Visually Impaired Set Their Sights on Surfing

Times Staff Writer

Alex Rivas didn't see the wipeout coming. Like most of the young people in this surf class for the blind and visually impaired, he cannot see much at all.

So Alex came up sputtering and disoriented after his brief ride on the wave. Seawater spilled from his mouth. Blood streamed from his nostrils, probably because his foam surfboard bonked him in the nose as they rolled over and over together in the churning surf.

An instructor grabbed Alex and placed a firm arm over his shoulders to brace him against the next unseen rush of white water. "Why don't we go in and take a little rest?" the instructor begged him.

Alex, still dazed, stumbled toward shore for a couple of steps and then stopped in waste-deep water. His disorientation vanished. His lopsided grin returned to his face. He began to jump up and down in a little victory dance, giggling in a way that sounds more like a gurgle.

"Let's do it again," said Alex, a teenager from Lynwood. "I want to stand [on the board]."

And so it went for the weekend surf school in Carpinteria, to the astonishment of the instructors, at least to those unaccustomed to working with the blind. At quitting time, some nearly had to pry pruned fingers from surfboards and drag shivering bodies out of the water.

To prepare for the class, the instructors had spent hours groping around in swim goggles that had been blacked out, totally obscuring their vision. They stumbled through the steps of the course, cowering and cursing without the customary aid of visual cues.

"It was so scary," said Courtney Wallace, a certified lifeguard and volunteer instructor from Ventura High School. "These kids are so much braver than any of us."

Most of the budding surfers are seasoned adventurers. Many had trekked into the Sierra on a five-day backpacking trip. Some had gone dog sledding in Minnesota. Others had been to sea, kayaking around Santa Cruz Island off Santa Barbara. This spring, most of them will climb Half Dome in Yosemite.

On this excursion, a weekend surf safari, 14 students from the Los Angeles area were escorted in vans by the Foundation for the Junior Blind to the capable hands of more than three-dozen instructors and volunteers associated with and the Ventura-based Wilderness Education Program.

The students took over a pair of Carpinteria beach houses, which were instantly transformed into surf shacks, with a dusting of sand on the floor and driving rhythms of surf guitar music bouncing off the walls.

They got their first "feel" of the ocean and the body-language of surfers as they handled, or "Brailled," tabletop models of waves sculpted by Lance Antaky, a carpenter from Ventura.

A look of recognition spread across the face of 10-year-old Rachel Ng of Long Beach, as her hands followed the contours of a finger-sized surfer getting "tubed" inside a hollow, cylindrical wave peeling across a sea of hardened resin.

"Oh, I get it now," Rachel said.

The students learned how to wriggle into wetsuits and then got a crash course in the fundamentals of surfing.

Rachel was among the first to try out the balance board, a short plank of plywood teetering on an eight-inch thick plastic pipe. With the help of a couple of instructors, she was soon rocking back and forth on the board.

Mike Anaya, 18, of Wilmington, was at the next station, getting familiar with a soft surfboard. He learned how to paddle and spring to his feet at the "sweet spot" on the board, neither too far forward, nor too far back. Each board, perched on an inner-tube to test the student's balance, had been customized with thick beads of glue so that students could feel their way to the center.

"Now you're on the sweet spot," instructor Holden Rushing told Mike in encouragement. "You don't need us," said another instructor. "Look at that style."

Mike beamed and shot his admirers the surfers' universal "hang-loose" sign, a closed fist with thumb and pinkie extended.

Then Mike was out in the shoulder-high surf with other students. Most of them rode the waves lying on their bellies. Some got to their knees. A few stood up. Every ride was met with cheers, hoots and howls from instructors and volunteers.

The last in the water was Esmeralda Bueno, 13, a wisp of a girl from Baldwin Park. Fretting about a sore throat, she had curled up on a towel on the beach while her classmates ventured into the surf. After more than an hour listening to instructors cheering on her classmates, Esmeralda could sit out no more. Her sore throat, she announced, suddenly felt better.

Esmeralda timidly entered the surf, flanked by instructors who guided her across the cobbles, the irregular seafloor marked by sandbars. They helped brace her against the side-current and onrushing white-water of waves until she got into position for her first ride.

Lying on the board, an instructor on each side, Esmeralda was launched into a wave. She careened down its face and with a whoosh rode the board on her belly nearly all the way to the beach -- to whistles and cheers from those all around her.

Instructor Chip Bell gamboled through the hip-deep water after her. When he caught up, he helped her to her feet with a hug and congratulations. "I can't believe I can do this," she beamed. "I can do this."

Bell told her that most students were finished for the morning. They were on the beach, peeling off wetsuits, getting ready to eat lunch.

"What do you want to do?" he asked. "Do you want to go in and get some lunch or catch another wave?"

"Let's go again," she said, stoked by her wild ride. "I can skip lunch."

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