Story and photos by Janet Blackmon Morgan / The Sun News
There, Chris Skinner’s head darts back and forth with Brandon Bellegarde slung over Skinner’s legs. On Skinner’s signal, Bellegarde paddles to the swell and slips off, leaving Skinner alone.
The way rolls Skinner free from the board.
For a moment he’s lost in the white foam. Todd Sutz is the first to hurdle over the waves to reach down and yank Skinner up by the neck of the wetsuit.
Skinner spits out some ocean.
“Yes. Let’s go. Let’s go,” Skinner said with a smile so wide more ocean slapped in his mouth.
Sutz pulls Skinner up for another try on the prototype surfboard for the 34-year-old quadriplegic.
Skinner grew up by the famous surfing holes along North Carolina's Outer Banks. At 10, he began learning about tides, weather, lineup etiquette, wave sets and technique. After an accident in 2000, Skinner has been buckled to the land in his wheelchair. Last year he got in the water for the first time since the accident during an event sponsored by Ocean Cure and Coastal Carolina Adaptive Sports and Recreation.
"I want to go down the line and shred. I want to surf because I surf. It's like a chain reaction of love. It starts with something like this and it just goes," Skinner said nodding to an old short board hanging on his living room wall in Myrtle Beach. "I'm this close to the ocean. I'm here. I'm going to surf. It's like when you've been away from home for a long time and then you get to come home. That's what it's like - home."
Home in the waves is familiar to a pair of surfers who had volunteered for the 2013 event. The men recognized surfers in the faces of Skinner, Brock Johnson and Ronnie Tario. It put Bellegarde and Luke
Sharp in a different lineup.
While they still grab their boards and paddle out with other surfers, they're now concentrating on raising money and making 10 adaptable surfboards in a campaign for Adaptive Surf Project called 10 for 10 (10 boards costing $10,000).
"Luke was like, 'We've got to figure out how to get people in the water more often,'" Bellegarde said. "We can't just wait 'till once a year. So we decided we were going to start designing and producing these boards. We were going to work with physical therapists, occupational therapists, medical professionals, board shapers, business people and different things like that. We were going to design these boards so that people could get in the lineup. We're giving them away. It's all free. We're not making money. It's about getting people back in the lineup and surfing."
The first project was to make three boards for Skinner, Tario and Johnson. Each board cost about $1,000 so the men set up a non-profit foundation in Adaptive Surf Project and began raising money for the surfboards using social media. They got Sutz of Island Inspired Surf Shop to design and build two boards and Gary Wilson of Surf City to build one board.
Each board is as different as the surfers. Johnson's board is like a short board with hand grips screwed towards the nose. Tario's board is similar to a paddleboard with a well carved in the middle and grips near at the half-way point of the board. Skinner's board has various bumpers, handles and grips with a build-up for Skinner's chest.
Johnson, who is on the board of Coastal Carolina Adaptive Sports and Recreation, has been in his wheelchair for three years. He was hanging out with friends tossing a football on a pontoon boat near Bird Island. The ball went into the water and Johnson didn't pay attention to the tide change.
"I knew better. I was lifeguard and I've been a surfer for 16 years," the 36-year-old said from his home just outside of Myrtle Beach. "I dived in and I heard the crunch. I knew I broke my neck. I held my breath thinking my friends would know and come get me. It was long time. I was just laying there. I never lost consciousness. I guess they were waiting on me to come back up. It was a long time. I made peace. I knew I was going to die. They, obviously, jumped in and got me."
Johnson's spinal cord injury is classified as incomplete. Initially he couldn't move his arms, but regained the use of his arms and upper body while at a rehabilitation center.
While there he learned about the Life Goes On Foundation in Wilmington, N.C., that helps people surf again after such injuries.
Two years ago Johnson went to Wilmington and surfed at the Life Goes On event where he met Kevin Murphy with Ocean Cure.
Ocean Cure provides surf lessons for people dealing a variety of medical and physical issues.
Johnson and Murphy held the first Wheel to Surf event in North Myrtle Beach in 2013 where Bellegarde and Sharp volunteered.
"It's hard to describe, when you get back out there on the board," Johnson said. "You really have to learn again. For one thing, there's someone on the back of the board paddling out. They kind of push you off in a wave and you just kind of body surf.
"We're all first timers, almost," he said.
Tario was a true first-timer, but she's proven even beginners can win. She beat out Johnson and Skinner in the adaptive division of the Anderson Estep Surf Competition in Cherry Grove Beach last month.
Far from the ocean growing up in New York, Tario had dreams of being an Olympic equestrian. She was a skateboarder and jumped off bridges.
"I was the youngest snowbird ever," the 25-year-old said at her home several miles from the beach. She'd bounced between Myrtle Beach and New York working various jobs. By 2012 she'd just signed the lease on an apartment and was with some friends at a bar on the Intracoastal Waterway. "I saw everyone jumping off the bridge pilings. I had a license to bridge dive in New York. I knew I could do that. But, I didn't know anything about tides and the Intracoastal being tidal. I went and broke my neck."
Tario's injury is similar to Johnson's incomplete spinal cord injury. She too can move her arms and part of her torso. She said since trying to learn how to surf she's stepped up some physical therapy and has felt some movement deeper in her torso.
"It's so freeing. I get on the board and I'm free again," she said. "Think about it. The only time we're not in our chairs is when we're taking a shower or on the couch for a few hours or in bed. But, surfing, we're free. It's a solitary, empowering, freeing thing.
"Once you're over your fear, there's nothing left but freedom and bliss. 'Nothin' left to do but smile, smile, smile,'" Tario says quoting He's Gone by the Grateful Dead.
Skinner's story stands apart from his fellow adaptive surfers. He wasn't injured in the water. He was unbuckled in a car driven by a friend in Virginia. The car crashed and Skinner was ejected breaking his neck. Skinner's injury is complete and his movement is drastically more limited than Tario and Johnson.
"I joke they're fake paraplegics," Skinner said.
His board also stands out from others.
Sutz measured and re-measured Skinner, fed the numbers in a computer program, fitted and re-fitted Skinner to the board he delivered for the Estep competition. Even now Skinner is getting modifications on his board - he's shortened the bars to hold his wrists, flatted the elbow holds a little and even snagged a few pads from his wheelchair to form bumpers so his legs don't fall off the board in the middle of a wave.
The adjustments are part of the learning process to help more people, Bellegarde said. Each time Skinner surfs a wave he's met with Bellegarde asking, "What do you need? What's next."
Next for Skinner is a new sponsorship by Cool Just Is surfing company as he sets his sights on winning competitions.
Next for Bellegarde and Sharp is making each Adaptive Surf Project campaign goals manageable so surfers can surf. Working with Sutz, the project's 10 for 10 campaign includes fine-tuning the prototypes and accessories so each surfer can modify their boards to fit their specific needs. Bellegarde said it would be too expensive and time consuming to make each board specifically for one surfer. But, by having a few general base-model boards with accessories the project can help more people get in the water.
They are also planning on adding WaveJets to the boards. The WaveJet is a low-powered motor mounted in the bottom of the board. The surfers have a controller, usually worn on the wrist, to turn on the motor. Once turned on, the WaveJet allows the surfer to "paddle out" alone and kick into a wave so each surfer is more independent. Without the WaveJet, adaptive surfers have to rely on someone slung over their legs paddling out and pushing them in a wave.
"Each time we can do a little bit more. So, our goal is to do a little better and a little bigger each time," Bellegarde said.
Bigger means tenfold to Bellegarde. He said Adaptive Surf Project is planning on giving away 100 surfboards by the end of the year.