Surfability UK is a Community Interest Company providing young people with disabilities or learning difficulties the opportunity to feel the same thrill of exhilaration that other surfers experience on our watery magic carpet rides.
With a burning desire to see the programme first hand, Ambassador Sam Bleakley set a date and, with the whole family in tow, made the trip to Caswell Bay to meet the team, along with some very inspiring young surfers.
Trust is a huge part of our lives. We trust our parents to guide us. We trust our kids to be honest. We trust local knowledge. Philosopher Alphonso Lingis says, “Trust binds us to one another with an intoxicating energy.” And, “Trust is the strong surge of feeling that connects us with others. You do not decide to trust someone: you just trust him (or her), or you do not. The leap of trust is exhilaration. There is nothing more exhilarating than trusting a stranger.”
And in the surf we trust our equipment, our timing, our judgement. We takeoff, poised like a bird, drop in, inhabit a special moment between gravity and levity, trust in traction and find solid grip in liquid space as our fish-like fins dig in accelerating out of a turn, now fully in trim, then kicking out, now rinsed with seaspray and stoked.
But imagine not being able to surf solo, or speak, or move your limbs, demanding a tandem surf guide, trusting that their choices will keep you safe. Would your demand of trust (as the thought that this maybe isn’t the best choice of wave) be met with disbelief, a raised eyebrow: ‘how can you possibly not trust me?’ as you then nosedive on a ledging takeoff, ejected into the rinse cycle. Brave surfers who are challenged physically and emotionally face and overcome fears that so-called ‘able-bodied’ surfers cannot possibly experience. This turns challenge into opportunity. Forget labels of ‘ability’ and ‘disability’ and think instead of respective capabilities.
"Both Kai and Ben occupied a beautiful space between gravity and levity, frozen on film. Kai’s trust in Ben and their mutual trust in their equipment was obvious."
A number of years ago I saw an incredible photo of ‘surfing as trust’ in South Wales as Ben Clifford, founder of Surfability UK, steered 14-year-old wheelchair user Kai Lewis into a beautiful lime coloured wave on a specially built tandem board with a bolted on surf seat. Kai has cerebral palsy, and is quadriplegic, meaning he’s unable to sit or lie flat on a board unaided. Both Kai and Ben occupied a beautiful space between gravity and levity, frozen on film. Kai’s trust in Ben and their mutual trust in their equipment was obvious. And Kai was clearly lit up with that saltwater stoke that runs through every surfer’s system.
I immediately set a goal to meet Ben and Kai with the view to surf together on the seated tandem board, but I desperately wanted to share this with my kids Ruben and Lola and my wife Sandy because I knew it would be both a grounding and inspiring experience for all of us. It took a while to get the opportunity. Then, with a good Spring forecast, we finally made it to the Gower Peninsula in South Wales for one of Surfability’s Saturday sessions attended by Kai (now 16-years-old). Photographer Jack Abbot came along to document the morning, as a small, crisp swell rolled into Caswell Bay under cobalt blue skies and a light north westerly.
Ben is tall, gentle and cool headed: the kind of person you trust immediately. He moved elegantly as he showed us around his surf hut packed with adaptive surf kit and his latest seated board. It was an update from the red-railed first version I’d seen in the photograph: a blue-railed quad fin with a racing car bucket seat ready to be fastened onto the deck.
We slipped into our wetsuits as Ben’s co-coaches Toby Williams and Julia Thomas arrived with a small group of volunteer helpers studying at Swansea University. Caswell is a dream for beginner surfers. It is also (like all of the Gower) a geologist’s dream. Layered folds of Carboniferous limestone thrust into the water like rock beasts. This spectacular rock strata helped the Gower become the first area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the UK in 1956. And of course the convoluted coastline and limestone reefs have sculpted a tuberider’s dream, nurturing a host of Europe’s finest waveriders over the decades.
We eyed the milky green lineup and donned safety helmets (this tandem seated board could cause severe injury in the wrong hands) while Ben explained the plan. Lola, Sandy, Ruben and I all tried the seat. Ben had the system dialled, from knee paddle takeoffs to spreading out the volunteers so if riders fell out of the seat there was an effective way to work as a team to lift them out of the water and get them back onto the board. Sandy and I also steered. Even in such small waves the sense of momentum was thrilling. At takeoff that special space between gravity and levity expanded time so that rapid motion and slow motion met with a handshake in a strange silence. We were hooked, and ready to meet Kai.
The First Splash of Saltwater
Kai arrived with his mum Leanne at the water’s edge on his beach chair with ballooning wheels. He was already in his wetsuit, tailored with long zips on the arms and legs to make it easier to get on and off. Kai has very little use of his four limbs. He also does not speak, but videos a lot of social situations and enjoys watching them afterwards, his mind and emotions in full bloom. “He’s grumpy today,” said Leanne. And he was undeniably forlorn. But as the first splash of saltwater touched his face, Kai lit up like magic. We lifted him into the chair and he smiled and freed up some movement in his hands as he sat down. Kai loved it when we were all close to him, especially Lola and Ruben. The meaning of collaboration is truly evident at such moments. He felt more secure with that sense of touch: hand-to-hand. Ben steered him out through the inside foam and Kai started fizzing with joy. Outback, the duo turned and Ben paddled into a perfect small peeler. As they dropped in and accelerated Kai let out a round of laughter that lifted out hearts. To witness Kai’s limited movement on land, then see the therapy of wave movement lift his spirit and inspire subtle movements in his hands and arms was overwhelming. At that moment we were all in therapy in the original meaning of the word, which is to ‘attend’ - to each other.
