Tandem Surfboarding Brothers:
The Sequel to “So Dad, When Can I Go Surfing?”
by Eric Vasiliauskas
Blind without Borders
A few years back I wrote an article chronicling a 5-year-old’s quest to learn to surf. As it turns out, that was only the first part of our story; a story that continues to unfold. The article “So Dad, When Can I Go Surfing?” left off with the mention that Vejas and I visited a local surf shop to purchase a board of his own.
. . . When we got home, I visited a local surf shop to purchase a boards for Vejas & for me. When we got home, Vejas’s little brother Petras eagerly awaited & greeted us at the door, very anxious to check out the new surfboard. Vejas & I carried the board into the living room. As soon as we laid it out on the floor, Petras leaped on top.
Petras & Vejas taking a virtual ride on having hopped onto Dad's new Surfboard 😉
We then explored the surfboard together; the soft-top surface, the smooth bottom, the nose (front part), the tail (back part), the rails (sides), & the fins. His bounding excitement was precious. Wanting to capture this moment, I asked Petras to stand up on the board to pose for a photo. He agreed, & as I was snapping the shot, with a great big smile he then confidently asked . . .
“Where’s MY surfboard?”
I was admittedly caught off guard by the question and tried to explain to my then preschooler that when he is older, if he enjoys surfing, we can discuss getting him a surfboard as well.
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when he sincerely and very earnestly responded with “So what about me Dad, when can I go surfing? ” . . .
As it turns out the local surf in the Los Angeles area is very different than the surf in Hawaii. While waves come in all sizes in the tropical island state, Hawaii is an ideal place to learn to surf, for there are many areas where the smaller waves gently roll for literally hundreds of yards – very conducive for beginning surf enthusiasts of any age. In contrast, the waves in the South Bay of Los Angeles tend to be much choppier, and crash much more suddenly, sharply and very close to the shore. Vejas and I have tried surfing together locally several times, but the reality is that the waves are harder to catch, are more unpredictable, and the runs are much shorter.
As it had been a number of years since we had been able to take a longer vacation, last year we decided to take a family trip to the North Shore of the island of Kauai. We stayed near Hanalei Bay, which some claim is home to Puff the Magic Dragon. As soon as Rasa and I shared the news with the boys, Petras’s face lit up and without missing a beat, he asked “Which day am I going surfing?” Vejas almost immediately chimed in that he too was very much looking forward to formal surfing lessons once again.
There is a lot more to a successful surfing experience than just standing up on the board. As this would be Petras’s first time surfing, we wanted this to be a positive experience, so Rasa and I felt that rather than a group lesson, individual lessons would be best. We did not really know who the “best” local surf school or surf instructor to work with our boys would be. I scanned through some tourist brochures we had picked up at the airport and called the number on one of them. The lady who answered greeted me with a very pleasant “Aloha.” I explained that we wanted to arrange for lessons. When I mentioned that the boys were blind, she made casual note of that and shortly thereafter called back with a time for the lessons.
A few mornings later, we showed up at the bayside Hawaiian Surfing Adventures Surf School with our two very excited boys. We met their instructors, two native Hawaiian locals, “Uncle Mitch” (who we only after the lesson learned owned the surf school) and Ke’ale, a very pleasant younger instructor. The boys then got the customary on-land “intro to surfing” interactive session, where they were encouraged to explore the surfboard, shown how to properly lay down on the board, and taken through the steps of how to then pop up into proper surf stance, etc.
Uncle Mitch & Ke'ale teach Vejas & Petras how to transition to proper surfing stance during the land portion of the lesson
Petras is very much a kinesthetic learner – he tends to learn best by actually doing something or experiencing the activity.
Though he paid very close attention, I could tell he was very eager to move beyond the “pretend” part of the land instruction and get into the water.
We then headed over to the beach where Uncle Mitch paused to assess the ocean conditions. “Good surf today boys” he then commented. While Rasa went to get something from the car, I followed the boys and their instructors as they stepped into the water of Hanalei Bay. Unlike the southern part of the island where there is lots of sharp coral, this part of the ocean near the mouth of the Hanalei River was shallow and sandy. We waded out several hundred feet from the shore. Uncle Mitch then asked me to stop and explained that it was going to be my job to catch the boys. The four of them then proceeded further into the bay.
In the distance, I could see Vejas and Petras practice standing up while their instructors stabilized their boards. Uncle Mitch worked more with Vejas and Ke’ale with Petras. After about 5 minutes, I saw Petras stand up on the surfboard as he headed my way. Ke’ale rode the back of the board the first few times with Petras, who seemed reassured and clearly excited by his initial success.
