Zen and the art of adaptive surfing

Catching a wave creates a visceral connection with ocean and energy. As your board accelerates, time slows and you enter a Zen state of “here and now.” By ride’s end, your brain is flooded with endorphins. Whether it’s your first ride or your thousandth, you feel great and want more.

Alana Nichols competes in the Duke’s Oceanfest contest on her wave ski in Oahu, Hawaii. New Mobility

By Bob Vogel, New Mobility April 1, 2021

With advances in equipment and a growing list of adaptive surf organizations, adaptive surfing has evolved to enable wheelchair users at any level to ride, whether they’re beginners or professional competitors. Here is a look at how the sport evolved and where it is today.

Although a lone pioneer or two were figuring the sport out as far back as the late 1970s, adaptive surfing started to take shape in the early 2000s. Life Rolls On, the first adaptive surf program, was created in 2001 by surfer Jesse Billauer, who’d been a top amateur about to go pro prior to his accident. He sustained a C6 SCI in 1996 and was able to shred again with the help of top pros and shapers who figured out board adaptations. LRO’s coast-to-coast adaptive surf days generated that Zen-like state called “surfer’s stoke” and inspired the formation of organizations on both coasts, Hawaii and around the world. As these programs took hold, the sport grew. Simultaneously, surfers with and without disabilities began helping each other out organically.

Like Flying Downhill on a Toboggan

Brock Johnson competes in the Prone Assist division of the 2018 USA Adaptive Surfing Championships at the Harbor Jetty break, Oceanside, California. New Mobility

Brock Johnson, 43, was an ocean lifeguard prior to his C7 injury in 2011. “After it happened, I missed surfing more than I missed walking,” he says. A year later, he attended a LRO event in his hometown of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and rode prone on the front of tandem board. “As the guide paddled, I felt the familiar surge of speed when the board connects with the wave’s energy, and all of the fantastic feelings of surfing flooded my brain. On that first wave I thought, ‘I’m home. I’m a surfer and this is what I’m going to do.’” He started surfing on a regular basis and soon discovered a huge side benefit reported by many other adaptive surfers as well as swimmers, snorkelers and scuba divers with SCI: Being in the ocean seems to ease neuropathic pain better than any drug.

Johnson’s first ride with LRO had such a powerful impact he “paid it forward” by starting Adaptive Surf Project, an organization that introduces people to the sport through day-at-the-beach events held up and down the coast of the Carolinas. Project volunteers also travel to other countries, including Columbia and Costa Rica, to plant the adaptive surf seed and donate beach chairs and adaptive boards. “Introducing somebody to adaptive surfing, knowing it will improve their life, is a powerful feeling,” says Johnson.

Jose Solorio gets pushed into a wave on a beginner, solo prone surfboard. New Mobility

One of Adaptive Surf Project’s earliest converts was Jose Solorio, a T12/L1 para. He attended the program’s first learn-to-surf event, held at Cherry Grove, South Carolina, in 2014. “Before my injury I had no interest in surfing. I didn’t even learn how to swim until after my SCI. So for me, the ocean was a big, scary place,” he says. “My daughter was there and said, you’re going to do it, aren’t you, Daddy? And I thought, nope!” But the folks at Adaptive Surf understood his trepidation and got him on the front of a tandem board. “The next thing I knew, we were on a wave, and it felt like I was flying downhill on a toboggan! It was beyond anything I’d ever experienced.” It was so fun, he went out again and again, and then went out solo, and he has continued to surf at every Adaptive Surf Project day since his inaugural ride.

Mark Thornton starts a bottom turn on his wave ski during an adaptive surf contest in California. New Mobility

Hanging Out at the Dogpatch

In addition to adaptive surf organizations, much of the sport’s roots, particularly on wave skis — where you sit on the board and use a kayak-style paddle to propel yourself — can be traced to a surf crew that hangs out at Dogpatch, a mellow surf break at San Onofre, California. “The best days for me are when I get a chance to turn people with SCI on to surfing, something I do person by person,” says Mark Thornton, 60, one of the early members and unofficial ring leaders of the Dogpatch crew. Thornton was a dedicated Southern California surfer prior to sustaining a T4 SCI in 1994.