Ben and Toby traded waves, surfing with Kai with expert precision and incredible speed. As Ruben and Lola helped, watched, then paddled out on their boards, I could sense that surfing with Kai gave them some perspective. “Watching Kai do this really makes me believe in myself,” said Lola, “and know that when there’s a hard challenge, anything is possible.” What a great message: trust, respect, and passion. Surely that can help generate the confidence we all need to live our lives in a fulfilling, humble and positive way.
I took the helm, nervously. The sea was now a sheet of unrippled green. But a small set soon feathered and I knee paddled just as it rose up close. The last thing I wanted to do was wipeout. We took off, anxiously. Then a zephyr blew salt spray into our faces, and as I crouched low to get close to Kai he was laughing out aloud, dripping with sea-splash. I could really feel how this awakened every sense in Kai and touched something he couldn’t access on land. It did the same for me. Then I lost concentration and nearly dug a rail threatening to tip Kai overboard - but re-adjusted in time, re-engaged the heel side set of quad fins, trusted in traction and steered to the sand beaming, Kai still laughing, loving the brief skirt with danger.
"Every ride he seemed to sense the absence of everything deep in the moment. More takeoffs, more measured steps, and I raised my hand with Kai’s aware that seated surfing lets him inhabit new places. He has found a unique space of weightlessness in motion."
I’ve surfed all over the world, on many different boards, tandem and solo. But this was an unforgettable shared experience. My heart pounded, but I felt strangely calm.
We surfed six more sets, Kai’s heart clearly beating a healthy tempo. Mine too. Every ride he seemed to sense the absence of everything deep in the moment. More takeoffs, more measured steps, and I raised my hand with Kai’s aware that seated surfing lets him inhabit new places. He has found a unique space of weightlessness in motion. “This equipment has enabled Kai to be a surfer, like anyone,” concluded Ben. “Surfing is part of his lifeblood like you and me.”
As Toby took the helm again I asked Ben about the background of Surfability, and got the whole story between sets, rides and shared laughter. Ben is from Bristol, and moved to Swansea in 2003 to study Philosophy and Classics. “I bought a surfboard with my first student loan,” he said. “And I was hooked immediately. But I have dyspraxia, which gets better with age, but was a lot worse when I was at school and Uni.” Ben’s movements seemed so precise that to the untrained eye he’d clearly overcome this condition affecting physical co-ordination. Ben’s dyspraxia really heightened his awareness of the therapeutic benefits of surfing, and when he saw a surf event in Bantham for autistic children in 2008, he volunteered to help. “That was a powerful experience and a huge inspiration.” Autism encompasses a massive range of conditions characterised by challenges with social skills and communication, as well as by unique strengths such as intense focus. Surfing is an extremely powerful form of therapy for autistic people. “I wanted to start something that would allow people with additional needs to surf regularly, rather than at one-off events. So I set up a surfing group for children with autistic spectrum conditions, and I soon had 25 kids.”
"After seeing a movie of Hawaiian legend Bethany Hamilton surfing with one arm (Bethany lost an arm in a shark attack), Lowri was convinced only one arm was needed to surf like a champion! And Lowri was certainly enjoying the seawater like a champion."
One of Ben’s autistic students in the Saturday morning class surfing with coach Julia and some of the volunteers was Lowri Fisher, who has Hypotonia and Global Development Delay with very limited verbal communication skills. She was beyond excited, and as Ben introduced me, he explained how after seeing a movie of Hawaiian legend Bethany Hamilton surfing with one arm (Bethany lost an arm in a shark attack), Lowri was convinced only one arm was needed to surf like a champion! And Lowri was certainly enjoying the seawater like a champion. Autism generates different situations in sensory processing. Some people need a lot of stimulation. Others are overwhelmed by stimulation. “In the early days of doing the surf school for autistic kids I realised that the range of needs were so wide that one-to-one was the way forward, and tandem surfing become a regular feature. But the healing power of the sea is incredible,” added Ben, “and witnessing that in others is unforgettable.”
It was clear watching Julia and the volunteers surfing with Lowri that every student is allowed to work at their own pace to develop a sense of pride in their achievements. There was no pressure to succeed, more an atmosphere of support and positivity. This signals a ‘capabilities’ approach: test your limits whatever they may be, rather than putting everybody in the same race in which some already have a head start.
Stimulation Through Nature
Ben had now graduated from Uni and started a job at a special education school where he learned to assist people with a wider range of disabilities. “I got particularly interested in how wheelchair users could experience more stimulation through direct contact with nature.” Now with better training, he broadened his weekend surf school to invite anyone interested with special needs.
