The rain pelted down and the wind swept in but Bruno Hansen, one of the world’s leading adaptive surfers, didn’t mind a bit.
After his training session on The Wave surf lake on the outskirts of Bristol before a major competition on Saturday, Hansen summed up his mood in one word: exhilarated.
“You arrive in the morning and it’s dark and cold and rainy,” said Hansen as he sipped a hot chocolate in the clubhouse. “You force yourself into the water. The first wave comes and everything changes. You’re pumped full of adrenaline, you start smiling. It doesn’t matter if you’re in perfect blue water in Hawaii or here in Bristol in the rain. It’s just as fun. Only a surfer knows the feeling.”
Hansen, who was paralysed from the waist down in a carjacking in South Africa, is one of a couple of dozen leading surfers taking part in the English Adaptive Surfing Open. Now in its fourth year, the competition is going from strength to strength and, despite the Covid-19 crisis, surfers representing Portugal, Italy and the US are in Bristol to take part.
Hansen is one of the sport’s leading lights. He ties his legs together using a bungee cord and lies prone on his board. Though he is based in Truro in Cornwall, he surfs under the flag of Denmark by dint of a Danish father. He speaks passionately about the power of surfing to help people cope with physical or mental issues. “I don’t care how depressed someone is, if they are paralysed, if they have one arm or two, but if you get out there into the waves, you smile. It’s just the way it is.”
The event is a landmark one for Nick Hounsfield, the founder of The Wave and the chair of Surfing England. Getting down to a beach and into the water can be difficult for many people with disabilities. The Wave, which opened last year, was built with accessibility at the forefront. The quality and regularity of the waves – up to 1,000 an hour are churned out – makes it a user-friendly destination. “We designed The Wave with adaptive surfing at the very core of what we wanted to deliver,” he said.
This weekend is also important for Surfing England as it builds a case to win more funding for the sport. The organisation is keen for adaptive surfing to follow its able-bodied equivalent into the Olympic movement. By the end of the decade it hopes adaptive surfing will be staged at the Paralympics.
While Hansen is a veteran – he is about 50, and says he has stopped counting – many younger people are taking up the sport. As alternatives to lying prone on a board, some sit, kneel or stand.
Londoner Tash Davies, 29, played wheelchair basketball before becoming a surfer. She first tried it out in Bournemouth and was hooked. “Once I’m in the water, I relax,” she said. “It’s the most inclusive sport. Everyone has different disabilities. You learn from each other.”
Melissa Reid, 29, from Cornwall, who is partially sighted, won bronze in triathlon in the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. “I had a back injury but was told I could swim or surf,” she said of her sporting journey. So she paddled out into the Atlantic waves off Cornwall and fell in love with surfing. “It gave me a new lease of life. Surfers are the most accepting, happy group of people I’ve ever come across. It doesn’t matter who you are when you get into the water.”
Reid has a guide who tells her when a wave is coming, how steep it is and if anyone is in the way. “Once I’m on the wave, I can’t see it. It’s all about feel,” she said.
Reid offered a reminder that the event this weekend has a sharp edge. She has won two gold medals at the world para surfing championships. “I’ve entered three categories this weekend and the dream is to win them all. I’m extremely competitive.”