Ke'ale stabilizes the surfboard, acting as a human rudder, as Petras catches his first wave
Vejas riding a wave
Then from a distance I saw Vejas stand up. Surfing is like riding a bike; even when you haven’t done it for a while, you quickly remember – and remember Vejas did! He stood up and rode the wave towards me. Camera in hand, I started taking photos while at the same time I cheered him on enthusiastically… as he surfed past me… Déjà vu! Oops all over again! I snapped out of my mesmerizing spell and then made a mad rush (half swimming, half sprinting) through the water after Vejas as he headed towards the mouth of the river. After a 200 plus yard dash, I finally caught up to him. I quickly learned my lesson 🙂 Rasa then joined us, laughing having watched the spectacle as she approached.
The rest of the morning was somewhat surreal. It drizzled on and off, and even rained a bit. From time to time the sun would peak in. It was evident why Hanalei is known as the land of rainbows, for we saw quite a few that morning. We decided that Rasa would position herself closer to the shore to catch the boys as they approached. My new assignment was to stand in between her and the instructors to capture dynamic photographs of the boys as they surfed by. Rasa got very proficient at immediately turning the surfboards around and pushing them back towards me. Then I in turn guided them back towards their instructors who were deeper in the bay. This strategy worked well – except when the boys caught the same wave – in which case Rasa and I both jumped into high alert mode, each focusing on whoever seemed to be headed closer to us.
Petras stoops down on his board at the end of another successful ride
“Huli maka Huli” is a local term for flipping off the surfboard into the water. The waves that morning varied from small to over 2½ feet in height, yet Petras amazingly remained glued to his board like a gecko and only fell off twice the entire day. When they did tumble off their boards, the boys could sometimes feel the ocean bottom; other times not.
The boys spent nearly two hours in the ocean with their instructors. Vejas and Uncle Mitch, and Ke’ale and Petras, connected in a really neat way. At the end of the lesson, Vejas relayed how he had learned a few songs about Hawaii and a bunch of new Hawaiian words. He even emerged with a new name, “Makani” (pronounced mah-KAH-nee), which is Hawaiian for “the wind” (“Vejas” means “the wind” in Lithuanian).
5 ½ y/o Petras riding a wave
We were very proud of the boys. While I will never forget the expression of pure joy on Vejas’s face and the beaming sense of accomplishment that emanated from him the time he caught his first wave and rode his board all the way to the shore, the aura-like glow of excitement and confidence that radiated from Petras at the end of this first surfing lesson was equally memorable. Petras quickly made it very clear that he wanted to go surfing again.
After the lesson I spoke with Uncle Mitch and Ke’ale. I mentioned the Future Reflections surfing article I had written. Over lunch our family discussion covered not only what the boys had learned that morning, but what might be done differently in the future, since each of them expressed a desire to do an even better job during the next lesson.
We were very lucky to get the same instructors for the second lesson later that week. Ke’ale mentioned that he had read the article; I’m not sure if Uncle Mitch did or not. The lesson started off with a brief on-land technique refresher. It wasn’t hard to tell that the boys were anxious to get back to where the action was, for I heard Petras ask “Are we ready to get back into the water yet?”
As we stepped from the sandy beach into the water, Uncle Mitch said to Vejas: “Makani, take me to the surf!” Then he continued “Makani, I’m going to teach you some new Hawaiian words.” Vejas’s ears perked to attention. “The first is ‘Ku’ – that means ‘stand tall’”. Uncle Mitch then took the opportunity to discuss and emphasize the importance of body posture, which is key for optimal performance and success. “Don’t look down at the ocean; keep your head up and look at the nose of the board.” As we headed out into the bay, Uncle Mitch told the boys to feel the power of the water and to become one with the wave.
Ke'ale working with Petras on proper stance in between waves
The ocean was much calmer that day. As they waited for “the right wave”, Uncle Mitch and Ke’ale drilled the boys. They had clearly raised their bar of expectations for what they thought the boys could do and focused more on technique this go around. They worked intensely with the boys on the details of proper positioning and stance. As it turns out Petras surfs “goofy foot”, a term used for those that keep their right foot forward, whereas Vejas surfs “natural or regular foot” with his left foot forward. In between runs, in the distance I could see Vejas and Petras lay down and stand up over and over as their instructors tried to reinforce the boys’ motor memories. Using a combination of detailed explanation and kinesthetic input by manually guiding them through the movements as they practiced, the instructors worked on fine-tuning the boy’s technique, teaching them how to smoothly transition from laying on the board to proper riding stance, focusing on center of balance and what to do with their trunk, arms, legs, and head.
