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Open Water

Saltwater spray and the surge of adrenalin as you catch that wave…

For Ian Bennet, adaptive surf lead at surf-therapy charity The Wave Project, the ocean should be open to everyone. He tells us about the growing demand for adaptive surfing, and why The Wave Project is set on opening up the water for even more budding surfers.

Wave Project Adaptive Surf Hub

The Wave Project launched its first adaptive surf hub in Croyde, north Devon early this year. Watergate Bay launches its hub on 8 July.

When I'm in the sea, I don't feel disabled. I feel the same as everyone else.

— Issy, The Wave Project adaptive surfing regular

“It's proven that the sea and open blue spaces are positive for our mindset. For the past 13 years, The Wave Project has been working primarily with young people as a mental health intervention, allowing everyone to feel the benefits of the sea.

Whether you’re 5 or 81, if you live with mental health issues, or you have a physical disability, our mission is to get you in the water.

Six years ago, we took our first physically disabled child out for an adaptive surf session at Croyde in Devon. Now we’re bringing these sessions to Watergate too.”

A close up shot of sea water swelling

What can people can expect from an adaptive surfing session?

“We work with specially adapted equipment in conditions that make surfing more inclusive. Every person we take out has specific needs, and our sessions are more one-to-one than our regular beach group sessions.

Saying that, it’s actually more like four-to-one sometimes; we often need one adaptive instructor and three of our trained volunteers to get our adaptive surfers out in the water. We help lots of wheelchair users, people with Cerebral Palsy, and those with complex needs including autism, stress and anxiety, when perhaps a group session wouldn’t work so well.

Alongside the regular surfing qualifications, our instructors have also completed a three-day Adaptive Surfing Qualification with the International Surfing Association – as there’s a lot of more specialist knowledge needed.”

Wave Project Sarah Clarke - Checkered Photography

Photo credit: Sarah Clarke, Checkered Photography

We’d much rather everyone be on standard foam board if they can, so they look the same as everyone else in the water.

What type of equipment can people expect?

“We have boards with handles and a seated board made for us by a shaper in North Devon, but, ideally we don’t want to use them. We’d much rather everyone be on standard foam board if they can, and look the same as everyone else in the water. 

One of our regular surfers, Issy, told me, ‘When I'm in the sea, I don't feel disabled. I feel the same as everyone else.’ 

The folks at Finisterre have donated some adaptive wetsuits with zips in the arms and legs. It's much easier for parents and people with low spasticity to get on. Instead of giving one suit to one person, they decided to give these suits to The Wave Project, so they can benefit more people.

Something really powerful, is when we work with a family. Often one sibling has a disability and the other hasn’t. We can get up to three people on our big board. So you can have the person who is disabled and their brothers or sisters too. Our aim is to try and get everyone surfing together; mum, dad and all children.”

Wave Project July 2022 By Bella Bunce

Photo credit: Bella Bunce

What brings you to work?

“Running sessions is the happiest part of my day. A lot of the children we see are non-verbal; living a very different sort of life. To see the smiles on their faces and the parents with tears in their eyes is very special.”

Watergate Bay Hotel Beach Aerial Blue Sea

Why did you choose to open the new adaptive surfing hub at Watergate?

“Many people have been asking when we’ll open up sessions further south. Watergate is the ideal place, with lots of parking, a smooth lane to beach, beach chairs available, and a large flat beach with no banks or big stretches of soft sand that can be difficult for wheelchairs. It’s also where The Wave Project started, back in 2010.

Watergate Bay Hotel has been instrumental in helping make it happen. They've encouraged us and allowed some shared space for us to keep equipment and help get our surfers ready to go. So we can offer free surf sessions for people who need specialist help.

So far, all of the sessions that we've put on have gone amazingly well, and the god of the seas has provided really nice safe waves!”

Tell us about your Launch Day on 8 July…

“As part of our summer surf sessions, we’re inviting anyone from anywhere to come surfing with us. People will be able to use our adaptive equipment or simply have a surf. We expect to see people on the autism spectrum, people dealing with anxiety and stress, and all sorts of physical disabilities too. Basically everyone is invited – we’d love to get you in the sea.”

Wave Project By Bella Bunce

Photo credit: Bella Bunce

Watch: Victory of Determination by The Wave Project

Want to hear more or book an adaptive surf session? Learn more about The Wave Project, or email for details.

Listen to the Looking Sideways podcast interview with Joe Taylor, founder of The Wave Project, recorded at Watergate Bay.

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