The scene at the Mary Street beach access on this third Saturday of the month (April 16 at 1pm) is festive, if not uproarious. The white, North Florida sand is quickly disappearing beneath beach chairs, tents, dozens of surfboards, and more than 75 beachgoers – some of whom drove up from as far south as Miami – ready to hit the water and catch a wave or two.
Within minutes, Orson Stewart – a regular standout among this crowd – is locked into a clean set wave and heading down the line. As they begin, one by one, to fix their gaze on the line that Stewart’s drawing from atop his surfboard, the members of the beach party erupt in loud fits of hoots and hollers – just as any typical group of stoked-out waveriders is prone do to. Stewart, meanwhile, maintains a grin from ear to ear that won’t seem to fade, even as the wave comes to a anticlimactic ending, petering out above a deep spot in the sandy seafloor below. He’s got a plenty to smile about. For Stewart (who goes by Andy, for short, and who has Cerebral Palsy) riding waves is no small undertaking. It’s a communal experience.
Andy caught his first wave with Surf Quest, a group affiliated with The Arc of the St. Johns (a non-profit offers support to people with intellectual and physical disabilities). That was 2014. Since then Surf Quest has helped hundreds of kids and adults with a broad range disabilities catch waves during its monthly Beach Day events, held every third Saturday of the month. And the laidback atmosphere and positive mission have caused the crowds to swell, as of late.
“There’s no registration, no sign in, just show up and surf or help out,” says Pete Skogland, one of the founders of Surf Quest. “We take care of everything else.”
Skogland, who grew up surfing in St. Augustine, says he first got involved with the Arc when his friend, and Arc employee, Molly Ferraro saw Skogland pushing his own kids into waves and asked if he’d be willing to try helping of the people from the Arc learn to surf. Knowing full well the strength of the bonds developed through surfing, Skogland, together with Ferraro and Lynne Funcheon, began brainstorming ways to provide more opportunities for people with disabilities to get in the ocean. With a few surfboards and a few friends who graciously volunteered to help, taking a kind of Field of Dreams approach they organized the first Beach Day in November of 2014. “We thought, there’s really no way we’re gonna pull this off,” says Skogland. “But rather than asking for sponsors and stuff up front, we thought we’d put together an event first and then people could really see what we were all about.”
Lynne Funcheon, who oversees St. Johns Community Campus (a charter school affiliated with the Arc), and a cofounder of Surf Quest, remembers that day vividly. Specifically, she remembers Andy’s first wave.
“If you know Andy, you know he’s always game for anything,” says Funcheon. “It took four of us to get him up on the board and we said to Andy, jokingly, ‘You know we don’t know what we’re doing and you may drown today?’ And he just laughed and said he was ready.”
Humor quickly turned to elation, then tears of joy, as the crowd watched Andy successfully ride his first wave. “There wasn’t a dry eye on the beach,” says Funcheon. “Andy was ready for more, though [laughs]!”
Funcheon says Surf Quest has been a powerful tool for the social and emotional growth of both the surfers and the instructors involved. During each event a surfer with a disability is matched with a coach (or two) who helps them get comfortable on the surfboard, then either then pushes the surfer into waves, or paddles and rides the waves with them. Funcheon says that safety and fun take precedent over all else.
“Surf Quest is really about friendship through the shared passion of surfing and the ocean,” she says. Funcheon points out that the bonds created between instructor and surfer have extended beyond the beach to weekend hangouts and post-surf dinners. “The friendships are real,” says Funcheon. “I’ve been in this field for 25 years and that just doesn’t happen all that often. It’s really amazing.”
Funcheon says Surf Quest’s season finale Beach Day in October last year drew more than 250 people. With more surfers Surf Quest will soon need more surfboards, says Funcheon. Through generous donations, during its first full-year Surf Quest was able to acquire special paddleboards with handles, perfect for the kind of adaptive surf instruction Surf Quest specializes in. They’ve also been given permission to use the three modified beach wheelchairs that belong to St. Johns County, but they could use more. And Funcheon says they are currently raising money for a wheelchair that can fit on a surfboard so that surfers with cerebral palsy, for example, can ride waves without having to have an instructor ride with them.
Surf Quest is accepting donations through its website, but Funcheon says the best way to help out, is to simply attend a Beach Day. “Be a surf coach, help take off life vests, or just hang on the beach to cheer and socialize,” she says. “There’s really nothing like it.”
Images by Mike Strausbaugh