Later Petras elaborated on how as they practiced on the water Ke’ale told him to pretend he was catching a wave and to practice until he was “really, really good.” Petras took this all very seriously and like a sponge soaked in the information. He shared how he was instructed to hold his arms out for balance and to bend his knees to get more speed if he wanted to go “really fast.” He mentioned that they also discussed what to do when he fell off the board; to stand or swim or float – then to get up again and try really hard. Petras’s smile widened as he then relayed how the first time he finally fell off the board that day with, as he put it, “a whaaa – crash!”, Ke’ale “laughed like Santa Claus.”
Petras gliding across Hanalei Bay on a surfboard
By the end of the lesson the boys were noticeably exhausted. Then Uncle Mitch called Rasa and me over, and with a big smile and a twinkle in his eyes, said that he and Ke’ale wanted to try and see how the boys would do on a tandem ride; that is, he proposed Petras ride the front of the board, with Vejas on the back of the same board!
– – Imagine trying to balance on a surfboard – with someone else also standing on the same board – in the water and with waves! I don’t think any of us were too confident that this was going to work all that well, especially at the end of the day, but we had developed a trust with these instructors and their judgment. We asked the boys what they thought. They were both open to the idea, thus we agreed and said “OK”.
Petras and Vejas then headed deeper into the bay with Uncle Mitch and Ke’ale. They waited for just the right wave. After a while, in the distance I saw Vejas stand up, then Petras. As they neared, I could see that both were completely focused. Our 8-year-old and 12-year-old surfed over 200 yards – the length of over 2 football fields – together – without falling! They were totally stoked, as were Rasa and I and Uncle Mitch and Ke’ale! This was definitely a highlight of our family trip! To say the boys really enjoyed themselves that day would be an understatement; they in fact radiated with joy and a sense of personal accomplishment!
Tandem surfboarding bothers, Vejas and Petras, riding the same surfboard at the end of their run
A while later, Petras excitedly shared with me one morning that he had a dream about surfing. He smiled as he described how the waves were crashing down around him with a loud “Kaboom!” He explained how in his dream he caught a wave and rode it “really fast and really far – all the way to the shore.”
Over the Labor Day weekend that followed, Petras asked me if I planned on going surfing. Before I could answer, he then elaborated that if I decided to, then I should pay attention and do the following: he then went on to describe to me step by step what to do and what not to do. He had clearly been paying very close attention during his lessons for he summed up very concisely everything he had learned about surfing, stance, technique, etc.
Petras had opted to celebrate his first surfing success by choosing to go out for pizza that evening. Fate was smiling down upon us when we decided to eat at Hanalei Pizza, a small local pizza shop tucked in Hanalei’s Ching Young Village Shopping Center. Not only did we dine on an awesome pizza, but we had the fortune of meeting the owner, a gentleman named Karlos, who after taking our order and crafting our personalized pizza, came over to our table to chat with us. Petras showed off the new surfboard keychain that he had chosen for his long white cane, then the boys took turns enthusiastically sharing their surfing adventure stories. Their bounding excitement could rightfully be described as contagious. Karlos then surprised us with a generous invitation to take us stand up paddleboarding. I had never tried paddleboarding before, but had observed others partake in the sport and found the concept intriguing. Karlos reassured us that it was not too difficult, so we took him up on his offer.
We met near the mouth of the Hanalei River early one morning. Karlos greeted us, then we carried two paddleboards from his car to the bank of the river. Paddleboards are longer and wider than standard surfboards, characteristics that provide enhanced stability. Karlos gave me a brief concentrated crash-course on stand up paddleboarding; he showed me how to stand on the board correctly and instructed me on proper paddling technique. He then smiled and handed one paddle to me.
We decided that Vejas would go on the board with Karlos and Petras with me. The boys waded into the water and helped guide the boards away from the shore. Once the water was deep enough they climbed onto the front of the boards. They started out by sitting cross-legged on the front of the board.
Karlos was right; while there is clearly a learning-curve, paddleboarding on the river was technically not particularly difficult. Never-the-less it did end up being a full body workout and it was a challenge for me to keep up with him and Vejas. We paddled for about an hour or so up river, usually within sight but often times out of hearing range. Vejas chatted with Karlos; Petras and I shared stories as well.
