Limavady's Long Line Surf School helps those with additional needs to get surfing
Joanne Sweeney finds out how a surf school in Portrush is breaking down barriers to help people with disabilities ride the waves
SURFING legend Laird Hamilton once said that people 'are all equal before a wave' and there's nowhere better to put this into action than on Benone Strand along the Causeway Coast.
The able-bodied and those with additional needs are all taught how to catch an Atlantic wave by local man Dan Lavery and his instructors at the Long Line Surf School at Benone in Limavady and Portstewart.
Dan is committed to sharing his love of surfing with everyone, no matter if they are blind, deaf, use a wheelchair or have conditions such as cerebral palsy, autism or Down's syndrome.
Along with enjoying the same health benefits of increased cardiovascular exercise with this upper and core body work out, the surfers also get a chance to enjoy the sport just like everyone else.
Dan is a self-taught surfer who is most happy when he's at the beach. The 28-year-old believes that this most energetic of sports can and should be available to everyone, irrespective of their additional needs.
"When I started Long Line, the idea was to make the experience of surfing available, which I think everyone should have a go at some time,” says Dan.
“Then I wanted to challenge myself to see if I could get anyone out on a board irrespective of who they were and what additional help they might need.
“I have been in surf schools where the answer to some people was ‘No, you can't do that' or ‘It's too difficult' or ‘We have to think about this a bit more'.
"I wanted to run a programme that the second someone turned up, it wasn't an issue.
“The biggest thrill for people is that the fact that they actually did it. They love that we haven't made an issue out of it. It's our job and we love doing it. We wouldn't treat any one differently, not matter whether they have additional needs or not.”
Dan started Long Line in 2012 and in his first year of business actively sought out people with additional needs by holding a free day event, the Disability Surf Festival – an open platform for people with additional needs aged between 18 and 24.
It's been running every year since and will be held again in the second week of June.
Jennifer Doherty from Buncrana, Co Donegal is one of the brave souls who have tried surfing with Dan and his instructors, even though she's been blind from the age of nine months due to being born prematurely.
When Jennifer turned 30 in 2016, she decided that surfing was one of the 30 new things that she was going to try out that year.
"I was really terrified at first as I had quite a fear of the waves – I was in Thailand in 2004 for the Boxing Day Tsunami and we had a lucky enough escape, so I had some concerns before we even started," explains Jennifer.
"But I needn't have worried, as Dan is also a qualified swimming guard as well as a surf instructor and I had every confidence in him.
"It was exhilarating but over too soon for me. I did promise myself to try it again and I will in the future."
Jennifer has since gone on to try sky-diving and water-skiing.
Some wheelchair users can use a special longboard with wheels to help with access and getting in and out of the water: owned by the Mae Murray charity, it allows mixed-ability families fully enjoy a day out surfing with Long Line at Benone in Limavady.
The surfboard on wheels is the second of its kind in Britain and Ireland and can be booked free of charge if the family or organisation is an affiliate member of the group.
For Dan, the sea and the beach was very much his playground as a child. He and his twin brother Gareth visited his grandfather's house regularly, which happened to sit right beside Benone.
"I was about 10 when I taught myself to surf as there weren't surf schools at that time," says Dan.
"Later my brother surfed with me. We grew up on the beach and body-boarded since we were about three, so surfing was just a natural progression for us.”
Dan's love of the beach and the surf not only led to his surfing bug but also to his education and, ultimately, his business.
“I left school and home at 17 and moved to Cornwall where I did my A-levels at the Surfing Academy, as I struggled to learn in the normal way at school.
"It was all designed around surfing as it was easier for me to understand. Under Business Studies, we were taught how to set up a surf business as well as well as becoming instructors and coaches.”
Dan won the Irish Junior Longboard Championships at 17 and competed in the British Longboard Championships in Cornwall and Devon, so he knows all about the competitive side of the sport as well.
However, he and his instructors were initially in the dark about how to successfully and safely get people who had a range of additional needs surfing.
"It was something that we didn't know we could do until it was tried out,” explains Dan.
"We even used blacked-out googles on ourselves to try it out and to brace ourselves for the scary moment when a wave would come along.
“We found out that all you really need to use is your instructor and your own hearing and to use all your senses.
“It can be intimidating but it's all about reassuring the person. The biggest challenge for most people is just overcoming getting out into the waves.”
:: For surfing lessons for the able-bodied and those with additional needs, contact Long Line Surfing School at Benone at Longlinesurfschool.co.uk