Blind surfers experience feeling of waves

Blind surfers experience feeling of waves
The Encinitas Lions Club and the Swami’s Surfing Association host their 20th annual surf event giving blind and visually impaired people a chance to surf and experience the waves. Photo by Tony Cagala

ENCINITAS — The third time was the charm for Larry Graff to get his idea off the ground — or in the water — as it were.

More than 20 years ago, Graff, then a member of the Lions Club, was watching TV when he saw members of the blind community water skiing.

“I thought, because I’ve water skied, ‘if they can water ski, they can surf,’ so I was in the water and I paddled up to Bruce King (then president of the Swami’s Surfing Association) and I said, ‘Bruce, I’d like to take blind people surfing,’” Graff said.

As Graff and King tell the story, it would take another two times for Graff to paddle out with King and try to sell the idea.

On the third try, Graff was adamant about bringing the idea to fruition and wouldn’t take no for an answer. King relented and they agreed that they could take blind people surfing, forging a partnership for the past 20 years.

The partnership continued on Sunday at South Ponto beach where some 50 to 75 blind surfers got to experience catching waves.

“They’re courageous, because I wouldn’t do this,” said King, who, 20 years later continues to be a part of the experience. “I wouldn’t go out there and blind surf. No way. But those people are something else.

“And you can feel this when they do it. You can feel the emotion and you feel everything that’s good about this whole thing. And the only way to really feel that is to do it. You can’t convey it in words,” he said.

Juan Briceno, 17, had never surfed before and possibly ended up with the wave count of the day, catching at least 30 waves.

It felt pretty good out there, he said.

Another of the surfers, Levi Bressan, 16, likened the experience of surfing to swimming with dolphins.

Bressan has surfed in a couple of the Lions’ previous surf events and enjoys the waves.

“I like catching the big ones,” he said.

The event has become the highlight of the year for many of the participants who have surfed in previous events or are doing it for the very first time, explained Bob Mangini, Encinitas Lions Club treasurer and chairman of the event.

Every mid-September the club fills up the beach with surfers and surfboards.

“It makes us feel good, it’s something we all enjoy doing,” Mangini said.

Mangini said because of their blind surfing event, two other Lions Clubs, one in Hawaii and in Australia, have started similar events.

There are about 42 members of the Encinitas Lions Club, which is part of the Lions Clubs International that began in 1917 with the intent on helping and improving the communities they serve.

Some of Encinitas Lions Clubs’ notable community improvement projects include the installation of audible crosswalk signals in downtown Encinitas and the offering of sight clinics where they provide eye exams and distribute prescription eyeglasses.

The nonprofit club receives money for its projects through donations and fundraising.

The Lions are one of the few clubs, Mangini said, that 100 percent of the income for charity goes out.

Graff said when he first started the event it would be just helping blind people surf and experience the waves.

“But as it turns out, we have a profound impact on the volunteers and the surfers,” he said. “This helps people who are living with disabilities experiencing something that they haven’t experienced before. It helps create an awareness in everybody about overcoming challenges,” he said.

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