Paddleboarding instructor Karlos takes a brief break as Vejas paddles down Hanalei River
Despite his surfing success, Petras remained stationary and glued to the front of the board during our trip upriver, expressing concern about falling off the board and into the cool morning water. From a distance I was pleased to see that after a while, Karlos had managed to convince a somewhat nervous but excited Vejas to stand up on the board. He then showed Vejas how to properly position his body and paddle.
The scenery was gorgeous, with lush vegetation lining the riverbank and Kauai’s mountains towering in front of us. Standing up straight while gliding across the smooth surface of the river created a sensation of being able to walk on water. Paddleboarding on the river turned out to be a unique blend of physical exercise and meditation. What a serene and relaxing experience!
Before heading back, Karlos suggested that the boys transfer boards. While I suspect we all felt somewhat uneasy about the idea, I supported the proposal and did my best to be the reassuring father; the boys agreed to give it a try. As it turns out, a board-to-board transfer on the water is not all that simple, as it is really tricky for everyone – on both boards – to maintain balance with the sudden weight shifts. The slightest miscalculation, by either over- or under-compensating by any of the four of us, could easily result in the boards tipping or flipping and everyone getting very wet. To all of our amazement, we did it!
Karlos using hand over hand technique to guide Petras on proper paddling technique
It was only after the successful maneuver that our “instructor” shared with us that 90 plus percent of the time that he has tried that type of floating transfer, everyone ends up tumbling into the water! Petras then broke out in unbridled laughter, for now that he was safe, the thought of everyone toppling into the water then seemed hilarious! Petras remembers Karlos then asking him “What does Humpty Dumpty do on a paddleboard?… – Sometimes he falls off!” 🙂 That broke the ice as they started back down the river. Towards the end of the journey, Petras gained the confidence to stand up on the paddleboard and Karlos guided Petras on how to stand on the board properly and paddle – this made for quite an impressive finale for Rasa who was waiting for us by the shore.
It is important to acknowledge that part of our boys’ successes in these particular activities is that both Vejas and Petras were already quite comfortable in the water. Every child, blind or sighted, should minimally be taught swimming basics – at least to tread water and a basic stroke – so that they are confident – or at least comfortable, in the water. Over the course of my life, I have seen quite a few children and adults unintentionally end up in the water, having tipped out of a canoe into a lake or river, or having accidentally fallen or having “in fun” been pushed in the pool at a party. During my residency training I saw far too many near-drowning victims.
Learning to swim 🏊♀️ is not just fun and good exercise, but could literally save your child's life some day. 🏊♂️
Petras and Vejas have been receiving formal swimming instruction since they were two or three years old. They both really look forward to their weekly swimming lessons. Of note is that their swimming instructors have had no special training in blindness. The instructors use their common sense – along with a lot of verbal cues, lots of explanation, and when necessary, they help by physically guiding the boys through the various aquatic movements. They are working on all the strokes: free-style, back-stroke, breast-stroke, even the butterfly, and how to properly swim laps with the eventual goal of being to do so independently.
The Ripple Effect is Real
As I reflect back, it’s amazing to think that the sequence of events that subsequently unfolded all started with a simple question posed by a curious 5-year-old seeking clarification of a concept first introduced in a story. From there one thing literally led to another and eventually he was able to successfully pursue one of his dreams. His enthusiasm about surfing ultimately inspired his younger brother, father, and even cousins and uncles to give the sport a try as well. As a result, each of us not only has our own stories to tell, but we too have a powerful sense of personal accomplishment, and we share a unique bond. The excitement and confidence gained from the successful surfing experiences ultimately contributed to our pursual of new activities and adventures, including skiing, snowboarding, sea-kayaking, rock climbing, and most recently, paddleboarding. Indeed, through these shared experiences, we have created a tighter family bond.
Importantly, successfully participating in, and perhaps even mastering, sports and recreational activities has an impact that reaches far beyond the activity itself. The social benefits cannot be overstated. Partaking in such endeavors results in immeasurable personal growth and increased self-confidence. These types of exposures, including others such as camping, hiking, sledding, inner-tubing, rollerblading, roller skating, ice skating, attending live sporting events, bowling, watching the latest movie in the theater, or having fun at a water-park, provides the experience-based framework from which blind children can more actively engage in conversations with their friends and peers about activities they have tried and enjoyed, or might like to try in the future.
Pictures of a blind child taking part in activities like surfing 🏄♂️ & skiing ⛷ also go a long way to towards immediately changing the perceptions of classmates and their parents, teachers, & others about a child’s abilities. I have thus made it a habit of taking along a few key photos of each of the boys engaged in selected activities including, surfing, skiing, snowboarding, & rock climbing.
