Devin Article in The Garden Island Newspaper


Letters for Friday, August 1, 2008
Relief from my chair: A paraplegic’s surfing continues

The date was Saturday, July 26, and the meeting place was a local spot in a restricted local village. My wife Lucy and I parked in front of a dirt road granting restricted access to one of Kaua‘i’s best surfing spots. Soon Tim DeLaVega, a surfing buddy of my dad, arrived in a red truck to usher us into the residential community. He was able to do so because of his friend and coworker, Michael Nizo, who grew up right on the beach where we were trying to surf that day. He took joy in letting us park our cars in the neighborhood where otherwise nobody else would have a chance.

Shortly after I wheeled up to the shoreline, Tim carried me into the water and gently lowered me into the ocean where my soft-top surfboard was strapped to my left leg. While I practiced paddling on my own, I remembered the secret of balance and momentum and the art of surfing. I imagined what it would be like when I rode the waves again, soaking in the anticipation while my wife videoed me on the beach. All I wanted at this point was one ride that I would remember and one wave to capture my heart on the last full day of our trip.

While paddling out, I was surprised how easy it was to get through the breaking waves. I took off on an inside left that seemed perfect to warm up, which it was. I remember gaining speed on the open face and then making a big cutback, feeling the spray on my face from the trim of the surfboard. I cannot stand up so even this little wave was exhilarating lying on my stomach and maneuvering the soft top surfboard.
I paddled back out stoked. Tim was hooting after my wave, while I just went right past him instead of sharing with him the experience of my first wave in Hawai‘i since nine years ago, when I was a solid stand-up surfer. My next ambition, naturally, was to set up farther outside where the bigger waves came in. My thoughts were as follows: “Now it’s my turn to show everybody what I can really do. I am going to take off the deepest and prove to everyone else how good of a surfer I am.”

Actually, the crowd picked up and I was not able to catch even one wave in over 40 minutes. My pride was swallowed when I became exhausted after only paddling and pushing so hard while other surfers easily caught waves in front of me causing me to pull out before attempting to drop in again. When Tim saw my frustration, he beckoned me back inside where I quickly caught another nice one. From then on, my attitude was different: I was thankful that I was surfing again, felt no pain, in beautiful Kaua‘i, and I had a great friend guiding and encouraging me.
Little did I know the whole time I was not catching waves on the outside Tim was most likely setting me up with all the other surfers. He must have let all the local surfers know I used to be a strong able-bodied surfer who became a paraplegic without the use of my legs. As you can guess, a set lined up and I found myself in perfect position to go for it. To my surprise, every other surfer backed off even though it was a thick and fast looking wave.

I dropped in and barely made the bottom turn without falling off the surfboard. Because the whitewash was so bumpy, I stuck my entire left arm in the wave to keep my balance. This stalled me in just enough time to be released into a full tube. I was slotted in the barrel for what seemed like two to three seconds. Tim happened to be on the shoulder of this wave watching me get covered up, and after I continued riding the wave inside feeling on top of the world. That was the wave I was looking for, the best one I ever caught as a paraplegic.
I paddled back outside wanting another one of those waves because it was so good. It seemed almost too easy, so I took off on another thick wave even deeper than the last one. I did not even make the drop successfully, and was sucked over the falls. Strangely enough, however, the wipeout felt like a cleansing. The water was so pure and gentle and it felt good to be interacting with the wave in whatever form. So I got back on the board in an attempt to take off deep and get barreled again.

The paddle back outside was different than any other. Every surfer looked at me distantly, with an uncomfortable smile. At first I suspected that this is how the surfing masters are treated since they deserve such reverence and respect. I thought everyone recognized what a great surfer I was since I was able to reveal my true self in these perfect conditions. Then an older local surfer asks, “What’s your problem?” I was puzzled, and reached for the pockets of my shorts to make sure they were not sticking out. All I felt was bare skin, and then I knew what was really going on. I had no trunks on since they came undone in my last wipeout, leaving me bare naked underneath my rash guard.

You see, I cannot feel below my waist and I had no idea my pants were down. What a shock. I would have been even more embarrassed had I needed to search the ocean for them, but because of my leash I was able to get them back on very quickly. These were some of the highlights of that great day of surfing. I want to thank my wife, who without her I would not have been there. Also thanks to Tim DeLaVega, who got the board for me from Tamba Surf Co, and was willing to do it all again later that same afternoon. What a place, Kaua‘i, the island of discovery.

Devin Eshelman
San Diego, Calif.