Season of the Sol: The Healing Power of Surf Therapy

Participants in "A Walk on Water" | Erik Schwab photo
Participants in “A Walk on Water” | Erik Schwab photo

by Dave Davis

The ocean provides a lot of things for a lot of different people. For many, its abundance of diverse aquatic life is viewed as culinary bounty; to be consumed by billions from around the globe. It’s a virtual playground for recreational boaters, cruisers, sunbathers and it plays host to explorative activities such as scuba diving and snorkeling.

But for one particular group of dedicated folks, the ocean serves as the ultimate means of connection – a natural resource possessing transformative, therapeutic properties, inherent within its rolling surf.

Collectively, this non-profit Southern California-based organization is known as A Walk On Water or “AWOW,” and they will be holding one of their truly inspiring “Surf Therapy” events on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 7 & 8 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Ditch Plain Beach in Montauk.

Officially launched in 2012, the primary mission among its numerous sponsors, community of businesses, members and volunteers, is to offer individuals with special needs or circumstances (and their families), an amazing day on a board, and in the surf.

Surf Therapy is defined on AWOW’s website as: “The act of guided surf instruction – provided by expertly trained Surf Therapists – in concert with a carefully constructed support structure of volunteers and supporters.”

What sets AWOW apart from many others in this capacity is its encouragement of family and friends to participate right alongside the Athlete (and that’s what the organization refers to the participants as — dropping any label of disability, medical condition or the like).

Participants in "A Walk on Water" | Erik Schwab photo
Participants in “A Walk on Water” | Erik Schwab photo

Subsequently, this paradigm creates a more “complete” or shared experience for all. The well-deserved day of respite highlights the best of surf culture by including healthy food/drink, and typically offers an assortment of non-aquatic activities such as yoga, music, and art.

Prior to one of their events held earlier this summer in Huntington Beach, California, Executive Director Sean Swentek in a television interview on KTLA expressed the heartfelt emotions that one often experiences at each of these outings; not just the participants and their families, but all of those involved: “I cry every time. I see children go into the water, and come out as a whole new person.”

In a conversation I had with Swentek several weeks ago, he could not have been more effusive when describing what an event like this does for everyone on the team.

“It goes so far beyond the athletes themselves – from the volunteer greeters assisting families down to the waterfront, the outreach chaperones who are assigned to each athlete’s family, to the seasoned surf instructors in the water and those cheering on the beach – so many people are affected in such a positive way.”

Swentek stressed the importance of implementing what the organization refers to as a “layered” approach. In essence, because each of the athletes comes to the beach with varying degrees of comfort and needs, there has to be a system in place to accommodate those situations.

Some of the athletes may never have dipped so much as a toe in the ocean during their lifetime, let alone gotten up on a surfboard, so pairing each athlete with the appropriate assistant is essential. “

In some cases” he added, “It may take an athlete hours to become acclimated with the sand or putting on a wetsuit for the first time, and that’s perfectly fine. There’s a level of trust that takes place each step of the way.”

Once in the surf, it’s up to a remarkable team of watermen and women to ensure that each athlete is safe, all the while experiencing the unique rush or exhilaration often associated with skimming along on a thin piece of fiberglass; conquering any fears they might have had prior.

For the local event, now entering its fourth consecutive year, much of that responsibility will be carried out by an exceptional group of surfers from CoreysWave, a Montauk-based surf instruction business with family ties that date back to Ditch’s fabled surf scene of the 1970s.

“We truly have the best, most talented instructors that not only exhibit the skills needed to work in tandem with these athletes, but also possess a special personality” shared Kristin Senese, when I spoke with her and husband Corey (the business’ namesake) on a stormy Saturday morning in early August.

When asked what it’s like to be a key factor in pulling off such a memorable outing year after year, she replied: “It’s such a visceral experience for everyone; we call it the ‘AWOW face.’ It’s a constant smile that lasts long after the event itself has ended.”

Participants in "A Walk on Water" | Erik Schwab photo
Participants in “A Walk on Water” | Erik Schwab photo

The team from CoreysWave has proven to be so successful that they recently brought their collective talent to Spring Lake, New Jersey this past June, and partnered up with Sam Hammer’s Surf School, to establish yet another East Coast event on behalf of AWOW.

Reading some of the moving testimonials posted on AWOW’s website is proof-positive of just how deep an impact the event and those involved have on some of the participants and their families.

Montauk local and the Chapter’s Lead, Walt Lindveld’s words truly hit home after Director/Head Surf Instructor Steven Lippman took Walt’s son Clash out on a board for the first time: “What AWOW does for these kids would make even the toughest man cry. So much love is shared. I mean, my boy went surfing! What’s better than that?”

Laura Rubin, a spirited entrepreneur, philanthropist, and Chairperson of the Board for the organization, in a recent interview with host Tyler Breuer of Swell Season Radio, not only shared what brought her onboard with AWOW as a volunteer several years ago, but also summed up the relationship that the athletes and their families experience when the group holds one of their events: “I was absolutely moved to my core at what I saw in terms of the program. The bond that they feel from the whole community, of acceptance – they are part of a community where they are loved, celebrated, and admired.”

No more is that evident than during the trophy ceremony held at water’s edge each day, when a large circle is formed, consisting of cheering volunteers, supporters, and family members, while AWOW staff call each athlete out by name to receive their hand-carved award, crafted by renowned surf artisan Dave C. Reynolds.

Helene Fallon, a long-time Montauk resident, and the Founder of Long Island Communities of Practice or “LICOP” (an umbrella entity consisting of independent agencies and organizations who’ve created a unique forum to address family education, recreation, the arts and various support needs), stressed the importance of inclusion, when we spoke recently.

Many athletes who participate in the annual AWOW event (and others such as Surfers Healing), are individuals who’ve utilized the services provided by one or more of the nearly two-dozen LICOP member organizations listed on their website at www.licop.org.

“You can’t imagine how hooked on surfing so many of these athletes have become, after this kind of an experience,” said Fallon. “Not only are we building social capital, but we are teaching our communities the importance of giving back.” 

Giving back is exactly what folks like Larry Siedlick, Co-owner of Left Hand Coffee and Chief Experience Officer at the Montauk Beach House had in mind when partnering with AWOW. He and staff will round out the two-day event by hosting a fundraiser and auction on Saturday, Sept. 8 from 6 to 10 p.m., on the grounds of MBH. Food, cocktails, and a lively guest DJ will keep things hopping at the downtown boutique hotel, only a block from the ocean. 

Athletes, family members and those who wish to volunteer for the surf therapy events on Friday and Saturday are being directed to the organization’s website where they can register on-line at:  www.awalkonwater.org   

Visitors to the site will also find informative bios of the AWOW crew, beautiful photography captured from previous outings, and an opportunity to make a donation, which goes directly towards hosting future events.

It has truly been an honor to shed some light upon such an amazing group of individuals and their affiliated partners; chosen for this latest installment of a quarterly column known as “Season of the Sol.”

Dave Davis

Dave Davis teaches preschool for the Head Start program at the Children’s Museum of the East End in Bridgehampton. Two of his pieces, “Always Be the Water” and “All Things Considered,” appear in the 2016 anthology “On Montauk: A Literary Celebration.”

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