Thornton’s early attempts at riding a boogie board and conventional board were unsuccessful. Fourteen years after his injury, while watching surfers at Dogpatch, he saw somebody riding a wave ski, which led to an introduction to legendary surfboard and wave ski shaper Steve Boehne of Infinity Surfboards. Thornton was so excited talking with Boehne that he ordered an Infinity wave ski, which was the second one Boehne had custom shaped for a paraplegic.

“I got my board and hit the water. I paddled to catch a wave and felt the speed rush as the board accelerated down the face, I made a turn and pulled out of it without falling,” says Thornton. “Oh man, it was the greatest feeling! I was back, free, just me and Mother Ocean. My paralysis was left on the beach. I was a surfer again.” The impact was profound. He moved into his van, got a four-wheel-drive power chair for the beach, and surfed every spare minute up and down the California coast, as well as Hawaii.

When Thornton meets somebody interested in adaptive surfing, he’ll say, “Meet me at San Onofre, and Steve will take you on a tandem wave ski to evaluate your ability and comfort level.” Next Thornton has them try his board, which is wide and stable. From there new riders are usually hooked, and the wheels are turning on what type of board they want.

Charles “Chaka” Webb carves a turn on his wave ski while competing in the Dukes Oceanfest contest in Oahu, Hawaii. Facebook. New Mobility

One of the people who Thornton turned on to wave skiing is Charles “Chaka” Webb, whose surfing was halted in 1984 by a T7-8 injury when he was 18. After a 29-year hiatus, he met Thornton and Boehne, who took him to Dogpatch. “Steve took me out tandem and we dropped into a four-foot wave and I’m freaking out, yet at the same time I’m back in my element, and I naturally dug my paddle in and started initiating some turns,” he says. He was hooked and soon commissioned a Boehne board. Now he surfs every day. “The adaptive surf community is very welcoming. Everybody wants to help each other, and we exchange ideas and equipment design.”

Getting a second chance at surfing was so powerful that Webb founded Stoke For Life, a Southern California-based nonprofit dedicated to introducing people to adaptive surfing and watersports through clinics and education. “It’s about the surfing. In the water, you are just another surfer,” he says.

The Long Way Out. Cody Caldwell. Vimeo 2012
Adaptive Surfing Becomes Competitive

Competitive adaptive surfing dates back to 2007 with AccesSurf Hawaii’s first annual adaptive contest as part of Duke’s Oceanfest, held off Waikiki beach. It landed on California beaches in 2010 with the Western Surfing Association’s AmpSurf adaptive contest at Church Beach in San Onofre. Word of adaptive surf competition started to quickly spread, and in 2015 the sport exploded on the world stage with the first International Surf Association World Adaptive Surfing Championships held in La Jolla, Calf.

Alana Nichols rides the swash on her wave ski. New Mobility

From a competition standpoint, we have evolved from just few adaptive surfers competing here or there to worldwide recognition,” says Team USA Para Surfing Captain Christiaan “Otter” Bailey. In 2020, participation in the ISA World Adaptive Championships, now known as Para Surfing, grew to 131 competitors representing 21 countries. Para surfing is slated to make its Paralympic debut in 2028 in Los Angeles.

As in other adaptive sports, para surfing has a classification system consisting of nine categories, three of which are specific to wheelchair users. Two of these are Para Surf Prone 1, where a surfer rides in a prone position and does not require assistance paddling into a wave or getting back on the board, and Prone 2, where a surfer who rides the wave prone requires assistance, such as a push to catch a wave or help getting back on the board safely.

The sport also has a fledgling professional side, started and run by Webb and Stoke For Life. In 2019, the U.S. Open Adaptive Surfing Championships, then in its third year, saw adaptive surfers competing on the waves of Oceanside, California, for over $25,000 in prize money.

Jimmy Collins gets ready to pull himself up onto the back of his prone surfboard. Note the padded fins on top that help keep his legs in place on the board. New Mobility

The previous year, Alana Nichols entered and won the wave ski division, beating all the men to become athe 2018 National Champion. “It was a big day, and the waves were gnarly,” recalls the T12 para. “But I was just in a flow state, and it all worked out. It was a blast, and beating all of the guys was a big deal.” She is also the first woman Paralympian to gold medal in both a winter and summer game — Alpine skiing and basketball.