“The breakthrough was working with kids with Down syndrome,” said Ben. “Their thrill for surfing was so infectious I knew I needed to be giving kids these opportunities full-time.” Perhaps Down syndrome should be called ‘Up syndrome’ because these people have a special enthusiasm. “Seeing that excitement and glow I knew I just had to do more of this. And also seeing the sense of accomplishment and achievement everyone carried with them out of the surf into their lives was really special.”
So Ben launched Surfability UK in 2013, overcoming a lot of his organisational challenges with dyspraxia, and pioneering the UK’s first fully adaptive and inclusive surf school. Setting up a Community Interest Company (CIC) led to grant funding. “The goal was simply surf lessons in a safe, caring, stimulating and inclusive way for all people, and their carers and families, with the plan to reinvest any profits in developing methods and equipment to make surfing more accessible for more people.”
Kai was the first wheel chair user that Surfability started to work with. “He was desperate to surf, but the best we could do was use a SUP just holding him. That was OK if it was calm, but any chop and Kai just didn’t trust the situation. Then his mum told us about the bath seat he used. We tried strapping that to the SUP. It was transformative. He was instantly more secure, and confident. But I knew we had to take it to the next level.”
Ben began researching the work of the Best Day Foundation in California who created a wheelchair users’ board shaped by Bob Pearson. “They were ready to shape us a board,” said Ben, “but the shipping costs were extortionate.” So Ben approached the Cerebra Innovation Centre, Swansea MET, Welsh shaper Roger Cooper, and designed a board onto which they could bolt a bucket seat from a racing car. “Paddling into that first wave with Kai was incredible,” said Ben. “It was much bigger than anything we’d caught before. But we knew we needed time to really make the equipment safe, and have really robust operating procedures. There were moments of glory, but as a single fin it took a lot of leverage and heavy pressure on the tail to control. It also needed more rocker. So we fine-tuned the design in the next board built by John ‘JP’ Purton with more rocker and a quad fin set up to work easier from rail to rail.”
All this trailblazing work naturally placed Ben at the forefront of the adaptive surfing movement in the UK. He has been the perfect candidate to manage the Welsh Adaptive Surf Team at the annual ISA World Adaptive Championships each year in California. And last year Llywelyn Williams from Bangor surfed to an incredible 3rd place in his AS2 Stand, Kneel category. Llywelyn lost his right leg in 2011 after being hit by a car while he was skateboarding. But he never stopped surfing, and is now a multiple national Adaptive Surfing Champion.
Another member of the Welsh Adaptive Surf Team is 14-year-old Ethan Jolosa from Cwmbran. Ethan is a Surfability student, who styled to 13th in his division last year at the ISA World Adaptive Championships, and makes the weekly trip from Newport to attend the Saturday surf in Caswell. Ethan was born with diplegic cerebral palsy, and a number of successful operations over recent years have freed up his movement tremendously. Already a red-hot adaptive sportsman from a young age, Ethan was keen to attend a taster session with Surfability. He took to waveriding like a dolphin and is now one of the best prone riders in the country with a host of sponsors. He became the youngest competitor in the National Adaptive Championships, and hopes to one day represent his nation as a surfer in the Paralympics. You can sense Ethan’s insatiable drive to fulfil his dreams.
Ethan has an electric smile and emerald eyes that reflect the seawater. He is already a role model. Just seeing his energy and enthusiasm for riding waves is inspirational. Lola and Ruben were really motivated surfing around both Ethan and Kai. They traded waves (Lola on her 9’ 0”, Ruben on his 6’ 6”), and I couldn’t resist grabbing my 9’ 6” for a few shared waves as well. Everyone, no matter what their background, deserves to feel the freedom that surfing brings. Ethan took off, free in body and mind, and tucked into a small clean tube, emerging from the green room etched with stoke. But of course to get this far takes strain and hardship too – practice, bad days, cold days, wild days – and then, the magic of an unfettered ride.
There are no limitations at Surfability in theory. But in practice, it’s always safety first. Without experience and training, the surf chair could be dangerous, and Ben knew he needed to develop an internationally recognised set of operating procedures for wheelchair using surfers and surf coaches. He did this with the help of the Welsh Surfing Federation and is currently working with the ISA to develop an International Adaptive Surfing Qualification. “I was honoured to be asked,” said Ben. It’s the global recognition his work deserves. “We’ve got to set up a world standard to what we do because it’s vital to make sure these opportunities are delivered safely to disabled people around the world.”
As we rounded up the session with Ethan, Kai and Lowri, a second group arrived, hitting the water with a smile mixed with some nervous anticipation. “It’s all about participation,” said Ben. “Don’t make it overwhelming. Make it fun and safe. It’s about being in the ocean, and the opportunity to socialise.” And on the beach you could see the powerful role Surfability is playing for the local community.
I asked Ben why he does all this. “It’s about giving something special to someone special. Some of these kids would never get that feeling of stoke otherwise. It reminds us of what living is all about, appreciating the moment and making the most of everything whatever the apparent obstacles. We’re on a good journey, but there’s still so much to do.” And we can trust in Surfability to stay at the cutting edge of stoke-ability.