Blind surfers take to the sea thanks to nonprofit

Blind surfers take to the sea thanks to nonprofit
Swami's Surfing Association Member Matt Allen tandem surfs with 8-year-old Audrey Gaze during the Swami Surfing Association's Blind Surf event in Carlsbad. Photo by Shana Thompson

CARLSBAD — For the past 24 years, Swami’s Surfing Association has hosted a surfing event for the blind as a way to give back to the community.

On June 3, the nonprofit was back at it at South Ponto Beach as dozens of blind people from across Southern California took to the waves, according to Swami’s Surfing Association President Marcelo Lobos.

Will Moore and Brendan Caskil assist Justin Ekils during the Swami Surfing Association’s Blind Surf event. Photo by Shana Thompson

The surfers were provided sighted counterparts during the event, which aims to encourage participants and help them gain confidence, have fun and enjoy the water.

“Larry Graft was the brainchild of it all,” Lobos said. “Larry had this great idea of taking blind people surfing and let them experience the movement of the ocean.”

The Swami’s Surfing Association works with other nonprofits to gather transportation, while it and its volunteers provide the surfboards.

For Gus Juarez it was time to get back on the waves. He lost his sight about seven years ago to diabetes, but prior to then he was an avid surfer.

Just the thought of getting back on the board was a motivating factor for Juarez. He said he plans to continue being active, much like when he was sighted.

“All my life I’ve been pretty active,” Juarez said. “I’m just getting back on that horse again. It’s a great thing what people do for us.”

But for those first-timers, life on the board is a different experience. First, most have never been in the ocean, so the movement of the water and force of the waves can be overwhelming.

Luis Guitierrez of La Mesa learns to surf with the help of Swami’s Surfing Association Members during their Blind Surf event. Photo by Shana Thompson

Sharlene Ornelas, who participated in the first-ever event 24 years ago, said after a few runs, she settled into the groove. She found it calming and fun, and was able to feel the flow of the ocean.

“I got involved in the beginning,” Ornelas said. “I love it. I feel the wave and I can tell what I need to do with the board. I love it when I get a real fast wave.”

Jennifer Frazier learns to surf with the help of Swami’s Surfing Association Members. Photo by Shana Thompson

Jennifer Finlann, meanwhile, participated in her second surfing event with Swami’s Surfing Association, her first was four years ago. She had lost her sight about one year previously during a surgery, so her first event she figured it would be a “cool thing to do.”

She warns people not to assume the blind can’t handle everyday life, or live an active lifestyle.

“We can do everything everybody else can do,” Finlann said. “It felt exhilarating and I felt empowered that I could do anything.”

The event provides food for all (even those who pass by) with music and, most importantly, a fun atmosphere. It was last year when Lobos realized just how important music’s role was in the event.

The sound of the tunes blasts toward the ocean acting as a beacon for the blind surfers. It gives them a reference point of where land is and where to go.

This year’s event had about 40 blind people attend with 150 volunteers including the Girl Scouts and Junior Lifeguards. Swami’s Surfing Association also recruits and forms partnerships with numerous businesses for food donations. The association works with four institutions to get the blind people to the beach.

“It’s just a day to show them (how to surf) and have fun,” Lobos said. “It’s just giving back. Give tenfold and you get tenfold back.”

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