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Wavescape - Surfing in South Africa
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Wed, 24 October 2018

The concept of being forced to surf like an adaptive surfer saves you from your unabled self, discovers Spike during a busy and bustling media day held in Muizenberg on the weekend.


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JOIN THE CLUB: Elsje Neethling gives a strapped up Morne Morkel a few tips. Photo Peter Coffey


Another band of white water knocks me sideways, softening me up for the next one. Woosh. It broadsides me.

Gasping, I scuffle (in a sort of contorted crab-like leopard crawl) to get back on the board and I try to leverage the nose back into the oncoming wind swells but it's surprisingly hard. My good hand, the left one, is trying to do its job, but I am paddling at half mast. My right wrist and bicep are strapped together. With one arm to paddle with, I feel like a turtle trapped on a large bed of bull kelp.

I am frustrated. I am spluttering. My left arm is flippin’ tired. My right arm is sore from a lack of flippin’. But I am in good hands. Volunteer Paul Jurgens - a kind Muizenberg soul - wades across to me, and takes the nose of my board. He gently propels me over the next whitewater.

My son Tyler - a member of the South African Adaptive Surfing Team - has left the scene. He just wants to surf. You’re on your own ballie. Now you know what it feels like! Actually, he wouldn’t think that. He’s too much of a nice guy.

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PEAS IN A POD: Paul Jurgens, Tyler Pike and Spike prepare to enable the abled. Photo Peter Coffey


Meanwhile, his grumpy old man has been given a mandate by "she who is not to be refused" Roxy Davis, who has called on influencers such as cricketer Morne Morkel, comedian Nik Rabinowitz and TV celeb Michael Mol to join her for an adaptive surfing media day at the Surf Emporium in Muizenberg.

We’re disabled, and you’re squabbling over semantics? Get over it.We are her guinea pigs for a concept called Surf Like, in which we get to experience what it's like to be disabled, or differently abled, or whatever abled by pairing up with an adaptive surfer. By the way, before the haters gonna hate hate hate, remember that adaptive surfers do not - on the whole - enjoy the politically correct term “differently” abled. They contend that “differently” is no different to “dis”. Difference and Dis are the negative opposite of normality and wholeness and health, an abstraction that exacerbates “them-or-us”ness. The disabled own their disabilities in ways we cannot comprehend. We’re disabled, and you’re squabbling over semantics? Get over it.

And that is why Surf Like is so cool. It's about understanding. Under. Standing. Dis. Abled. To emulate a disability with the Surf Like concept, you are paired with an adaptive surfer and you go surfing with them. But not so fast, buster. If your partner is in a wheelchair, you must be prone when you paddle out too. This is the AS-4 classification, according to the ISA adaptive rule book.

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HAPPY FEAR: Will Nik Rabinowitz surf as well as SA team member Danie Nel? Nooit. Photo Coffey


That means having your legs strapped. When you lie on the board, you can’t cheat by using any muscle below your waist. If a wave washes you off, you cannot use your legs to get back on.

If they’re prone and need assistance in catching the wave (AS-5), then apart from being prone and tied up, you’ll be assigned people to help you. And boy will you need it. If the disability is a missing or malformed or otherwise useless arm, they will tie yours up so you can’t use it (AS-1 or 2). If the other person is blind, well, you will be blindfolded (AS-6).

Rabinowitz pairs up with Danie Nel, the AS-4 surfer in the South African national adaptive surfing teamRabinowitz pairs up with Danie Nel, the AS-4 surfer in the South African national adaptive surfing team, while Morkel gets to duplicate wheelchair-bound Elsje Neethling. A terminal brain cancer survivor, yes it was considered terminal, Neethling comes from an athletic swimming background. Yes, her boet is Olympic swimmer Rijk. I am paired with my son Tyler, one of two in the national team who are classified AS-2. The other is Caleb Swanepoel, who lost his leg to a shark. The concept is the brainchild of "he who will truss you up like a chicken, blindfold you, strap up your legs and chuck you out of an aircraft at 10,000 feet" Ant Smyth, last year’s captain of the SA national adaptive surfing team and the only adaptive surfer in South Africa who has won a gold medal at the ISA World Adaptive Surfing Championships.

Well, barring the universally loved world ruler of the AS-4 division Bruno Hansen. He is South African but surfs for Denmark because it makes more sense for him to enjoy the civil securities of that benevolent social democracy. He’s won three ISA world titles. He's quite a guy (but we claim him).

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MEDIA MOMENT: According to Roxy Davis, 52 members of the media came down. Photo Coffey


Anyhoo, it didn’t end well for me. That is of course if one screens the activity by the filter of your own ableness, of your own unfettered, unhindered expectation of what you are used to and what you expect. Easy Peasy, I can do this! Not.

Now I truly know what it’s like, instead of projecting my own values on it. And it’s life affirming. Kudos to all adaptive surfers. You’re amazing.

And so it was with collaborators Rabinowitz and Morkel, who instead of just thinking what it must be like, now know exactly what it's like. Afterward, we commiserated with each other over our utter incompetence, our complete crapness, and our total gratitude for a life-changing opportunity.

The common thread was that we found it exhausting. Another take-away was that we needed the volunteers far more than the adaptive surfers did. I remember at various stages I had Jurgens, and SA team manager Tasha Mentasti helping me. Both went about their business smoothly, the former quiet and strong, the latter chatty but equally adept and expert at keeping me stable in the very choppy onshore surf.

