Discover how to get started in the wet, wild and even therapeutic sport of adaptive surfing
By John Groth
Bruno Hansen started adaptive surfing in a very hardcore way. After a carjacking incident crushed his T12 vertebrae and left him paralyzed in South Africa in 1998, Hansen, a former able-bodied surfer, taught himself how to handle the water differently. His friends were all surfers, so the South African forced himself to join them during their wave time, no matter what.
“The guys would help me by dragging me across the rocks and trekking my board down to the beach and making me go out on big waves that they surfed. I didn’t really know better at the time,” says the 45-year-old Hansen, now a two-time International Surfing Association (ISA) World Adaptive Surfing champion. “If I look back on it now, it was kind of stupid because the waves were so big and crazy. But it really got me to a high level very quickly. And that’s why I can surf how I do now.”
That’s one approach to the rising sport of adaptive surfing.
In fact, it has its own world championships. Hansen defended his AS4 Prone title at the 2016 ISA World Adaptive Surfing Championship in La Jolla, Calif., last December. Hansen, who competed for Denmark, finished with 12.37 points, defeating Christiaan “Otter” Bailey (United States) by 5.99 points.
At the 2016 ISA World Adaptive Surfing Championship, 77 athletes from 22 countries competed in five forms of adaptive surfing: upright, stand/kneel, prone, assisted or visually impaired.
Upright surfers balance on their surfboards in a seated position. Stand/kneel riders can either stand up and ride waves on a surfboard with a paddle, known as a waveski, or use a kneeling surfboard to kneel and use swim fins.
Prone surfers lie on their stomachs and can surf assisted or unassisted. Assisted prone surfers can have someone assist them in catching a wave by being pushed into the wave and having spotters on the side or another person lying on the board with them to paddle into the wave and ride it with them. Unassisted prone surfers are fully independent in the water, getting back on their board and paddling back out, though they may need some assistance getting in and out of the water.
Competitive surfers like those participating in the world championships have been where the newly injured or those battling their injuries are now. They know the mental and physical struggles. But they know this sport can help.
Three Key Attributes
Like Hansen, Bailey is a paraplegic and was an avid surfer before his injury, which occurred July 23, 2006, after he blew his knee out and broke his back (L3 and L4 vertebrae) performing a boneless 360 skateboarding stunt in a video for Santa Cruz (Calif.) Skateboards.
The injury didn’t deter Bailey’s spirits, though. He remembered a 2003 movie called Step Into Liquid, which focused on Jesse Billauer, a then-17-year-old who was knocked off his surfboard by a wave and broke his neck after hitting his head on a shallow sandbar, leaving him a quadriplegic (C6). Doctors told Billauer he’d never surf again, but he did — adaptively.
Bailey contacted Billauer, who now runs the Life Rolls On organization, and told him how he wanted to surf again. They ended up meeting in Santa Cruz and have remained friends and helped grow the sport ever since.
Bailey says beginning adaptive surfers need three key attributes: a good wetsuit, lots of patience and experience.
“With the higher-level injuries because we have problems regulating our body temperature, it can become problematic immersing yourself in cold water for hours at the time. So a good wetsuit is always a good thing,” Bailey says. “Next is patience, a lot of patience. Because the thing with surfing is that it’s so fundamentally tied to the flow of nature. A lot of people get frustrated because it’s not like a skatepark. No two waves are exactly the same. You can be in two totally different positions and get different styles of waves. Having the patience to learn what your body is doing, learn what nature is doing and, more importantly, getting the experience to be able to bring those two together is really important.”
Boards are important, too. Surfers can choose between shortboards and longboards. According to Disabled Sports USA’s website, longboards range from 8 to 12 feet and are recommended for beginners because the boards have more volume, making them easier to balance in the water. Shortboards have lengths up to 7 feet, have a sharp nose and metal fins and take longer to master.
Canada’s Victoria Feige has learned all about those. Just like Hansen, she also taught herself adaptive surfing. Feige sustained a T12 injury after a snowboarding accident in Steamboat Springs, Colo., during her freshman year in college in 2004. She overshot a jump and got about 10-15 feet of air before landing badly.
Feige didn’t even know adaptive surfing existed until this past summer when she found out about AccesSurf Hawaii when traveling there and They Will Surf Again San Diego with Billauer’s organization.
Feige learned she needed to use a longboard at first since she wasn’t a great surfer before her injury. Once she adjusted and performed well with the longboard, she moved to a funboard, which is between a longboard and a shortboard, and now she uses a 6-foot board.
She thought if nothing else, she could just stay and hold onto the board prone or pop up to a kneeling position or a little crouch and see how it went.
“I learned how to duck dive [sinking the board and getting through waves] by just thinking of the physics of it and asking instructors and asking people,” says Feige, who competed in the AS2/AK2 category at the ISA World Adaptive Surfing Championship. “If I could just get the physics right, then I could duck dive – and then trying a whole bunch of different equipment because just like the right chair makes you more functional in your life, I knew if I could find the right surfboard with the right dimensions and the right flotation or volume, it could make me have more fun in the water. It’s troubleshooting.”
Feige looks for waves that feature glassy or curling features, usually around 4 to 8 feet.
“Yeah, so my strategy is I can’t do any like crazy tricks, but I can turn,” she says. “And catching the wave in the right position, so I stay on like the blue face of the wave instead of the whitewash, that’s good.”
Moving Past Pain
Adaptive surfing has helped Hansen deal with pain and trauma. He was shot twice during the carjacking attempt in Cape Town and then had his car run over him, leaving him with a broken back. There was even a suicide attempt later.
Before his injury, Hansen used to be a charter captain for a yacht and sailed the Indian Ocean.
“I think a lot of these adaptive surfers just start after something happens to them, after they have their accident because it’s such a therapy. Being in the water is therapy for me,” Hansen says. “Well, you know, on land we’re constricted and we’re a little bit stuck, it’s a bit difficult to get around. But in the water, we’re all at the same eye level. We’re free. It’s easy to move through the water. It’s supportive. The body doesn’t feel as dense and heavy as on land.”
But Hansen has become one with the water. Before competitions, he stretches – arms, neck and back. Every body part plays a role. He calls it his own form of yoga as he stretches his body in weird and wonderful positions.
Costa Rica’s Ismael Araya says adaptive surfing is like therapy for him. A motorcycle accident on June 17, 2013, in Santa Teresa, Costa Rica, left him unable to walk. A surf instructor before, Araya returned to the water and for the last two-plus years has focused on becoming one with it.
“When you catch a wave very right and you’re coming back out and you come (out) thinking how fun it was, what was good, what was bad, what I could do better and you don’t realize how hard or how much you’re working out, so it’s like a therapy, physically, mentally and emotionally,” says Araya, who reached the ISA World Adaptive Surfing Championship semifinals and finished sixth in the AS2 Stand/Kneel Division. “It’s a good workout. I recommend it.”
Bailey acknowledges that for beginners the internet is a good place to start. From there, it’s all about putting your passion, mind and body to use.
“Expose yourself to the community. It’s not like it was a decade ago. There are so many different programs out there people can get adapted and try surfing. AccesSurf in Hawaii, Life Rolls On all over the United States, in Brazil you have AdaptSurf,” Bailey says. “Unlike a decade ago, there are so many different programs in so many different countries that are doing phenomenal work in promoting adaptive surfing, it’s really not difficult to find one now and get exposed to it. They have the equipment for you, they have the suits, they have the volunteers, they have the experience.”