Fresh from her first ever surf, Sophie Elwes looks chilly but energised. The 31-year-old has spent the past hour riding prone on a soft-top board at the Wave in Bristol, a new artificial surfing lagoon that caters for people of all abilities and needs.
Paralysed from the chest down since she fell from a balcony when she was 22, she credits her passion for water sports and snow sports with fuelling her physical and mental rehabilitation. Yet Elwes, who lives in London, had never before tried surfing.
“I love stuff when it’s ‘on’ the water – it’s my happy place,” she says. “At first [after the accident] I was very wobbly but skiing and wakeboarding has given me strength. Most of all it’s helped me mentally, emotionally and with confidence. Having these kinds of experiences is a total gift.”
The Wave was conceived by Nick Hounsfield, a former osteopath who is also the director of British Surfing. Opened in October, it is the first wave pool in the UK painstakingly crafted with people with disabilities in mind: smooth access ramps, dedicated changing facilities, beach wheelchairs and specially trained surf coaches are among its features.
“From day one, our aim was to make sure the space was accessible physically and in terms of culture, to make sure that all people have the same opportunities on site as each other and to normalise being around people who have got physical or mental health issues,” Hounsfield says.
By coincidence, half a dozen experienced adaptive surfers, among them men and women with physical, visual and learning impediments, also arrive to surf on the same day as Elwes. Louis Sutton, a 19-year-old who has autism, cerebral atrophy, cerebral palsy and dyspraxia, has come with his mother, Suzanne.
Sutton’s combination of illnesses makes it difficult for him to navigate social situations, Suzanne explains, and he lacks the balance and coordination to play sports such as basketball and football. But he surfs with enviable poise and style, carving down the green faces of waves in the advanced section of the lagoon.
“We don’t know why, we don’t know how; all we know is that his physiotherapist has said surfing is now officially part of his treatment. It’s like the messages to the muscles have started working,” she says. Furthermore, regular surfing has a profoundly positive impact on his behaviour and happiness.
Academic evidence to support water-based healthcare – so-called blue health – is growing, according to Dr Easkey Britton, a marine social scientist who collated the findings of 33 studies featuring more than 2,000 people. “There’s definitely something about [being on, in or near] water that benefits how we feel in our bodies,” she says.
“In the context of a physical disability, it’s the sense of freedom from gravity which takes the pressure off joints. For some amputees it really reduces the dependency on narcotics and pain medication. And mentally, psychologically, it has this huge effect on mood and wellbeing.”
Britton ascribes this to the soothing sensation of water over the body and says three publications due out next year will further support the evidence in relation to adaptive surfing, in particular.
Cornwall is already ahead of the curve: since 2010, NHS doctors have been prescribing surfing for children who are vulnerable to mental health issues.
For Bruno Hansen, a yachtsman and four-time adaptive surfing world champion, the logic is simple: “We come from a womb where we’re in water and we’re made up of, what, [up to] 75% water? So I think we’re water creatures deep down.”
Watching Elwes surf, Hansen recalls how he was paralysed in 1998 in a carjacking in South Africa and, a few years later, paddled into the ocean to drown himself. Instead, he says, he inadvertently caught a wave that “rebooted” him.
“When I broke my back I thought: I can’t surf, I’ve got no job, I can’t captain a boat, and no girl’s ever going to want me – what’s the point of life?” he says. “But that all got wiped away by catching one little wave, like these beginner waves. So, to me, the healing power of surfing is way beyond what people realise.”
The problem in Britain is that surfing is often inaccessible. Ethan Jolosa, 14, and his mother, Leah, frequently make a three-hour round trip to the Gower Peninsula in Wales, where Ethan learned to surf with supervision from the charity Surfability.
“When you go to the beach, sometimes they have massive steps, it’s uneven, the shore is a long way away,” Leah says. “But here [at the Wave] it’s very flat and calm and accessible. They have four lifeguards for each group, they have slipways into the water; they’ve really thought about people’s adaptive needs.”
Elwes describes a feeling of empowerment after her surf: she was offered a choice of boards before being safely propelled into whitewater waves by a team of three coaches, who swiftly came to her aid on the sole occasion she wiped out.
“It was truly an inclusive experience,” she says. “I wish the whole world was designed [accessibly] like this.”
After two hours in the water, Sutton offers the most telling verdict yet. “It was good,” he says – three words that delight his mother because he is usually reluctant to talk to strangers.
“Surfing gives him something,” she says. “It makes him feel, I don’t know, maybe part of life.”