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MOVING THROUGH: A blindfolded Michael Mol and Ant Smyth look like surfing twins. Photo Coffey


Listen to the conversation between
Michael Mol and Ant Smyth after their surf

For Mol, it was … er … an eye-opening experience. Mol surfed with Smyth, but instead of tying up Mol’s arm (Ant suffered a Brachial Plexus injury in a car accident when he was five and from then could not move his fingers or wrist, which has resulted in a deformed hand and arm), Smyth blindfolded him to add some spice to the surf session.

Afterward, he related to Smyth how it was almost an “out of body experience”. When you can only hear and feel, your terms of reference go completely haywire. Mol said that it was like learning to surf all over again. The sensation of surfing itself was familiar, but once off the board, he had no idea where he was, who had his board or whether he was even facing the right direction.

Smyth is excited at the future of the Surf Like concept. “It really blows open the stereotype. It disarms the abled, if you like. It changes their filter, strips them of their prejudice and enables catharsis and understanding.”

"Disarms the abled" has a rather nice ring to it, with the Dis and the Arm and the Able all feeding off each other in a multi-layered semiotic symbiosis.

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SALTY STOKE: Pam Hansford, 75, was a physiotherapist before she broke her neck. Photo Coffey


Apart from the Surf Like action, 21 adaptive surfers participated in a surfing clinic that included nine Warrior on Wheels Foundation children, seven surfers from Khayelitsha, and first time surfer Xavier, who is blind.

The oldest participant was Pam Hansford, 75, who was Tyler’s physiotherapist since he was a baby, relentlessly working on his right-sided hemi paresis to achieve more mobility and balance. She was utterly and completely stoked. This was the first time back in the water after she was pile driven head-first into the sand at Long Beach while body boarding last year, breaking three vertebrae in her neck and suffering nerve damage.

It was affirming to see NSRI volunteers from Hout Bay Station 8 in attendance. Their colleagues from Kommetjie Station 26 moved swiftly to save Pam from being completely paralysed. We're planning on a reunion there so Pam can meet them all, and also get her bodyboard and fins back. They're sitting on a shelf in the boat hangar.

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REAL EXPERIENCE: Mol congratulates a stoked participant in the surfing clinic. Photo Coffey


The youngest participant on the day was four-year-old Abdul-Qahhaar.

For Roxy and William Davis, owners of the Surf Emporium, their support of adaptive surfing is a way to give back. They have identified three needs for adaptive surfing. The first was to reach out to more people with disabilities to give them the opportunity to surf. What better way than through the media? With more of a diverse pool of surfers to select from, there will also be more competition and more future medals at the world adaptive surfing champs. Roxy is well connected, and leveraged a few famous mates and made a few phone calls.

The second need was to grow the volunteer pool to assist the surfers. Adaptive surfing requires a lot of human resources. The things we take for granted, like putting on a wetsuit or getting out of it and getting dressed, can take a lot of time and effort when you’re disabled.

The third need was to raise awareness of Adaptive Surfing Cape Town to the point that more funding via corporate interest is raised. Adaptive surfing also requires a lot of equipment. I was told that only two of those wheelchair beach buggies - the ones with the fat yellow tyres - exist in Cape Town.

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NO CHEATING NOW! Roxy Davis adjusts the blindfold before the unique experience. Photo Coffey


There was an element of risk in the Surf Like concept for William, who freely admits to being nervous about whether it would work. And therein lies the rub. This is precisely the aim of Surf Like. As able-bodied people, our mindset is based on our perspective, and understandably and quite obviously so. We are who we are. We might think we know what it's like, but do we truly understand? Our emotion is more about feeling bad for the disabled or worrying about how abled people will respond to the disabled, and less about actually BE-ing disabled.

But as Smyth says - and on this point he is emphatic - disabled people have moved way beyond that. They owned it a long time ago. When we become disabled, we shed those values and real empathy comes in to usurp our preconceptions from their long-held seat at the table.

Pretty cool hey?


More Stats from the day

  • Five National Adaptive Surfing Team Members attended: Tyler, Caleb Swanepoel, Ant Smyth, Daniel Nel and Grace Anderson, while the
  • Adaptive Surfing National Manager Tasha Mentasti was there with coach Brett Gouveia.
  • Seven qualified Surf Emporium Adaptive Surf Coaches
  • There were 43 volunteers
  • The Surf Emporium Volunteers and Photography Team numbered 15
  • There were four influencers - Nik Rabinowitz, Michael Mol, Morne Morkel and Steve Pike
  • Media - 52 participants registered from various media platforms
  • Spectators - tons! More than we could even count
  • Vida e Caffe sponsored 150 meals, coffees and waters for everyone participating
  • Uber gave us UBER XL vehicles and drivers to transport adaptive surfers, their families and wheel chairs
  • Andrew Cattell from The Brand Stable sponsored all the equipment for the adaptive surfers: Fanatic SUPs, life jackets, beach chairs and gazebos for beach shade for participants and spectators
  • NSRI Station 8 Hout Bay sponsored their time to participate as volunteers and standby medics
  • 10 Wynberg Girls High School, 10 Wynberg Boys High School, and 6 UCT students were volunteers.
  • There were multiple other individuals who volunteered including Max and Jake Elkington. We even had quite a few volunteers that were young kids (10-12yrs old) joining their parents to help out.
  • Surfing South Africa sponsored medals for all the adaptive Surfing Participants
  • Other incredible partners were Surfing South Africa, World Surf League (WSL), GoPro, Discovery Vitality, Roxy, Quiksilver and Mediaweb

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