22 September 2023
SurfabilityUK making progress at World Para Surfing Championships
SurfabilityUK and the Wales adaptive surf team are currently competing at the ISA World Para Surfing Championships.
Hosted by AmpSurf, the event sees the world’s best para surfers go head-to-head across individual divisions to showcase their talents in a Paralympic-style, World Championship competition.
The contest runs from the 6th – 11th December and is taking place at central California’s Pismo Beach for the first time, in a departure from La Jolla, the location of choice for the contest in previous years.
Pismo is “a new adventure for us all”, says SurfabilityUK founder and Team Wales Adaptive Surf Manager, Ben Clifford.
We checked in with Ben at Surfability’s fantastic new headquarters down at Caswell Bay to chat about the comp, and reflect on a groundbreaking 12 months in the company’s history.
How have preparations gone for the World Para Surfing Championships?
Yeah, it’s been good. I’m the team manager for the competition, and Toby Williams also from Surfability is our coach for Team Wales.
We have two athletes in the mix – Isaac and Llywelyn. We coach Isaac Heaher who’s competing for the first time this year. We’ve been able to take Llywelyn Williams – aka “Sponge” – out each year and coach him at the World Championships. Surfability is helping to sponsor the team thanks to donations and funds from organisations such as Sinsir and Disability Sport Wales. Want to say a massive thankyou to Jon from Sinsir who’s been a real legend in helping us out.
How’s the competition looking for your two athletes this year?
Both Isaac and Sponge are in the kneeling category, so that’s fantastic. It will be one of the most hotly contested divisions; the level of the athletes is really high. It’s really exciting, particularly as the competitors are improving each year so much.
Isaac has been training a lot, swimming and surfing, but competition surfing is newer to him so he’s learning about the nuances of the competitive environment. Seeing him at the world level and being part of that scene will be really positive for him.
Sponge is on a custom kneeboard now. He's doing some great surfing, and he’s started landing airs which is pretty impressive on one knee. He's getting his carving 360s down, too. He's fit, motivated, and coming off the back of a win which is great. A lot of the guys haven’t competed for a couple of years so Sponge could have the edge.
He has also caught up in terms of his equipment. Mark “Mono” Stewart, one of Sponge’s main competitors has been kitted out for years surfing MR boards. Sponge is younger and starting to dial in his equipment too, and that’s giving him the confidence to perform. There’s a Brazilian guy who’s a really talented surfer, and Martin Pollock from Team England is surfing really well.
They’re not just good surfers by para standards, they’re good by anyone’s standard, so we’re all super excited to see what goes down. A bit nervous, too!
What’s Pismo Beach like as a surfing destination?
It's the first year that the World Championships will be held somewhere other than La Jolla. And La Jolla isn’t an ideal place. The infrastructure is great, but the wave is either kind of mushy, or a heavy barrel and it’s not a forgiving wave.
Pismo is going to be in a new adventure for us all. It's more of a classic beach break. So, I think it will depend on the bank and on the swell we get, but it'll give more variety, so that should be good. Plus, it’s the home of AmpSurf who are the main sponsor for the event.
What’s the adaptive surfing scene like in California?
Yeah California in general is great for accessibility. Adaptive surfing is really normal, really accepted, and it's really supported. The general surfing population is so accommodating of adapted surfers.
It's really lovely to see people giving waves and help to the adapted athletes. There are chair transfers on the beach, people will help adaptive surfers carry their boards down the beach. Adaptive surfers are really encouraged and really welcomed in the line-ups over there.
I found as a travelling surfer, because of my association with the adaptive crew, that I've been more welcomed. It's pretty great to see. The facilities are good, too – I don't know if we've been to a beach that doesn't have an accessible toilet.
Britain doesn’t really have this culture. As far as I'm aware, there's two beaches in Wales that have disabled toilets and changing facilities at the beach. It just doesn’t compare.
How has Covid hit your preparations for the World Championships?
When we came back from the World Championships two years ago, we came off the plane to see everyone wearing masks in the airport. It was crazy – we’d been in a restaurant in San Diego and it literally closed as we finished our food and they told us to leave as they were shutting down due to lockdown.
So, we’re expecting life to be intense this time around. They will be strict on site with social distancing. Normally, you just have everyone piled into the competitors’ area watching and cheering each other on. It's a lot of people in a small space.
Things are very strict, so we've got our Covid passes, and I’m not looking forward to wearing a mask on the plane.
Can you tell us more about Sponge’s progression onto the kneeboard?
At previous World Championships, sponge paddled out on a standard short board. And we'd been telling him since the start to get a new board. The penny finally dropped for him, and after his first day he was saying: “I thought I did alright but am I going way slower than everyone else?” I was like, “Yeah, you are because your board isn't designed for kneeling on.”
Obviously, if you’re kneeling on a shortboard, your weight distribution is going to be different than it is standing. There’s so many adjustments that need to be made to get the most out of a board.
We went to see Eric “Bird” Huffman, who’s an absolute legend and a huge supporter of Team Wales. He gave Sponge a kneeboard to use, which turns out to be the board that Bird’s older brother used when he was crowned Pipeline kneeboard champion, the last time the event ran. The board’s a piece of history as well as a lovely piece of equipment.
Sponge was able to compete in the rest of the tournament on that board, and you could instantly see the improvements even though it took him some time to get used to it. Since then he’s been able to convert the extra speed into flow and power. He’s looking much sharper and his performance has gone up massively. Sponge has a custom board now and he’s doing the best he’s ever done. He’s stoked!
