Bristol Breaks | Can The Wave Make Surfing More Inclusive?
We speak to founder Nick Hounsfield about the importance of blue health, accessibility and how his vision for this artificial wave is about far more than surfing
Sometime around Christmas I was surfing near where I live. It’s rarely great there, but even average conditions tend to draw a big crowd, more than ever during lockdown, which can make the whole experience quite stressful and hard to navigate.
I caught one nice wave but then worried I was getting in other people’s way, and not feeling up for the jostle, spent the rest of the session so far wide of the peak there was barely anything to catch. A woman I didn’t know, who was positioned beside me, remarked without rancour, that it was always the women who stayed out the way on busy days.
“The whole place is centred around health and wellbeing rather than just elite surfers”
Two months before, I’d had a very different and, in many ways, more pleasant experience while surfing at The Wave, an inland artificial wave spot hollowed into the countryside just outside of Bristol. When people talk about wave pools they tend to focus on the revolutionary use of technology, which, given it generates over 1,000 top quality waves an hour, is undoubtedly impressive. Or they focus on the controversy, ‘sea machines poised to gobble up the soul of surfing’-type discourse.
But my overriding impression of The Wave, which opened at the end of 2019, was how welcoming the whole set up was and how democratising an experience it could be for surfing. From the friendly staff and wheelchair-accessible lagoon to the one surfer per wave design, which gently ensures everyone gets their turn regardless of their ability, gender or size. Time slots in the reef area last an hour (you get around 15 waves) and groups are split between expert, advanced, intermediate, and the super-mellow Waikiki session, while beginners’ lessons run constantly at the shore.
When I went, there were clearly a lot of super-talented surfers in the water, but it felt like they were just one part of an ecosystem, rather than its sole purpose. I also saw adaptive surfers (surfers with disabilities) and plenty of beginners and improvers, of both genders, young and old. I caught up with The Wave’s founder Nick Hounsfield and asked him how deliberate that ethos of inclusivity was?
“It’s built into the vision 100 per cent,” he says. “The whole place is centred around health and wellbeing rather than just elite surfers. It’s about how we can get people of all ages, all backgrounds, and all abilities into a community space that has a positive impact on their health and wellbeing.”
“It becomes about what your purpose is as a company”
“We could have been the Center Parcs of the surfing world. It probably would have been an amazing business model and created lots of happy investors and a really good experience. But it becomes about what your purpose is as a company and I think this cuts down a bit deeper.”
The germ of the idea for The Wave came to Nick while he was working in healthcare, treating people with a range of disabilities and seeing the barriers they faced in terms of accessing not just the coast but getting in the water generally. An avid, lifelong surfer himself, he began to read more about blue health, the emerging field of science that looks at the therapeutic benefits of being in water. Then, one night he stumbled across a video of a new artificial wave prototype in the Basque Country and realised he could centre his community space around surfing. “It was a real pin drop moment in terms of what we could do,” he says.
In the early stages of development, Nick watched a short film calledBirthright about an adaptive surf kayaker and the joy he feels being on water. “It was one of the most powerful, stirring pieces of imagery I’d ever seen. You see his struggle navigating normal life, then he goes in the water and gets his freedom back,” says Nick. “My friends, who are adaptive athletes, would say so much of it is to do with just being in water, being weightless for a while. On land it’s a struggle being a victim of gravity [but] as soon as you’re in the water you’re free.”
“On land it’s a struggle being a victim of gravity [but] as soon as you’re in the water you’re free”
He knew accessibility had to be at the heart of The Wave, that it needed to be “not just disability compliant but disability friendly”. He says: “There is a huge perceived barrier for a lot of people with adaptive needs to be able to try surfing as a sport.” So, he set about creating a space where people in wheelchairs had easy entry into the water and the perfect place to change, and all the right equipment.
Dr Easkey Britton, an Irish surfer and marine social scientist, has known Nick for almost a decade, and watched him develop the concept of The Wave over time. “Nick really thought about the diversity of the people who might want to use [the facility]. He got a range of people involved in sharing their ideas and experiences at the early stages, which you rarely see, usually it’s an afterthought. I think that authenticity will be a game changer.”
One of those early testers was Melissa Read, a World Champion Adaptive Surfer (and Team GB Paralympic Triathlete) from Cornwall, who first met Nick in 2018 at an English Adaptive Contest in Newquay. “His vision was always to get as many people as possible involved in surfing. We went in before it opened to do an accessibility assessment. They showed us where to park, how it works, where to get in the water…,” she says.
I ask how it measured up? “They pretty much hit it spot on from the start from the access side of things, it was more getting the staff to be more relaxed and not be afraid to ask questions… but we’ve been there quite a few times and they are so good at what they do now.”
“From my experience being visually impaired, you can’t get any better than The Wave. It’s like going to a skatepark and having a ramp that doesn’t change after your first run”
For Nick the whole point is to normalise that accessibility, for adaptive surfers to not need to phone up in advance to check everything is in place, so they can “just rock up like anybody would go for a surf without us having to run around like headless chickens saying: ‘Oh there is somebody with a disability, what are we going to do?’”
