Teaching the Blind to Surf?
A San Diego organization takes on the seemingly impossible task
In 1996, a TV news feature on blind people waterskiing at Mission Bay inspired devoted surfer and disability advocate Larry Graff, who thought, “If blind people could waterski, they could surf.”
Eager to share his favorite sport with those who might never get the chance to try it, Graff (then treasurer of Swamis Surfing Association), approached local surf legend Bruce King, the club’s president and a Swamis fixture since 1964.
King called Graff crazy and waved him off as they paddled out. Graff was adamant, however, and after a third rebuff, he described how he’d make surfing accessible. King pondered and said, “That might actually work.”
He was right. That fall, Graff launched The Blind Surf Event that for 15 years, has given blind people access to surfing’s life-shaping sensations each September at Ponto Beach in San Diego. While many blind sports (e.g. beep baseball or tandem cycling) use adaptive equipment, surfing only requires feeling safe in the water, and trust—something Graff realized surfing wearing blacked-out goggles as he developed his program.
“For me, it’s knowing that if I go in the ocean, there’ll be people out there who’ll take care of me,” says Aurora Ortiz, vice president and volunteer coordinator of the Blind Community Center of San Diego, a social club that emphasizes recreation. “The first time I surfed, I was hesitant, but with Larry out there, I know nothing’s going to happen to me.”
Graff achieves with sense of safety using volunteers who form a human wall in the water. “We take surfers out in chest-high water and form a safety net of four to five experienced surfers around them, with additional rovers along their route,” says Graff. If a surfer falls, help arrives in seconds. Those able to ride in to the beach will hear volunteers running beside them, giving verbal directions, and extending hands to help them off their boards.
“There are always people who help us get back on our board if we fall,” says Ortiz, a veteran of all 15 Blind Surf events. “They stay with us until we’re ready to continue, and give us real confidence.” Ortiz epitomizes surfing’s accessibility: she sees only shadows and can’t swim. “When I was little, I even stood in the bathtub to keep the water off my face,” she says. She came to San Diego in 1996. She was 53, her legal blindness (due to degenerative myopia) only recently diagnosed. The center gave Ortiz ways to manage her disabilities (she’s also hearing impaired) and provided immediate access to sports, which she says gave her a new life.
The growth of accessible recreation now prompts many organizations, including the Braille Institute of America in Los Angeles, and providers such as AccessSurfHawaii, to promote surfing’s physical, social, and esteem-building benefits among the blind.
Not all blind surfers, however, need adaptive programs or big waves to learn the sport. When she was 11, two discoveries rocked Alex Krauth’s world: Hawaiian culture and the Beach Boys—obsessions that led her father, Peter, to suggest she try surfing. So, at summer’s end, Krauth (blind since birth from Retinopathy of Prematurity) took lessons at Long Sands in York, Maine. “I started out lying on the board on my stomach, just to feel what the waves were like, and rode the way one rides a boogie board,” says Krauth, now 19 and studying music education at Keene State College. Subsequent lessons had Krauth surfing on her knees. On a family trip to Maui, Krauth took lessons. Everything came together: she stood up for the first time and rode to the beach, flashing shaka signs on later waves.
But as Krauth discovered during a session in 2008 in Maine, the risks surrounding her disability are very real. “All of a sudden, a wave got bigger and pushed me from the side,” says Krauth. “I wiped out right in the middle of the wave; I was coughing up water and flailing to find the leash so the board wouldn’t hit me in the head.”
Luckily, her father’s spotting saved her. “I told myself to just keep going and managed to get out from under the wave just as my dad reached me,” says Krauth. Once her feet touched sand, Krauth considered quitting but shook it off and now accepts wipeouts as a part of surfing. The joys Krauth gets from surfing far outweigh its physical challenges. “I love going out on the ocean and I love the feel of the wave when you ride it,” Krauth says. “The experience is it’s own reward.”
Graff’s event has given many blind surfers that same reward. “I’m humbled when people tell me how the Blind Surf Event has affected their lives,” says Graff. “I just had an idea, but sometimes, there’s no more powerful thing.”