The life-changing power of adaptive surfing

I have always loved the way surfing puts you in the moment, unable to focus on anything but what you are doing. To paddle out at sunrise in silence, take in the beautiful surroundings, smell the salt air and be greeted by passing dolphins is life-changing. Research increasingly indicates the physical and psychological benefits of surfing, and it is now being used as an alternative form of therapy. At Surf Emporium we teach surfing and always encourage inclusivity: my goal has always been to share this passion with others, particularly women, and now we are giving differently abled women a chance to surf. We asked three adaptive surfers to share their stories, but first: what is adaptive surfing?

Being disabled doesn’t mean you can’t surf

An adaptive surfer is a surfer with a disability, including but not limited to, paralyses, cerebral palsy, blindness and amputations. These are just some of the many physical challenges that individuals overcome in feeling the ‘stoke’ of catching a wave.  Able bodied or differently abled individuals can get in the water, and surfing can play a remarkable role in the overall wellbeing of a person, both physically and mentally.

Here are just a few of the amazing women we work with:

1. Elsje Neethling: you forget that you are broken

‘I am Elsje Neethling. It’s amazing what your broken pieces can do if you give them a chance. I have survived terminal brain cancer and being an incomplete spinal patient for the past four years. Not being able to walk didn’t bother me as much as the notion that I might never be able to swim in the sea. I come from a competitive swimming background, and we used to spend our holidays frolicking in the waves. I was more phased by never having the freedom or mobility to run into the ocean ever again.

That changed in 2016 with my very first adaptive surfing lesson. With the help of a very enthusiastic Anthony Smyth and his team I was handed a board and wetsuit. I was elated to think a bunch of people would actually help me in and out of the water! It’s been over a year since I first tasted the sweet freedom of surfing, and I’m hopelessly smitten. I’ll never forget the first day I managed to balance myself on the board. I was flying! When you surf you are free. For some brief moments there is nothing in the world but you, the board under you, and the wave. You forget that you are differently abled, broken, sick or hurt. The waves cleanse your head, heart, body and mind.

adaptive surfers

It’s quite a spiritual experience to lie on your board in the backline, waiting in anticipated silence and focus for that one perfect wave. Surfing has given me wings, it has shattered all the odds brain cancer and disability have stacked against me. Surfing has not only given me boundless confidence to take on life, it has given me hope. Hope that there really isn’t anything you can’t do. If you can visualize it and muster up the courage and optimism, then you definitely can do it.

Surfing is much like life. First, you have to brave it through the storm – which in surfing terms is known as the impact zone – that nasty stretch of chaos and strong currents, before you get to the backline. It has taught me perseverance and has given me new goals and dreams. Just like the ocean, life has its tough times of turmoil. Are you going to sink or swim through it?  Surfing has taught me that if you hang on and push yourself, you end up in the backline, where the surf is serene and perfect. To people who have always wanted to try surfing…do it immediately! I’ve seen how the ocean heals. The sea is like a treadmill waiting for you. It’s the best exercise for free, and it washes away the dust and tears of yesterday and fills your soul with an energy unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Surfing is definitely worth a go!’

2. Noluthando Makalima: surfing is my other life 

‘I am Noluthando Makalima and I surf. I started surfing in 2014. When I started surfing ,I was afraid because I thought I would sink in the water. There is one thing I experienced: even a disabled person can swim. I find it entertaining and fun. Yes there are challenges or obstacles that you have to face – sometimes the helpers don’t know us, so we have to be brave, and tell them how he or she may assist you. To me surfing is my other life and it shows me that I am no different to a normal person. The only difference is that a normal person is able and I am differently able.’

adaptive surfing

Image: Warren Baynes

3. Grace Anderson: we’re all waiting for the same waves

‘I am Grace Anderson. The ocean levels everybody; whether you’ve been pro for 20 years or just starting out, you’re all waiting for the same waves. I had only started surfing at 16, but am blessed with a family who never even acknowledged my arm when it came to sports. Ballet, tennis, athletics, swimming, we did it all without a second thought. Adaptive surfing is changing my life in too many ways to comprehend. Not only has it pushed me to the limit, but watching paraplegics taking on bigger waves than I was is an incredibly humbling experience. Six months of surfing taught me more than I had learned in 16 years as we led up to the World Championships in California. If you’ve even considered taking up surfing, all I can say is please give it a go!’

adaptive surfing cape town

Grace Anderson captured by Warren Baynes

How can you get involved? 

We are hosting a Surf Lesson and Adaptive Surf Media Experience at the Surf Emporium in Muizenberg, Cape Town, this Saturday the 20 October. The day is aimed at creating an awareness for Adaptive Surfing in South Africa with a short term goal of providing greater access to all South Africans to increase the number of Adaptive Surfers, and a long term goal to unearth many potential South African World Champions. We are inviting the Media Community to come down to Surf Emporium in Muizenberg and to roll up their sleeves by participating, first hand, in this experience.

The morning experience will include influencers such as Morne Morkel and Nik Rabinowitz pairing up with the Adaptive national team, surfing with them, like them! We will also be teaching 15 Adaptive surfers how to surf for the very first time!

If you are a part of the media community, or you would like to be a volunteer on the day or if you would like to participate as an Adaptive surfer please contact Roxy Davis on 0825628687 or email roxy[@]

Visit for more info about the event.

If you would like to find out more about adaptive surfing in general click here.

Roxy Davis is an eight times South African Surfing Champion, professional Surf Coach and the owner of Surf Emporium.  She founded my surf school 16 years ago with an umbrella on the beach. Today Surf Emporium is the largest surf school in South Africa. To be able to watch the joy on peoples faces when riding a wave for the first time is very inspiring and rewarding, she says.