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Therapy, Sport and the Ocean. Adaptive Surfing

Adaptive surfing. Therapy, sport and the ocean. The three combined are everything.

The Wave Project, a surf therapy charity in originating in Cornwall, United Kingdom, “harnesses the power of the ocean to improve mental health”. With over 6,000 volunteers and surf mentors, their concept is to deliver life-changing surf therapy every day. Have you ever wanted to get into the sea but did not think you could? Wanted to surf the waves but are too scared? Or want to feel the warmth of the sand? You can with The Wave Project.

The charity itself has been running for over ten years. However, around five years ago is when adaptive surfing took off at its specialist Adaptive Hub in North Devon. It all started with a ten-year-old boy called George. Where he came from, everyone surfs or knows about surfing. George has cerebral palsy, epilepsy, is visually impaired and is developmentally delayed. He is a full-time wheelchair user and never in his wildest dreams thought he would surf. He does. His mother got in touch with The Wave Project to take George out surfing. They had rarely taken someone with disabilities out into the water, but they were willing to try. They got him out in the ocean, and he loved every moment and could not wait to go again. Thus, adaptive surfing at The Wave Project came to life.

young girl sat on the adaptive surfboard with her sibling standing on the board behind and an instructor at the back
Adaptive Surfing, The Wave Project

They went forward from there. A few months later, the team took out a 40-year-old man with Huntington’s disease. In his thirties, he would surf. He could not communicate verbally and used the thumbs up, thumbs down approach. After three sessions, the team noticed his natural surfing position when on the board out at sea, and they knew he was someone who used to surf. “You used to surf!” the team exclaimed, and in his excitement, he gave a thumbs up. The muscle memory of what he used to do was still there. You could see it in his physical stance.

In 2021, they took out 80 people out in the ocean and undertook over 150 adaptive surfing sessions. Over the last two years, they have seen exponential growth and are continuously excited to help people go surfing. George surfed fifteen times in 2021 and now loves a wipeout, the art of falling off your surfboard whilst catching the waves.

George never imagined he would surf. Now, he identifies himself as a surfer.” Ian Bennett, Adaptive Surfing Lead

Last year, the team took a group of stroke survivors into the ocean. One was an 81-year-old who had had a stroke and heart attack. He had not been on the beach for thirty years. In the first session, he was terrified and watched from the shore. “I cannot believe I did not get in the water!” he exclaimed after and was on the board the following week. He is a navy veteran and had not been in the sea for thirty years. It was a tremendously emotional and tearful experience. “Making experiences as that happen, it is important to help people who might never have the chance or people that used to surf, get back in the water”, states Ian Bennett.

When it comes to taking surfers into the ocean, some people want as little intervention as possible. To feel as independent as they can. However, some could need seven people to one. A young boy came for a session. He was breathing through a trachea tube. He and his mother knew the risks, and with seven people, they took him out into the small waves. He wants to have as many experiences as possible, and adaptive surfing was one.

adaptive surfing team with two young girls on the adaptive board in the shallow waters of the ocean
Adaptive Surfing, The Wave Project

As adaptive surfing developed from year one, the charity would ask themselves what can they do to improve? “Why make it a surf experience for only one person? If they come with the family, we should give everyone a lesson” states Ian. They discuss the beach, sea and surf conditions, rips, flags and surfboards.

“Why should this person have a different experience to the people on the water not doing adaptive surfing?” Ian Bennett, Adaptive Surfing Lead

Everyone can benefit from a typical surf lesson on the beach. Siblings join in together. Sometimes they will not always participate in the same sports, and The Wave Project aims to get them surfing together. Parents love watching their children surfing together, doing something they never thought was possible. Sometimes they have them on the same board or different boards, and they race and compete.

“Adaptive surfing allows people with disabilities to do something they thought they could not” Ian Bennett, Adaptive Surfing Lead

Safety is always their number one priority. Nevertheless, the charity found some sessions are too sterile for surfers. They want the same adrenaline as everyone else, that same rush and feeling. One of their surfers, Steven, takes a three-hour journey to Croyde in North Devon to surf with the team. He is a wheelchair user and will undertake a two and a half-hour session in the ocean. After the first session, he exclaimed that they should take him out further for greater waves next time. Even so, when pushing it up a level, safety is always their priority, and they have a lot of measures in place ready.

The Wave Project has created its adaptive surfboards itself. The board has a seat. They also have beach wheelchairs, adaptive wetsuits with zips in the arms and legs and wetsuit socks to slip on easier. Everything they do, they adapt to get people out surfing.

young girl laying on the surfboard with an instructor at the back in the ocean
Adaptive Surfing, The Wave Project

“I was not scared, and I want to get scared. Many people want the same adrenaline buzz” Steven, adaptive surfer

Ian Bennett is the Adaptive Surfing Lead for the charity. He travels around the United Kingdom performing training courses in disability awareness, having good communication and practical skills for enabling someone to surf. He loves to take people out in the water, and he is fully booked for adaptive surfing until September 2022.

“Surfing saved my child’s life. He was in a dark place. He went surfing once, and from that day, he has been a different person” Surf Therapy Mother.

The Wave Project also focuses on surf therapy. Surf therapy is a six-week course designed to build resilience, confidence and self-esteem in those experiencing physical and mental health issues, social deprivation or social isolation. “Sometimes, people only want to get in the water for twenty minutes and want to build sandcastles instead. Our volunteers are qualified in high fives, building sandcastles and smiling!” explains Ian. If they enjoy their experience, they can join the surf club. It does not work for everyone, but for those, if it does work, it is successful.  After undertaking either the surf therapy course or adaptive surfing, the charity has found that people look forwards.

“When someone connects with the right sport or the right thing, it changes their life” Ian Bennett, Adaptive Surfing Lead

It is the therapy, the sport and the ocean combined. The three together are everything. The Wave Project does have a Project based at The Wave in Bristol.  a mechanical wave pool for those that cannot make it down to the coast. It is an amazing facility that is also helping Adaptive Surfing move forwards as it has a great emphasis on Inclusivity.  However, sometimes they found the surfers they took would rather be in a natural environment, even if there were no guaranteed waves. They wanted to be in the ocean, the feeling of vastness, blue and green open space. The outdoors is tremendously important and creates a whole different experience. No matter the weather, it is entirely different for the mind.

2 thoughts on “Therapy, Sport and the Ocean. Adaptive Surfing”

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