“Surfing in contests is a lot of fun and offers great camaraderie,” says Jimmy Collins, 69. A recreational surfer in his 50th year as a T5 para, Collins, who lives on Oahu, tried surfing for the first time at age 62 with AccesSurf Hawaii. “For me, the beauty of surfing in a contest is, for a $35 entry fee, you and four other surfers have the most exclusive waves in the world all to yourselves for the length of your competition heat.”

Land-Locked Surfing

The evolution of adaptive surfing is also making the sport available in land-locked areas. One way this happens is with wake surfing — riding the perfectly shaped wave created by a wake surf boat — something that is starting to be incorporated by more adaptive sports programs.

I joined seven other athletes to give wake surfing a try at the Mobo Law Adaptive Boat Day on Lake Tahoe, organized by the High Fives Foundation in September 2019. Surfing is a sport I’d longed for since my T10 SCI in 1985. Lying down on the surfboard just behind the boat, I had one hand on a water ski tow rope handle and the other on the board. When I said “hit it,” I felt tow rope tension similar to being pulled on a water ski. The line tension eased as the board connected with the growing boat wake that soon morphed into a clean little wave, and the board accelerated into the pocket. When I let go of the tow rope, I was surfing and I burst into an ear-to-ear grin.

High Five The Wave Lake Tahoe 2020. FIVE adaptive athletes, THREE different boards, ONE summer. Video by Stefano Shishido. HighFivesFoundation. Vimeo October 15, 2020

Another evolution that could be the next big thing in inland adaptive surfing are wave pools. These man-made bodies of water have a mechanical system that creates perfect “made-to-order” waves ranging from gentle rollers for beginners to steep tubes for experts or competitions. There have already been several adaptive surfing contests held in wave pools in Australia and one in the United Kingdom. In late 2020, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic surf team had a three-day training session at the wave pool at BSR Cable Park in Waco, Texas.

Bob Vogel hangs onto the tow rope at the start of a wake surf ride behind a boat on Lake Tahoe. Faceboook. New Mobility

“It was fantastic. In a few days I was able to learn and master three tricks that I’ve been working on for a decade but didn’t have the consistency of the type of wave I needed,” says Bailey. “I think that wave pools are the future for competition, as well as for introduction to surfing.”

Surfing has become one of the ultimate adaptive equalizing sports. As Thornton says, “When I’m on my board in the water, I’m free. At night in my dreams I’m no longer paralyzed, I’m surfing. In the morning when I wake up, I leave my chair on the beach and I’m surfing just like my dream.”

Adaptive Surfing Equipment

Adaptive surfboards come in two varieties, prone and wave ski. Prone boards are generally concave, and surfers use them by lying down to paddle and surf. They may have pads on each side to keep legs in place and hand straps to grab and angle the board for turning. Additional options include a foam wedge under the chest or chin. Sit-down boards, known as wave skis, are propelled with a kayak paddle.

For beginners, an important feature of either a prone board or wave ski is having more rocker. That’s the upward curve at the front of the board. It keeps the nose of the board from pearling, or digging into the water. Adaptive wave skis have a scooped-out, padded seat and options that include quick-release seat belts and knee rests for stability, and backrests for higher level injuries.

Beginner versions of both boards are wider than normal, which makes them stable and easy to balance, but slower to turn. High-performance boards are narrower for quicker turning, but challenging to balance. They’re ideally custom-designed to the style and ability of the surfer. Prone boards and wave skis come in tandem versions, which is a great way to try the sport, learn about catching waves and gain skills to ride on your own.

Additional adaptive options include leg leash Velcro straps that attach to the board and keep your feet together. This becomes more important in larger surf where paralyzed legs can be injured by being pulled in all directions when tumbling in a wipeout. Perhaps the coolest solution to this is Brock Johnson’s wetsuit, the bottom of which zips both legs together to create a “merman” lower half.

Access Surf Hawaii accessurf.org
Adaptive Maui adaptivemaui.com/about
Adaptive Surf Project adaptivesurfproject.com
AmpSurf ampsurf.org
High Fives Foundation highfivesfoundation.org
Ocean Healing Group oceanhealinggroup.org
Life Rolls On liferollson.org
Stoke For Life Foundation stokeforlife.org

Source New Mobility


Also see
Accessible Tourism in Canada: Vacation Ideas for Travelers with Disabilities Rick Hansen Foundation
Surfers with disabilities find freedom in Nova Scotia waves CBC Nova Scotia

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