The Adaptables

AccesSurf gets people with disabilities out and riding
Story by Martha Cheng. Photo by Dana Edmunds.

The waves looked disappointing from the beach parking lot, small and crumbling, but Rich Julian decided to paddle out anyway. Once in the water, he realized that what hadn’t looked like much from a distance was actually nearly perfect.

Five-foot waves rolled in, their surfaces a silky gray, reflecting the cloudy, late afternoon sky. Such a windless day is rare for the southeast side of O‘ahu, and just a handful of people were out, mostly kids trading off waves on the inside. Julian paddled to the outside. He waited, facing the horizon, letting the smaller waves pass under and lift him slightly. When the one he wanted came, he turned and took a few quick strokes to catch it, leaned his body toward the wall of water and sped down the line, racing the breaking lip of the wave.

Thirty-two years ago, not far from this surf break, Julian was cut off from the water. Walking on the side of Kalaniana‘ole Highway in the late afternoon, he was struck by a drunk driver: At age 14 the accident took the lives of his sister and his girlfriend, as well as the use of his legs. He’d been surfing Waikīkī since he was five, but after the accident “it hurt so much to look at people in the ocean, to look at people in surf clothes going to the beach,” he says. “It would just remind me, ‘You can’t do this.’” It wasn’t just that he didn’t know how to surf without the aid of his legs but that he couldn’t even get his wheelchair across the sand. So he abandoned his surfboards and for sixteen years threw himself into land-based sports, including marathons and tennis.

Innovations in surf equipment and ongoing efforts to improve beach access are allowing an increasing number of ocean enthusiasts to take up (or return to) wave riding. As a cofounder of AccesSurf, Rich Julian (pictured here surfing off Waikīkī) is at the forefront of this movement.

It was in California, at a wheelchair tennis match during the US Open, that Julian saw a flyer for adaptive surfing. Anyone interested was to come to San Onofre. “That first time getting on an adaptive surfboard, it was a gift that was given back to me,” he says. “I might have lost so much, but fifteen years later I could surf again.” He had an adaptive board shipped to Hawai‘i—the first ever seen in the Islands, he says—and then set out to make the beach and surf accessible to everyone.

Julian is paralyzed from the waist down. Just getting to the water’s edge is a challenge: First, he loads up his Chevy Tahoe with an eight-foot-four-inch board —actually, a cross between a kayak and surfboard—along with a kayak paddle and beach wheelchair (with fatter wheels and a rack in front for his board). Once at the beach, he reverses the process, transferring himself from his car to the chair, easing his board out and onto the rack and then wheeling toward the water. If someone is nearby, often his son or occasionally a helpful passerby, they can wheel Julian directly into the water. If he’s alone, he has to leave his chair on the sand and drag himself into the ocean using only his arms. But once in the water everything is smoother, his movements more fluid: Like all kayak surfers, Julian rides waves sitting up, using his paddle and shifts in upper body weight to steer. He looks like any other seasoned waterman, albeit with a slightly different board that accommodates his motionless legs.

Where there’s a will, adaptive surfers find a way to fuel their stoke. Here, Julian uses a modified wheelchair to get himself and his equipment to the water’s edge. He describes his first time surfing on an adaptive board as “a gift that was given back to me.”

Julian returns to the ocean regularly for all the reasons so many others in Hawai‘i do: for excitement, for beauty, for freedom.“Everything in Hawai‘i is about the water,” he says. “It’s our culture.” In 2006 he and Mark Marble, a physical therapist, founded AccesSurf to show other would-be surfers that the ocean is available to them, too. Theirs was the first organization in the world to host surf programs and competitions for people with everything from autism to blindness to paraplegia. With AccesSurf’s help, the International Surfing Association (ISA) began the first World Adaptive Surfing Championship in 2016, attracting surfers from countries including Japan, Chile, Costa Rica and Australia. The nonprofit hosts forty program days a year, including a monthly beach day and separate events for Wounded Warriors, the latter geared toward getting veterans in the water. The organization also works on beach accessibility year-round: Its lobbying resulted in the installation of an ADA-compliant beach wheelchair access mat in Waikīkī, from the statue of Duke Kahanamoku down to the water. It is just five feet wide and seventy-eight feet long, but for some it is their path back to the ocean after years away from it. Getting people in the water “is such a small, massive thing,” says Cara Short, AccesSurf’s executive director.

The organization’s biggest events are every first Saturday at White Plains, a beginner-friendly break on O‘ahu’s leeward coast, with gentle waves and a sandy bottom. On a recent Saturday morning, more than two hundred people congregated near the yellow AccesSurf tents, with a ratio of about three volunteer assistants to every surfer. The event is so large, taking up almost half of the beach, that it has the energy of a surf contest, with cheers erupting from the shore anytime someone catches a wave. Unlike most contests, though, there’s also a therapy duck waddling around, there to soothe a teenager with autism who holds and strokes her.

Josh Bogle (pictured here at Hale‘iwa) was a professional snowboarder and mountain climber before he lost both legs, his right hand and several fingers on his left hand to a staph infection; now he’s making a name for himself on the competitive circuit.

