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How The Wave Project makes surfing possible for disabled children

With Ian Bennett, The Wave Project

A decade ago, I wrote here about a young Cornwall charity that was helping vulnerable young people find their feet—and get them wet—learning to ride a surfboard. My own (now-adult) children loved to hit the waves, so I know the confidence that learning this skill can give.

That charity, The Wave Project, is still going strong. If you’re around Cornwall, they also run adaptive surfing at Croyde on the north coast and have projects in coastal/waterfront locations across the country

Now, the post-pandemic need is never greater, so it’s time we dropped in to find out what’s new, especially as we’re in another short heatwave and imagining the splash of the Atlantic might be rather refreshing! Ian Bennett of The Wave Project picks up the story…

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Surfing to recovery and vitality with The Wave Project by Ian Bennett

The Wave Project was set up in 2010 to promote mental health and wellbeing via a surf therapy intervention for vulnerable young people aged 8-21. Since the charity was founded, surf therapy has become an established form of therapeutic support for both mental and physical health, recognised by the NHS as an effective form of therapy for children and young people at risk of mental ill-health.

From the start, the charity has strived to be totally inclusive and to make surfing as accessible as possible to all young people, whatever their level of ability. Our team is composed of avid surfers who know first-hand the therapeutic effects of being in the water, and we’re passionate about ensuring that as many people as possible can enjoy these benefits.

Over the last five years, there’s been a growing demand for surfing from people with a wide range of physical disabilities, and as a result, The Wave Project has turned its attention to improving the accessibility of surf therapy.

How does it work?

To meet the demand for surfing with a disability, we have acquired the necessary skills, training, and specialist equipment to deliver safe and enjoyable surf sessions from our Adaptive Surfing Hub in Croyde, North Devon.

Sessions are delivered by our experienced, International Surf Association-accredited Adaptive Surfing coaches, alongside a team of committed, enthusiastic and trained volunteers. All our volunteers have completed our one-day Adaptive Surfing Volunteer Award training, which has been endorsed by Surfing England, and written with input from Activity Alliance, the leading voice for people with disabilities in sport and activity.

Sessions usually last two hours, depending on the weather and conditions on the day, and we will always work at the pace of the surfer. Our base in Croyde also has flat, accessible parking at the back of our partner surf school, Surf South West, and access to changing rooms.

Our specialist equipment includes two beach wheelchairs, a large, seated board, and prone boards with handles to allow for a greater sense of independent surfing. And crucially, we provide our surfers with wetsuits with zips in the arms and legs to make changing easier and more comfortable.

Young person bellyboarding shot from behind
© The Wave Project

‘I never in a million years expected my son to be able to surf’

Many young people with special needs have told us how much they enjoy our adaptive surfing sessions, but we’ve also heard from parents that our surf therapy has delivered a life-changing impact on their children’s wellbeing.

One of our surfers, George, has quadriplegic cerebral palsy, epilepsy, is severely sight impaired and developmentally delayed. Getting onto the beach is normally a challenge for George, let alone getting into the water.

His mother Nikki says: “It’s always been quite difficult to find activities that work for George. So, when we found that he could potentially do adaptive surfing, it was a whole new world for him. I never in a million years expected my son to be able to surf.”

Another of our surfers, Charlie, has severe learning disability and non-verbal autism. A course of one-to-one sessions with one of our trainers benefited Charlie as someone who struggles in social situations but can form positive relationships with people who attempt to enter Charlie’s world rather than them expecting him to enter theirs, his family told us.

His parents said: “From the beginning, the sessions have been tailored to Charlie’s wants and needs and he has never been expected to fit into a rigid set of sessions. Charlie’s needs are very complex but have been totally met due to the amazing attitudes of the instructors and volunteers.”

Seeing the excitement in the children who thought they would never get in the water is what motivates our trainers and volunteers to run our adaptive surfing sessions; hearing feedback from parents about the changes they see in their children really drives home the wider positive impacts that surf therapy has on their family life too.

The Wave Project’s Summer Surf Challenge

If your child would be interested in trying adaptive surfing, there’s good news.

This summer, The Wave Project hosted its annual Summer Surf Challenge at Watergate Bay in Cornwall, an annual celebration of inclusive surfing, offering people with a disability the opportunity to try surfing, supported by our specially trained surf instructors and volunteers.

For more information about adaptive surfing at The Wave Project, watch the film below:

Ian Bennett, Adaptive Surf Lead at the UK’s leading surf therapy charity The Wave Project. Follow The Wave Project on Instagram @waveprojectuk to stay posted about The Wave Project Summer Surf Challenge or contact Ian Bennett: ianb@waveproject.co.uk to register.

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