by Janet Di Nola Parmerter
(Editor’s Note: Janet Di Nola Parmeter is the assistant editor of “The GCB Digest,” Georgia Council’s newsletter.)
For avid rock and roll fans, the city of Asbury Park, N.J., calls to mind the cool sounds of Southside Johnny and Bruce Springsteen. But on August 21, 2016, Asbury Park was also the site of an exciting and inspirational event. On that beautiful yet windy day, blind and low vision individuals safely experienced a unique challenge: surfing. That was the first year Surfing for Vision was held.
After hearing about the success of 20 blind and low-vision surfers challenging the rough and tumbling waves of the Jersey shore, it made me reflect back on my foolish youth and my own horrifying first time surfing. (My first time at surfing was also my last time.) So, in honor of that courageous group of surfers, I wrote this article to commend them for not only being brave, but for wisely taking surfing lessons first.
Surfing for Vision owes a big thank you to the Neptune Lions Club, volunteers from the Christian Surfers, and The Visual Experience Foundation (founded by Michael Benson).
“I want to send a message to all visually impaired and blind ones not to be afraid, because there is life after blindness,” Michael Benson said. “If any blind [people] wish to experience surfing, sailing, a clam dig or ballooning in a hot air balloon, they can email me at [email protected], and also get a taste of their event with this short video, https://www.facebook.com/113588031233/posts/10156943561551234?s=15300076558v=e&sfns=mo.”
So many volunteers shared in this inspiring event. Yet, without the daring, brave surfers from the age of eight to 67, that inspirational surfing event would not have been anything special. With many volunteers and 20 fearless surfers, the 2016 event was spectacular!
The soon-to-be surfers were given lessons on land, like how to stand on the board, then skilled volunteer surfers accompanied them into the water to catch a wave. One daring, young-at-heart surfer was 67-year-old Joe Ruffalo from Bloomfield. This was Joe’s first opportunity to hang ten! He didn’t actually stand on the board and make his toes hang ten, but he did hang on as his surfboard sent him racing toward the sandy shore. To view the video, click on the YouTube link near the bottom of this article.
Even for a fully sighted individual, the thought of balancing on a fiberglass board in a turbulent sea of swells and waves can be frightening. At the same time, it can be exhilarating to experience the sensational speed of the ride, along with the feeling of the wind against your body. That’s what I was told, but had never yet experienced. So, decades ago, at the age of 19, feeling like I could do anything without lessons because I was young, determined and a passionate Beach Boys fan, I was drawn to the Jersey shore to experience my own personal surfin’ safari.
Since it was mid-October, soon after hurricane season, my brother and I were prepared for the chilly water with wet suits, but not for the post-storm seas. From the moment I began paddling out, the ocean tossed my board and me around like two feathers in a tornado. Every time I tried to get back up on the board, another wave crashed down, twirling me toward the bottom of the ocean. Exhausted and out of breath, I finally caught a wave, but again, was immediately turned upside down by a huge, diagonal, rogue wave which crashed down on top of my board and me. The powerful force propelled the surfboard vertical, 10 feet straight up into the air, and simultaneously thrust my twisting body 10 feet down below the surface of the water. After tumbling around, I became disoriented and finally figured out which way was up. Just before completely running out of air, I reached the surface. The instant my head broke through the ocean, my skull violently contacted the fin of the now descending surfboard. With a burst of excruciating pain, and the power of that unfortunate connection, I was instantly thrust back under the sea. Again, wave after wave relentlessly barreled down over my fatigued body and kept me from filling my lungs with much-needed air.
When my strength was almost gone, I was tossed toward a sand bar, stood up for a split second, took a slight breath, and instantly was thrown back under by the treacherous surf. This was repeated for what seemed to be hours, but was really only about five minutes.
At this point, my thoughts were crazy from the head wound, and my strength to fight the perilous surf was gone. Dazed and feeling like I was tumbling in a slow-motion dream, all of a sudden, my body scraped the ocean floor and I rolled across the shoreline. The last wave shoved me onto the wet sandy beach, and I laid there immobile in a pool of salty foam. Where was my protective older brother? Eating lunch with Mike.
Though a feeling of safety gave me relief, I realized there was absolutely no way I could stand up. I just didn’t have the strength. Yet, covered in sand and blood, I’m sure I looked like a dead fish. Was I having fun yet? I think not!
Minutes later, I was still lying on the beach motionless. As the wild ocean continued to wash over me, the battered surfboard kept gently nudging my feet as if it were afraid to ask, “Is this thing alive?”
While the sun warmed my frigid face, I kept my sand-covered eyelids closed and remained still. A feeling of complete calm came over me, as my mind replayed the frightening experience of what just happened. I almost drowned! Yes, this was supposed to have been my fun-filled surfing safari, but it felt more like an African safari, and I was the hunted animal which barely escaped.
At that moment, I realized although I knew the words to every Beach Boys song, from now on, I would attend all their concerts, be a surfer girl in name only, and stick to snow skiing.
As for Joe Ruffalo, he helped transform the dream of each would-be surfer into a reality they will never forget. Would he do it again? “Absolutely! That day was windy, and the waves were rough, but blind people have to come out of their comfort zone and try something different.” Then he added, “In fact, the Mayor of Long Branch expressed interest in hosting the event.”
That interest turned into a reality. For the past several years, Long Branch has been hosting this surfing challenge. On Aug. 17, 2019, more than 150 people attended, and about 50 blind and low vision surfers hit the waves.
Lifeguards and 30 surfers volunteered for water safety and family activities, like wave runner rides and surfing lessons. Takanassee Handshapes donated a free custom-made surfboard for the raffle, and Jersey Mike’s donated sandwiches for all the volunteers and participants like Brian Mackey and Chloe. Amy Darlington, Chloe’s mother, could not say enough good things about the safety-conscious volunteers, adding, “I hope more and more blind people take advantage of this fantastic, fun event.”
So if you decide to try Surfing for Vision at the Jersey shore, take the surfing lessons! Then get ready — surf’s up! (Note: The video plays sideways for the first few seconds, but soon straightens out. https://youtu.be/w1rOwnpABnQ)
For information on this year’s event, visit https://www.visualexperiencefoundation.org/surfing-for-vision.