfing perfect waves together one day,” he said. “The world without Sumo, it’s never going to be the same. We’ll always keep him in our hearts … you’re the Surfers’ Savior.”
Sato is survived by his wife Diane, daughter Taylor and son Micah.