Written by Tiki Ambassador Karen Darke.
“How DO you surf when you have no working legs?”
I wondered that too. I watched my nephews grow up on surf beaches of Australia and later Cornwall, but it took me a few decades to discover how I might be able to join them. My first trip into the ocean as a paraplegic went like this...
“Excuse me, do you think you could help me get into the water please?”
A helpful and willing muscle-bound stranger lifted me up in his arms and walked me towards the waves. I watched my wheelchair become a distant object on sand as he carried me out into the Pacific and I gained a rare perspective looking in towards the coast. He gently lowered me into the break-zone and with a friendly wave he disappeared back towards the beach. In less than a minute I was panicking. I shouted after him.
“Help! Help please!” as I struggled for air.
The foaming white waves had flung me haphazardly, tugging at my limbs and tumbling me. I had no comprehension of the strength of rip tides and undertows and my paralysed legs and torso had no force to resist their power. My brain couldn’t figure where my body parts were. I was totally disorientated and taking on water.
Looking back, it was a naïve and dangerous idea being dropped into the break-zone unassisted and unable to walk.
Ten years later I dared to enter the surf again, this time in a sea kayak in the Outer Hebrides. I was in safe hands with a group of surf kayak coaches and felt assured that all would be well. It didn’t quite go to plan...
As the waves washed under my kayak, I tried hard to stay upright as I surfed in with my paddle on the foam. I have no working torso or hip muscles and I lost the balance and capsized. A memory of the Australia experience flickered... I panicked.
Instead of ripping the kayak deck off and pushing myself out of the boat, I reached my arm out and my palm touched the seabed. A powerful wave swept me forward and I felt my shoulder tug awkwardly.
Friends retrieved me from the sea and I discovered that I had dislocated my shoulder. It took me a few years to rehab my injured tendons and I didn’t return to the surf. My left shoulder still lives with chunks of bone and cartilage floating around the capsule.
Fifteen years later, a phone call landed asking me if I would be an ambassador for a surf charity. For obvious reasons, I wasn’t fuelled with positivity at the idea. But I believe in facing fears so I agreed to see what it was all about. I was soon on a North Sea beach wrestling into a wetsuit.
The surf wasn’t Pacific or Hebridean in size so that helped soften my anxiety. I learned how to lie on my tummy on the board and be pushed out through the waves before catching a ride back in. There were handles on the board to help me grip better and I could shift my weight forwards and backwards to affect how fast or slow it moved. The coaches helped me out through the small waves and I tried to paddle myself too, discovering that turning my head and shoulders changed the direction. It seemed like a wetter, flatter version of skiing.
Tentatively, I caught my first wave and as the liquid energy accelerated me towards the beach I found myself landing with a huge smile. It was fun and to my surprise, I was eager for another go. Despite the waves looking tame, they were powerful enough for that first go. My appetite was whet.
Little did I know that within two years I would be heading to California with eleven-year old Jade to represent Scotland at the World Para Surfing Championships as a Tiki ambassador.