Adaptive Surfing

Catch a Wave

Looking for a unique way to get in your morning cardio?  Planning a beach vacation and want to learn a new activity?  Consider getting out on a surfboard and catching a wave.  Surfers will tell you there is no better way to get in a core workout or watch a sunrise/set than out in the water.  They’ll also tell you that once you ride your first wave, you’ll be hooked for life.


Assessing the ConditionsCredit John Wright

More than many other sports, surfing requires you to be uniquely aware of your environment at all times.  Check weather conditions prior to heading out.  Particularly windy or rainy days are probably not best for beginners as the waves will likely be overwhelming, making the sport unsafe.  Even if the weather is clear near shore, waves may be strong due to storms farther out at sea.  In contrast, days with water that is too calm won’t make for good surfing weather either, as the waves may not be big enough to ride into the shore.

Beginners should look for ‘mushy’ waves.  These waves are slow rolling and have a more gradual bottom contour.  They tend to be more forgiving and allow you to get up and stay up on your board sooner.

The waves you’re likely to see in surf competitions or movies are called ‘Plunging’ waves and should typically be avoided by beginners as they are fast breaking quickly and can become dangerous quickly.


Getting to the Beach

For many surfers with disabilities, the trickiest question might be, ‘How do I even get to the water?’.  Try to park as closely as you can to the water.  Many public beaches will be able to provide a beach wheelchair, which has much larger tires than a traditional chair to help move through the sand.  It is worth a call or quick internet search prior to heading out to find whether a beach wheelchair is available to help you gain access to the water.


Credit WrightCoast PhotographyFinding Your Board

It isn’t necessary to buy a board for your first time in the water.  Surf boards can be expensive, difficult to transport and your needs can vary depending on wave types and ability level.  If you’re taking a lesson, the board is typically included in the cost of the lesson.  If you’ve gotten comfortable enough to head out alone, but aren’t ready to invest fully, consider renting.  Most beach locations with a good surf community will have board shops that can rent you a board for a daily rate.  Let the shop know that you are a beginner and they can help you pick out the right board for the current wave conditions and your skill level.

Soft boards vs. Fiberglass – Light, buoyant and durable, soft boards are recommended for beginners over fiberglass boards.  Similar to a boogie board in feel, their buoyancy allows you to catch a wave easily, while the dimensions make them more stable allowing you to perfect your pop-up more quickly.

Long boards – This length of board is typically recommended for beginners.  Ranging from 8 to 12 feet, the larger volume makes the board easier to balance in the water.  Their large size does make them more difficult to maneuver, so once you’ve gotten the hang of the sport, you’ll want to move onto a fun board or short board.

Short boards – With lengths of no more than seven feet, short boards also have a sharp nose and multiple fins.  These boards take longer to master, and are typically used by those looking for something with a high-performance capability.

Other equipment might include a leash which attaches at one end to the board, and at the other end to the surfer’s ankle allowing you to swim out with the board towed behind you.  The leash will also keep your board attached to you if you fall off while riding a wave so you don’t have to swim too far to catch it.  If you don’t consider yourself a strong swimmer, it is not recommended to use a leash as the board could drag you down if you get caught under a wave.

Don’t forget your sunscreen, and for those surfers who aren’t very confident swimmers, a personal flotation device (PFD) is recommended.


Practice Makes PerfectCredit Danny Holland Photography

Before you actually get in the water, you should do a land simulation of your ‘pop-up’ transition from stomach to standing position.  The pop-up is the most essential part of the surfing experience, and the trickiest to master.

To practice:

  • Lie on the center of your surfboard with your hands behind your shoulders.
  • Move your hands, palms down, to your chest area, as if you were getting ready to do a push up.
  • Arch your back and push up while bringing your feet beneath you in one fluid motion. You should end up turned sideways on the board with your feet slightly wider than your shoulders and your knees should be bent.
  • Check your standing position. You should still be fairly centered on the board with both feed turned sideways.

You may want to practice a few times before you’re ready to head out into the water.  Once you feel ready to paddle out, pick an area with slow-rolling waves, wait for a lull in the waves and hold your board to our side until you get past the shorebreak (where the ocean meets the beach).  Once you’ve gotten past the shorebreak, you can get on your board and paddle out.  Try to keep your board fairly flat in the water.  If you’re too far forward on the board, you’ll see water coming over.  If you’re too far back, your board will be sticking up in the air.  Take fluid, relaxed strokes with your arms and try to minimize unnecessary body movements to avoid tiring yourself out before you get to ride your wave.


Hanging 10

Once you’re far enough out to have a long ride into shore, prepare yourself for launching.  As the breaking wave approaches, get farther back on your board, push off of the bottom, move into your pop-up position, and ride the wave to shore.

If you’re having trouble with your pop-up in the water, keep trying.  If you’re tipping to either side, try centering yourself on the board.  If the nose of your board is going underwater, you’re too far forward.  Adjust your stance and try again.  Even the most experienced riders wipe out from time to time.

Once you can comfortably and consistently ride smaller waves you can head out into bigger waves.


Credit John Wright 2Adapting the Pop-Up

As long as you’re able to keep yourself afloat in the water, you can surf with very little adaptation.  For those that can’t stand, or have trouble balancing, the simplest adaptation is to not pop up at all.   Surfers can ride their wave into the shore in a seated or prone position, as a bodysurfer might.  Some surfers without disabilities prefer riding this way as well, because you’re more connected with the water.  If you’re a surfer who has difficulty pushing yourself into a push-up position due to a missing upper limb or lack of upper body strength you can enter the wave in a kneeling or upright position and pop up using just your core muscles.  Adjustments can be also made to the surfboard depending on the surfer’s needs that allow you to more easily stay on the board, and motorized surf boards exist that help surfers paddle out away from the shore.


Find Your Wave

Looking to get an adaptive surfing lesson?  These Disabled Sports USA chapters offer lessons adapted to your ability level.

AccesSport America – Acton, MA

Adaptive Expeditions – Charleston, SC

Amazing Surf Adventures – San Luis Obispo, CA

Operation Comfort (Military Only) – San Antonio, TX


Ready to start competing?

The International Surfing Association (ISA) recently added a World Adaptive Surfing Championship.  To learn more, visit