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Change Makers Part 2: Q&A With Benjamin Clifford, Director of ‘Surfability’

Written by Kate Pietrasik


Posted on May 16 2019

Surfing and activism go hand-in-hand and as such we would like to introduce you to some surfers and ‘change makers’ using their passion for the greater good!

Based in Wales, Surfability is the UK’s first fully adaptive and inclusive surf school providing surfing lessons and experiences for people with disabilities and learning difficulties.

What inspired you to launch Surfability UK?

My inspiration for starting Surfability was volunteering, also working in special education and my own experience of having dyspraxia.
Early on in my career as a surf coach I was asked to volunteer at a weekend event, surfing with children who are autistic. It was such an amazing weekend and I could see the positive impact that surfing was having on the children. I thought it was something that needed to happen all the time instead of being a one-off event. I asked the boss of the surf school I was working at if we could run a weekly session for local children who have autism. These sessions quickly became very popular, and the special needs of the children became broader and broader.

I started to think that a specialist adapted surfing school would be the best way for the children to get the most from surfing. But I didn’t feel ready to start and I doubted my own ability to run a company because of my own dyspraxia.

From my experience of working each week with the autism group I was able to get a job at a local special school.
I learnt about best practice when working with children who have a wide variety of disabilities and learning difficulties.
I was always thinking when I learnt something new, ‘how can this be applied to surfing?’.

My job at the school was a funded position and when the funding stopped I knew it was time to work for myself and create Surfability.

I was really lucky to have help from The Prince’s Trust. They helped me to write a business plan and showed me that I could succeed despite having Dyspraxia.
Having a learning difficulty myself has really helped me in coaching people who need extra help.

What do you think the benefits are for the children and adults who take part in your adaptive surfing lessons?
Learning to surf has so many benefits as a therapeutic experience associated with being ‘present focussed, connected and mindful in the water and in nature.
Within the context of this normalising and therapeutic environment, amongst other beach users, participants learn the skill of surfing whilst simultaneously learning about the ocean, water safety, ocean currents, and tides etc.
We create a context for positive emotion, social connection as well as connecting individuals with their environment in a way that provides the essential components of wellbeing.
Additionally, through ‘surfing’ participants are given the opportunity of both a simultaneous cognitive and physical challenge- they have to use their attention skills to pay attention to information about learning how to surf, but also use their memory to retain that information in order to put it into practice. But more so, as each wave is different and the sea is always in motion (much like life), participants need to practice the skill of ‘being in the moment, connected with their bodies’ in order to be able to successfully put the skill of surfing into action.
This activity therefore truly helps people to re-connect their mind and body as well as with other people in both the group and wider community.
It’s fantastic that you have a surf board that allows surfing experiences for people who cannot sit up unaided. What memories do you have of people who first used this board?

We developed our seated tandem surfboards with the help of an amazing young man called Kai Lewis. Kai was our test pilot and inspiration for the MK1 tandem seated board and then helped us to refine the board and create the MK2. I will always remember the first wave we caught on the MK1 board. We had a perfect surfing day with sunshine and lovely, small, gentle, rolling waves. As we dropped down the wave and rode it to the shore all I could here was Kai laughing! I knew then that we had built something really special that was going to make lots of people happy!

It must be incredibly rewarding but challenging to run Surfability UK. What plans do you have for the future for the charity?
Yes it is hard work! Lots of planning and office work is involved as well as time in the water. Surf coaching seems like a glamorous job but doesn’t feel so glamorous when you have been wearing a wetsuit for 9 hours!
We are constantly improving our equipment and coaching techniques. Last year we developed an adapted wetsuit that is much easier to put on. We are now applying for funding to replace all of our existing suits with adapted ones. Equipment wise we are trying to perfect a board for visually impaired people and also to make better boards for prone surfers.
A huge change this year is that we will be getting a changing places facility at Caswell Bay where we are based. It is really important for us that our surfers maintain their dignity and that people aren’t prevented from surfing because of difficulty putting on a wetsuit or accessing toilet facilities. This is going to be so amazing and will be the first on a beach in Wales!

Finally – Surfing in Wales! Let’s be honest most non-surfers don’t think of Wales as a place to surf. What makes it special to you and which Welsh beaches do you love the most?
When most people think about surfing they imagine sunshine and blue water like Hawaii or California. Personally I love green grass and Oak trees! It rains a lot in Wales but it just makes it more beautiful when the sun shines! Also rain doesn’t matter if you are in a wetsuit in the sea!

The beaches on the Gower are genuinely some of the best in the world. I have surfed in a few different countries now and still haven’t seen a safer place to learn to surf than Caswell Bay. It has a beautiful woodland just behind, a café and takeaway, ramp access to the beach, toilets and will soon have a changing places facility. This makes it ideal for families and I spend a lot of time there with my children.

My favourite view on Gower is looking from the ruins of Pennard Castle over Three Cliffs Bay. On Spring Tides the entire valley floods and it is so beautiful. My other favourite places on the Gower are secret surfing spots so I can’t mention any names!

This Summer Tootsa’s collection is heavily influenced by one of our favourite pastimes – Surfing!
whilst supporting our favourite environmental organisation ‘Surfers Against Sewage’, donating proceeds from our range of Organic Cotton T-shirts and Sweatshirts.