Vejas snowboarding at 8
Vejas surfing the waves at 8½
Petras at various ages snowboarding & skiing
Petras rockclimbing at a local indoor climbing gym
I admit that I strategically show these photos to new instructors to intentionally spark a paradigm shift in their level of expectations. The immediate impact of such perceptual changes is that it helps establish a different framework for the initial interactions and expectations – and kids tend to live up to their expectations.
If you, your child, or your student can think of a sport or recreational activity, there is a high probability that somewhere in the world there are blind individuals who have tried or who actively partake in that activity. To get a flavor of the kinds of sports and recreational activities blind individuals enjoy, I urge you to search the term “blind sports” on “Google”, “Yahoo”, “Bing”, or the search engine of your choice. Sighted individuals can quickly scan the possibilities via the image or video search options to find page after page of images of blind children and adults engaging in all sorts of physical activities. This simple exploratory exercise is sure to amaze many, even seasoned professionals in the VI and O&M fields, while challenging preconceptions of what is feasible and realistic. Indeed, the possibilities are virtually endless.
I have often been asked “How do you find someone experienced and willing to teach a blind child?” The reality is that for many activities, it is unlikely that you will find an instructor who has formal training on how to teach blind children, or even any actual experience working with a blind child or adult. In fact, for many first-time experiences, parents may very well find themselves in the role of the instructor.
So, How Do You Create Opportunities?
Start by searching for possibilities in your local neighborhood and surrounding communities. Find out what activities your friends and coworkers, your acquaintances, including parents of your child’s classmates “are in to.” By actively focusing on and seeking this information out, you will be surprised at that spectrum of activities people pursue for fun, and in turn many potential opportunities are likely to arise. Then when opportunity knocks, answer the door. Also, while I can certainly empathize with the concept of “but we’re always busy…”, it is critically important to create the time and also to be spontaneous. Vacation time is an especially golden opportunity to try new things. I can state with confidence that those parents who choose to pursue sports and recreation activities with their children will create a powerful unique bonding experience that will strengthen their relationships.
To grow and experience the most out of life, children and parents alike must step outside their comfort zones, and from time to time actively engage in some thoughtful risk-taking behaviors.
One of the mottos of the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) is “Changing What it Means to be Blind.” Parents live on the front lines with their children, and as such hold the master key to “Changing What it Means to be a Blind Child.”
Indeed, it takes a blend of courage and faith – on the part of both the parents and children – to try some new activities. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s an uneasy feeling to let go and to send a child, sighted or blind, into the ocean with a stranger to try something totally new and unpredictable such as standing up and riding a floating board with loud waves crashing around – and sometimes on top – of them. Petras and Vejas were both totally out of their comfort zones during their first surfing experiences, when they spent most of the time away from Mom and Dad. Likewise, our new acquaintance, the pizza shop owner, was initially a stranger; yet we decided to try a completely new activity, one in which a slight miscalculation could easily result in us tumbling into the water. We were not sure what to really expect ahead of time, and during the activity we were not really together much of the time – usually within our sight, but generally out of hearing range; and yet our children did totally fine and loved the adventure. These both turned out to be powerful and exhilarating experiences.
When possible, it is very helpful to “do your homework” ahead of time by trying to learn from the real-life experiences of blind youth, blind adults, and parents of other blind children. Such experience-based pearls of wisdom can be invaluable. Understanding what might work well, and as importantly, what to avoid, can make the difference between success, a mediocre experience, and even failure. For parents and teachers seeking out “real-time” guidance based on the experiences of other blind individuals, the two best resources at this time are the Blindkid list-serve, the NOPBC FaceBook Group, and the NFB Sports & Recreation list-serve. The Blindkid list-serve & the NOPBC FaceBook Group are both networks of parents of blind and visually-impaired children, as well as some blind adults, from all over the US and beyond. The NFB Sports & Recreation list-serve is another truly amazing resource – a network of blind sports and recreation enthusiasts, composed of blind and visually-impaired youth and adults who enjoy or are seeking to figure out how to try a whole host of activities. Some list-serve members are even Paralympic athletes. By joining and posting questions or situations on these list-serves, parents and educators will within minutes to hours receive a host of responses and suggestions from either parents, based on experiences with their children, or from blind role models and blind mentors who have successfully participated in virtually any activity imaginable.
. . . The story continues to evolve . . . We have since then purchased a 21-foot inflatable tandem-paddleboard so that the boys & I we can venture out together. More on that story to come 😉 . . .