You’re pioneering adaptive surfing at local level and across the UK. Is this progress reflected in adaptive surfing globally, and at world competition level?
The introduction of the ISA Adaptive Surf Coach Qualification has played a huge role. It is setting a high standard for adaptive surf coaches, and that’s going to be fundamental to creating the grassroots infrastructure that adaptive surfing needs to grow worldwide.
So far, myself and Dana (Dana Cummings, founder of AmpSurf), have done quite a few courses. I must have trained about 50 people, Dana even more than that. These people are going to go away to their communities, and be better prepared to cater to adaptive surfers and to adaptive surf athletes.
More people will come into the sport and get included in surfing, which means more enjoyment in safer, properly coached environments and more people surfing. Some of those guys are going to want to compete, and there will be opportunities for them to do so.
In 2022, I'm sure the English open will run, we hope to run a Welsh open, and potentially opens in Scotland and Ireland, too. Overseas there’ll be comps in Bali, France, Spain, probably Portugal, Australia, and South Africa. We’re starting to see the potential for a world tour of adaptive surfing, which is just amazing; the popularity and demand are there.
There’s a real movement now to get it into the Paralympics, and part of that will involve enough countries running contests using the same format. We need to show the Olympic committee that this is genuinely a worldwide sport. It’s definitely a matter of “when” not “if”.
I think surfing went down really well in the mainstream Olympics. It’s an inspiring, exciting sport for people to watch and it comes from a fantastic, positive, healthy lifestyle.
The competition and the industry are getting more professional every year. When we first competed, Sponge was up against athletes who were standing, and others who had different impairments; men and women were in the same divisions.
As numbers have grown, we’ve been able to have different categories and develop that side of things, and the competitions have grown and become fairer as classifications have improved, and now we’re using a Paralympic-style classification and we’re getting professional classification officers.
It’s just great to make it as fair as possible. Some of the athletes’ disabilities and limitations aren’t obvious. You really have to be able to accurately measure that things are moving forward in an accurate way.
And I think it's an inspiring, exciting sport for people to watch. It's a really positive, healthy lifestyle to show people as well. So, I think it should be a really, really good thing on that world stage.
Last year, BBC’s DIY SOS team created your new headquarters. How has life been for you since?
At Surfability, we’re getting busier, and despite having grown so much this year, we still can’t include everyone who wants to come, even if we work 24/7. So, it’s amazing to see other people qualified, be able to deliver sessions in a safe, quality way. It’s an exciting time to be part of adaptive surfing.
It’s been our most comfortable for our surfers and our staff, too. We've been able to have hot drinks and we’ve bought ourselves a toasted sandwich maker – just the small things have been a complete game changer.
We spent eight years shivering by the side of the road to make all this happen. I've been shivering by the side of the road for 14 years as a surf coach. Knowing that our folks have a roof over their heads at the beach is so amazing. Just to be warm between lessons – surf coaching is not an easy job, especially in Wales.
People have this idea in their heads that surf coaches are unprofessional bums, when they're actually really highly skilled sports coaches who do a do a really hard job in really challenging conditions. They have to work with a massive smile on their face, and keep everyone motivated.
In years gone by, if we had a group of people with more than one person with some kind of physical disability or extra needs, everyone had to just stand in a line and wait to use one changing room.
Now we have three changing rooms, we can have three wheelchair users all changing at once, we have access to hoists too. It’s just fantastic. So, yeah, this year has been so positive, and we’ve had record numbers of participants.
We’ve had great feedback from clients, and our surfers feel more part of a movement. It’s like we have a clubhouse at the beach, and people feel ownership of that, so it’s amazing.
For me personally, the last year has been hugely motivating. Lockdowns have been really hard and the third sector has had it hard enough as it is. So many people believed in what we do, came here and gave up their materials, time and effort to create this space. It really kept me going because I found the lockdowns really hard, especially the first one.
What’s in store for SurfabilityUK in 2022?
We’re going to continue to love the new building we’re in. We’ve helped a few other surf schools, too – there’s one in Jersey and one in Scotland that are both having similar facilities built based on ours. We’ve been able to help them train more coaches, too.
I'd love to be able to get to the point where we can grow our team and both experienced coaches and newer coaches coming up. Hopefully, we can get to a place where we can work seven days a week, include as many people as we can, and allow our coaches to have two days off and rest properly.
We want to continue to invest in new equipment. John Purton (of JP surfboards) is making us some awesome prone boards and some kneeboards. So that’s something else we’ll be able to offer our customers. Foam boards will be available too – there’s actually an adaptive foam surfboard available off-the-shelf now.
We’ll continue to run courses, train more people and run more water safety for the English and Welsh national adaptive contests.
We’ve just won a big grant from the National Lottery, which will allow us to include more adults in surfing. Surfability is eight years old now, and I’ve been running the autism surf group for nearly 14 years. Those who were children at the start are now adults, and once they’re over 18, they don’t qualify for the support we can give because the main source of our income has been Children in Need.
We don’t want surfing to become too expensive for a person to be able to do, which is why funding for adults is just so vital. In continuing to support our surfers as they get older, we can attract more adults into surfing.
We’ve been doing some amazing work using surf for brain injury rehabilitation. The guys involved in those sessions are all funded, and if they want to come outside of that then we can help with that now as well.
Catch the live action here
Keep up-to-date with our athletes' progress at the World Championships on social media