Mats are laid on the sand so that wheelchairs can move over them, and the beach is lined with different boards, from soft-tops to surf-skis similar to the one Julian rides to surfboards with a motorized assist to help volunteers surfing tandem with larger adults. There is always duct tape for legs that need to be strapped in and foam pads for chests that need to be propped up. Volunteers are divided into teams, with their t-shirts identifying their roles: water transfers, water safety, surf instructor.

Some of those who want to get in the water come every month, like Kayle Osai, a freckled ten-year-old with a wild mass of curls. Kayle has a rare chromosome abnormality that causes hearing impairment, autism and scoliosis. A volunteer paddles out with Osai sitting cross-legged on the middle of the board. Each time they catch a wave, the volunteer pulls Osai up, trying to get him to stand. He doesn’t quite have his sea legs yet, though: His legs kick wildly, as unruly as his hair.

Glenn Powell makes his way across the mats with the help of a metal walker. It’s his first time here. His neighbor, who volunteers at every beach day, says Powell would call out through the window in the mornings, “‘Where are you going? Can I come?’ He’s so bored in there. So today I said, ‘Come with me, we’re going to AccesSurf.’” They drove almost an hour from the North Shore just so Powell, who has served tours in Vietnam, Germany and Okinawa, could spend fifteen minutes in the waves. “I love the water,” he says simply.

AccesSurf strives to be welcoming. But from the parking lot all those “happy, loud, beautiful faces,” initially intimidated Meira Duarte Va‘a. The first time she and her husband showed up for a beach day, she refused to get out of the car. They drove around the parking lot a few times and eventually just left. The next month, the same thing happened. “I was afraid they were going to look down on me,” Va‘a says. She was born in Sāmoa, where a car accident at age 14 left her in a wheelchair. Growing up in Sāmoa with a disability,“You’re treated as less of a person, you don’t belong in society, you’re not allowed to be part of society,” she says. “Your family hides you.”

Teamwork makes the dream work at Leeward O‘ahu’s White Plains Beach, where AccesSurf organizes monthly beach days for would-be surfers using a variety of watercraft.

After she graduated from high school, Va‘a came to Hawai‘i, where Shriners Hospitals for Children helped her get back in the water. “I always have had an amazing connection with the ocean,” Va‘a says.“It speaks to me. It’s spooky.” Her mother passed away when she was seven. “The same night we buried my mom, my dad left. Being alone, the water was there for me. The water was there to calm me down.” After the accident, “I didn’t think I would never get back in the ocean; it was figuring out how to get there.” By the time she heard about AccesSurf, she was already in the water regularly with Pure Light Racing, an adaptive outrigger canoe paddling program. But still, she didn’t know whether AccesSurf would accept her. She came back for the third month in a row. This time her husband was impatient. He opened the car door. “You just need to go,” he said.

Today Va‘a is a member of the Hawaii Adaptive Surf Team. She has also since learned to walk with a cane. Though her paralyzed leg gives her a hesitant gait on land, she showed no timidity at last August’s Hawaii Adaptive Surf Champion-ships, held at Queen’s Beach in the heart of Waikīkī. Her hair is let loose—long, untamed, curly, frizzed with salt. It streams behind her as she swings a few aggressive turns into the face of the wave, her torso tight, powerful and engaged like the legs of a slalom skier. Her legs are strapped down and stretched in front of her, her body doubled over as she tucks herself into the curl of the wave. Intense concentration floods her face as she focuses on the wave walling up in front of her. In the water, Va‘a says, no one knows she’s disabled; she says she looks “normal.” One of AccesSurf’s aims, though, is to broaden perceived notions not only of what’s normal but what’s possible.

Volunteers handle everything from surf lessons to water safety to transfers in and out of the ocean. With an average of three volunteers to every surfer, the experience is meant to be safe, inspiring and just plain fun.

Ann Yoshida doesn’t like normal. “My philosophy is if I focus on being normal, I exclude the possibility of being extraordinary,” she says. In September she was inducted into the Hawai‘i Waterman Hall of Fame, recognized for achievements including representing the United States in paracanoe at the 2016 Rio Paralympics. Water had been in her life since before she could walk, and it continued to be after she couldn’t. She didn’t know that, though, when she woke up from a months-long induced coma after a car accident in 2000. Her life had to be relearned; her body had even forgotten how to drink water. It was a cruel reminder that the element she had loved living in might be forever inaccessible to her.

“When I woke up it was just discovering what I could do,” she says. “When you lose the ability to walk, there is an unknown that happens. Everything you’ve learned thus far is done by using your legs. You don’t know anything that’s going to be in your future.”

Paralyzed from the mid-chest down, it would be two years before she could surf again. (She surfs prone on her stomach, her hands maneuvering the board using handles near the front.) “That part of me that I thought I had lost, that I thought I was putting on the side, ignited. And then it was crazy after that.” She took up paddling and traveled to Nepal and Singapore, showing other people with disabilities what was possible. She is now an occupational therapist and is developing an adaptive surfing classification system that allows people with disabilities from paraplegia to PTSD to compete on a more equal plane.

“People come to AccesSurf for the first time, and they have no clue what is about to unleash in their life,” she says. “They get that mana [spiritual power]. They feel the power that is in the ocean, and it’s in them now. ‘I can surf, I can be in this dynamic environment.’ It’s all about what you can do. That’s when they start feeling that they are empowered.” HH