Adaptive Surfing is growing in the UK, the sport is bidding to feature in future Paralympics, and Nick hopes The Wave, which hosted the English Adaptive Open for the first time in 2020, can be helpful in boosting participation. I ask Melissa Read what she’d say to reassure someone with a disability who was worried about visiting? “From my experience being visually impaired, you can’t get any better than The Wave. It’s like going to a skatepark and having a ramp that doesn’t change after your first run. You know what’s coming next, where it’s shallow, where it’s deep, where to paddle out… you can progress so much faster.”
Melissa still loves surfing in the sea and goes regularly near her home in Cornwall though she does struggle with wave selection if she’s surfing alone. “I get smashed on the head a lot by rogue waves. And knowing which way the wave is going is impossible, it’s a good job I don’t mind wiping out!” she says.
She’s recently been surfing with fellow adaptive surfer Pegleg Bennett, who’s been helping her sight waves. He’s also not afraid to tell others to keep out of her way as she might not see them, even if that doesn’t always elicit a friendly response? “A few people (always older men, over 50…) have been really quite aggressive, saying: ‘Well if you can’t see you shouldn’t be out here.’” To which her response is: “Well dude you can see, so that’s your problem not mine!”
“It is intimidating for women, surfing is still extremely male dominated and there are unspoken rules that can feel really exclusionary”
Melissa finds younger people far more accepting of her as a visually impaired surfer, and she thinks the vibe at The Wave could help make things friendlier in the sea. “You paddle out, have two or three opportunities to catch that wave, then it’s the next person’s go. I think that creates a really good ethos for when people go back out into the sea as they kind of take that with them.”
The world-shrinking pressures of lockdown and surfing’s increased popularity (and that’s before we’ve even had the Olympics) have led to a lot more tetchiness in the line up. Nick says many of his friends have been feeling it. “One has really lost his mojo as every time he’s at his local beach (a couple of miles from his house), people are so aggro. It’s bringing out the worst in people, which is sad to see,” he says.
Though, like Melissa, he hopes the atmosphere at The Wave could help change behaviour beyond the lagoon. “It’s something we’ve been really focused on. I’m often in the water hosting sessions, as are our team, and we always try to give someone a wave or say: ‘Go before me. Trying to create that generosity of spirit which can hopefully transfer into the ocean.”
Aggression in the line up, or even the fear of it, affects everyone but it can make the water especially off putting for women, which ties in with my own experience. As Easkey says: “It is intimidating for women, surfing is still extremely male dominated and there are unspoken rules that can feel really exclusionary as a woman to arrive by yourself on a scene like that.”
“We really want to start to break down some of those perceived barriers”
Looking at the gender divide between surfers at The Wave since it’s opened has highlighted to Nick just how dominant men still are in the sport. In the expert and advanced waves, the ratio can be as high as 20:1 male to female, though in the beginner area it’s closer to 60:40, but he’s hoping as more women progress through the various levels at The Wave that will change in the future, and it’s important to him that it does.
He does also note that women often underestimate how good they actually are, whereas men think they’re better than they are. “Well you can see that in society, can’t you?” he says. But he also thinks that humility serves women well and is a good example to all of us who surf. “You need a bit of humbleness, not feeling like you’ve got to prove yourself, it’s more about having the right level of fun.”
Alongside encouraging more women to visit The Wave, Nick is also hoping to make people of colour feel welcome, something he acknowledges the surf and action sports world more generally needs to act on. “Bristol is an amazingly diverse city. We’ve already started some small interventions to try and get kids from different backgrounds coming along through schools, and we’re looking at employment opportunities too. We really want to start to break down some of those perceived barriers,” he says.
Easkey is especially keen that women from marginalised groups get to experience The Wave, which also plans to open an artificial wave lagoon with a similar health and wellbeing-focused ethos in Lea Valley. “Accessing the coast tends to be really quite exclusive, and seen as belonging to certain groups of people,” she says.
“Beaches are so removed from urban centres and yet that’s where there is the greatest need of access, especially for women and girls in marginalised communities. So, to have something like The Wave, which is contained and can be controlled as a safe space, would be really valuable, providing an experience of surfing that is transformative, empowering, and confidence-building.”
“You can overcome some of the problems in society through surfing”
Since opening, The Wave, like all of us, has had to ride out a rollercoaster of on/off lockdowns throughout the past year, but Nick is excited to be open again now and optimistic for what lies ahead. “I like to think our success will be in four-five years’ time when we’ve had the chance to be open for more than six months and to be able to show that future-facing model,” says Nick.
“[To have] a fun cool accessible place for people to come to but when you scratch the surface you see we’ve really thought about it; the way in which you can overcome some of the problems in society through surfing.”
A noble aim, and one that a lot of us will be watching closely in the hope it comes to fruition.
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