By Beatrice Rosen
Catching a wave in the waters off Southern California’s Golden Coast can be the most exhilarating, yet terrifying sensation for any amateur surfer. Imagine trying it blind.
Last month, 10 courageously tenacious kids from the Braille Institute of Los Angeles did not let their vision impairments stop them from experiencing such enlivening sensations. Clad in skin-tight wetsuits and clutching their foam surfboards, they rode the chilly Pacific Ocean waves off Venice Beach from 10 a.m. to noon with the guidance and instruction of Learn to Surf LA volunteers.
As a surf school that has been operating in Santa Monica Bay and the greater Los Angeles area since 2002, Learn to Surf LA provides surf lessons year-round and summer youth surf camps. Two years ago the school partnered with the Braille Institute, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to eliminate barriers to a fulfilling life caused by blindness and severe sight loss, to host pro bono surf lessons several times each year.
The kids look forward to participating in such activities that all their sighted peers engage in, according to Christina Tam, the youth and career services manager for the Braille Institute. “Yes, they were scared and nervous, but braving the waves gave them a sense of accomplishment… it challenges their limits and gives them faith that they have what it takes to overcome fears to achieve success in life.”
Los Angeles native and 18-year-old Lupita Salazar, on the other hand, was hardly nervous that morning. As an avid ocean enthusiast and past participant in the lessons, she was eager to face the waves again.
“It’s pretty exciting and gives you a rush because when you stand up, you don’t know if the wave you are going on is big, or if it can knock you down, or if you can fall,” Salazar described. “I like the feel and the smell of the water, and I like the waves and how they hit you. It’s a cool feeling.”
Salazar says her strong affinity for the ocean began at 8 years old when she came across the book, “Mermaid Tales from Around the World” by Mary Pope Osborne and Paul Werstine.
“Since then, I’ve just had this infatuation with mermaids, and I like learning about all the different kinds and types by reading different books about them,” Salazar says. “I like the mystery behind them, so I really like the ocean, too.”
Tam added, “Being in the ocean and surfing let her connect with the earth like a mermaid.”
It was also 14-year-old Luis Meza’s second time surfing, but he looks forward to the lessons simply because “it is something out of the ordinary, and I don’t really do stuff like that.”
With just one lesson under his belt, Meza managed to stand up on the board and ride the wave for approximately three seconds.
“It was kind of hard, but just really cool, and really fun,” Meza recalled. “Even though I fell off, I was actually kind of happy because I like just jumping in the water and the feeling of it.”
According to Pat Murphy, owner of Learn to Surf LA, helping the kids from the Braille Institute accomplish such feats is the reason he and his instructors also look forward to the lessons.
“I can only imagine what they were feeling when standing up on the boards, but from the looks on their faces it must’ve felt great,” Murphy describes. “That experience is what we provide, and to give that to these kids who don’t have a great sense of vision was pretty intense.”
The lesson was not an easy one for the instructors, either, for they had to approach the step-by-step teaching process from a completely different angle.
Before entering the water, onshore the kids are taught the “pop-up” technique, which is how to get up on the board once the wave is caught. Murphy says guiding them through the process “was interesting because it was a physical effort to teach them, not a demonstrative effort.”
“I had to approach it from the finish backwards, to get them to actually sense what position they were supposed to be in for that position in the fourth stage of the process,” Murphy explained.
Once in the water, the instructor held onto the tail of the board and propelled it forward, acting as a stabilizer so the student could ride the wave without tipping over.
“It was tricky, that’s for sure, especially when you have to act as an anchor yet push them out in front of the wave,” Murphy said.
Despite the morning’s challenge for the students and instructors, both parties agree that it was a morning well spent, and they can’t wait for the next time.
This includes both Meza and Salazar. Meza wants to try and stand up on the board for a longer length of time, whereas Salazar simply enjoys swimming with the mermaids and partaking in “a fun day that doesn’t come around a lot, because I am usually at home and it’s hard to get out.”
Tam says she is incredibly thankful to the volunteers from Learn to Surf LA because not only were they verbally descriptive, but also “made the students feel comfortable to trust them enough to go out into the ocean and surf.”
Yet the morning’s success was also due in large part to the audacity and determination of the 10 students from the Braille Institute, Murphy said.
“These kids are really taking such a big leap going out in the water,” Murphy acknowledges. “It’s just so brave.”