SUN, SAND, and SURF WITHOUT SIGHT!October 26th, 2016
By Janet Parmerter
For avid Rock and Roll fans, the name ASBURY PARK calls to mind the cool sound of South Side Johnny and Bruce Springsteen. Nevertheless, on August 21, 2016, ASBURY PARK will also be remembered for an exciting and inspirational event. On that beautiful day, blind and low vision individuals safely experienced a unique challenge, surfing. This year was the first event called, “Surfing for Vision,” however, we seriously doubt this will be the last surfing event of its kind.
After hearing about the thrilling success of 20 blind and low vision surfers challenging the rough and tumbling waves of the Jersey shore, and reflecting back on my own horrifying first time surfing, I had to write something to commend that courageous group of surfers. (By the way, my first time at surfing, also happened to be my last time.)
Surfing for Vision owes a big thank you to the Neptune Lions Club, to volunteers from the Christian Surfers, and the organization of Michael Benson called, “The Visual Experience Foundation.” Many individuals had the opportunity to share in this inspiring event. Yet, without the daring, brave surfers, from the age of 10 to 67, that surfing event would not have been anything special. On the other hand, with many volunteers and 20 fearless surfers, the event was spectacular! These soon to be surfers were given some lessons on land, like how to stand on the board, then skilled volunteer surfers accompanied them into the water to “catch a wave.”
One daring young at heart surfer, was 67 year old Joe Ruffalo, the New Jersey president of the National Federation of the Blind. This was Joe’s first opportunity to hang ten! Ok, so maybe he didn’t actually stand on the board and make his toes, hang ten, but he did, hang on, as his surfboard sent his horizontal body racing toward the sandy shore.
At the end of this article, is a link to the two minute video of this memorable occasion, taken by Joe’s wife Judy. If you have never surfed before reading this, I hope the video and my below experience, help you to appreciate just how fun, well, how exciting? Or, how, possibly dangerous? No, how, um, how, oh, just watch the video, read the rest of this, and make up your own mind whether surfing is fun or not.
Let me begin by saying, even for a fully sighted individual, the thought of balancing on a fiberglass board in a turbulent sea of swells and waves can be frightening. At the same time, it can be exhilarating to experience the sensational speed of the ride, along with the feeling of the wind against your body.
So, at the age of 19, and being a passionate Beach Boy fan, I was drawn to the Jersey shore to experience my own personal “Surfing’ Safari.” Since it was mid-October, my brother and I were prepared with wet suits, but, I wasn’t prepared for the post storm seas. From the moment I began paddling out, the ocean tossed my board and me around like two feathers in a hurricane. Every time I tried to get back up on the board, another wave crashed down, twirling me toward the bottom of the ocean. Exhausted and out of breath, I finally caught a wave, but again, was immediately turned upside down by a huge, diagonal, rogue wave which crashed down on top of my board and me. The powerful force propelled the surfboard vertical, ten feet straight up into the air, and simultaneously thrust my twisting body ten feet down below the surface of the water. After tumbling around I became disoriented, then, figured out which way was up and just before completely running out of air, reached the surface. The instant my head broke through the ocean, my skull violently made contact with the fin of the now descending surfboard. With a burst of excruciating pain, and the power of that unfortunate connection, instantly I was thrust back under the sea.
Keeping me from filling my lungs with much needed air, again, wave after wave relentlessly barreled down over my fatigued body.
At the point in which my strength was almost gone, somehow I was tossed toward a sand bar, stood up for a split second, took a slight breath, and instantly was thrown back under by the treacherous surf. This was repeated, for what seemed to be hours, but, in reality was only about five minutes.
At this point, my thoughts were crazy from the head wound, and my strength to fight the perilous surf was gone. Dazed and feeling like I was tumbling in a slow motion dream, all of a sudden my body scraped the sandy ocean floor and I rolled to and fro across the shoreline. The last wave shoved me onto the wet muddy beach, and I laid still in a pool of salty foam. Without the strength to stand, and covered in sand and blood, I’m sure I looked like a limp dead fish that had been washed ashore.
Still lying on the beach, I remained motionless while my thoughts evaluated the entire situation. As the wild ocean continued to wash over my pain ridden body, the battered surfboard gently touched my feet, as if afraid to ask, “Is she alive?”
While the sun warmed my frigid face, I kept my sand covered eye lids closed and remained still. A feeling of complete calm came over me, as my mind replayed over and over the frightening experience of what just happened. This was supposed to have been my fun filled surfing safari, but felt more like I was a beaten animal. At that moment in my life, I realized that even though I knew the words to every Beach Boy song, from now on, I would attend all their concerts, be a surfer girl in name only, and stick to snow skiing.
As for Joe Ruffalo, he helped transform the dream of each would be surfer into a reality they will never forget. When I asked if he will do this next year, enthusiastically Joe responded, “Absolutely! That day was windy, and the waves were rough, but we have to come out of our comfort zone and try something different.” Then he added, “In fact an official in Long Branch expressed interest in hosting the event, so, next year we hope to have more people involved.”
In Joe’s ever present positive outlook, he continued, “Blindness can be a tragedy, but, if you come up with a strategy, it’s only a physical nuisance.” Personally, I whole heartedly agree with that comment, and couldn’t have said it better!
With humor and his charismatic personality, Joe Ruffalo is a role model not only to those without sight, but, also for many with sight. In Joe’s straightforward manner, he explains, “If people ask me, “When did you lose your vision,” I always respond, “I never lost my vision, I just lost my sight!” That confident, positive attitude is a good example of who he is, and many should emulate those feelings.
Consequently, all you ZoomText readers who have never surfed, start at 2X, click on the below 2 minute video, and think of my experience as you listen to the wind and pounding surf challenge Joe Ruffalo. Watch fearless Joe conquer the surf, or as he humorously admits, the surf may have actually conquered him. But then again, he did ride in on the board, so, he did it, and we’re proud of him! Get ready, surf’s up!
(NOTE: The video isn’t playing eye-tricks, the first few seconds, it plays sideways, but soon straightens out.)