Like many other Australian coast dwellers, I spent much of my youth in the water, swimming, boogie boarding, riding “foamies”. But it wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I stood up on a surfboard, and for the first time understood the potential of surfing to transform a person’s life.
With five or six other women who had experienced abuse or trauma in their youth, I began by learning on the sand before we faced the water, awakening muscles undisturbed since birth.
When I was about to give up, my body and board fell into line with the rhythm of the wave. A surge of confidence and elation marked the moment for me forever – a feeling that rushes back now as I wander along Australia’s most famous surfing shoreline.
The couple of hours of the happiness and freedom I experience as I surf is more than I can ever ask for.
Kelly Slater, Stephanie Gilmore, Joel Parkinson, Sally Fitzgibbon, Mick Fanning and Tyler Wright have all performed at Bells Beach over Easter. Even as spectators we can feel the surge of power available to anyone willing to take up the challenge of the ocean.
On the day I stood up on a board, my body and mind found alignment with the force of gravity and water moving underfoot. Some say the accompanying euphoria derives from the chemicals kicking in – a combination of negative ions from the breaking water and adrenaline. Others believe the source is more spiritual, from finding balance and harmony with the ocean.
Jess Ponting is the director of the Centre for Surf Research at the San Diego State University. He is also the editor of a soon to be released book Sustainable Stoke -Transitions to Sustainability in the Surfing World. Much of Ponting’s work focuses on the potential of surf tourism as a sustainable development driver, but his research extends to the power of what surfers call “stoke”.
When I contact Ponting, he is in Nicaragua with a group of student surfers, “getting them stoked” and guiding them to become advocates for the local people, culture, and environment. Ponting describes “stoke” as “the overwhelmingly positive feeling of energized wellbeing that vibrates through the bodies and minds of surfers”.
“Stoke” was recognised by the very first Europeans when witnessing Polynesian surfers in the late 18th century, says Ponting. Today it is being used to improve the lives of people with disabilities, to treat depression and alienation in disadvantaged youth, to empower women and dissolve cultural barriers.
Medicine by another name
In the UK and the US, surfing programs are offered to veterans coping with post traumatic stress disorder, amputations, spinal cord damage, and other injuries sustained during conflict. In the UK, a trial program has begun to assist young people with mental health problems and low self esteem.
Palestinian Ahmed Mousa is one of a group of young men in Gaza who use surfing to cope with the pain in their lives. Mousa recently told journalist Rana E Manna:
“The couple of hours of the happiness and freedom I experience as I surf is more than I can ever ask for. The waves seem to take me in with wide arms; flushing all my sorrow away”.
Surfing is an incredible way to build self-confidence, overcome fears and strengthen the body.
Irish surfer Easkey Britton believes that surfing teaches us to embrace the unknown, to face our fear of failure, to let go and stay calm. Above all, Britton says in a recent TED talk, it teaches us how to fall, “the wipeout will most likely be the first trick you will ever perform”.
Britton is a five time Irish surfing champion who has surfed in Iran, has a PHD in Environment and Society, and is now sharing her passion for surfing in cultures where opportunities for the most vulnerable are few.
“There is a small surf culture in Bangladesh and India. Women and girls are learning to surf in the most extreme of conditions, such as in the Gaza Strip,” she says.
Visiting the Baluchistan province in Iran, Britton met young women who are “passionate and fearless, writing a new narrative for themselves full of possibility”.
Britton tells me she now receives regular messages from the local community who use the small number of donated surfboards to hold separate surf sessions for both girls and boys.
Emi Koch is another who combines her passion for both surfing and social justice. Working with refugee children in Nepal one summer, Koch met a group of skateboarders from Afghanistan who were utilising skating as a tool for “girl empowerment” in Kabul.
On return to her native California, at age 19, Koch set up Beyond the Surface International (BTSI) – a global platform for youth empowerment projects using surfing and creative-learning initiatives as mediums for social change.
BTSI assists young people facing homelessness, physical/sexual abuse, drug addiction, gang involvement, and those with poor educational opportunities and limited avenues for self-expression. For Koch the aim is to empower individuals to become advocates for themselves and agents for change in their communities.
“Surfing is an incredible way to build self-confidence, overcome fears, strengthen the body, and through this process they’re staying in school, away from drugs, violence, and crimes,” Koch tells me.
Hawaiian Rell Sunn was one of the pioneers of women’s surfing in the 60s and 70s. Her love of surfing began at age four. “It’s like you’re four and you’re having a revelation; you can’t quite articulate it but you know the feeling,” she said in a documentary about her life.
Easkey Britton has adapted some of Sunn’s words to sum up that revelatory moment, “When you get in the water and catch a wave, you own your life again”.
Surfing contests can be exciting to watch but the benefits of surfing extend well beyond the artificial constraints of competition. The “stoke” of surfing is a resource that has barely been tapped as a therapeutic or creative tool and one that has the potential to change many lives.
Susan Metcalfe is an Australian writer and researcher