Hawaii — Wheels To Water

Circa 2009

I stand on the pier in Kailua Kona, Hawaii, watching the canoe crews come in from practice to beach their outriggers in the approaching twilight. Sweaty paddlers rinse off in the outdoor shower and head home for supper carrying their personal paddles of cedar or poplar. I am fortunate to live in a water paradise on an island in the Pacific archipelago. I have witnessed the influence of mana, the oceans healing power for the body and for the renewing of the spirit. For those who move slowly on land, ocean sports allow travel through space with an ease and speed that is exhilarating.

Unfortunately, the restorative waters are not readily accessible to all. The sandy beaches and lava rock shores are hardly wheelchair friendly. There are no grab bars on the beach.

But obstacles are there to be challenged. This story is about the efforts of a small town to challenge accessibility to the ocean. Two storytellers describe their personal journeys: Rosemary, an amputee, enjoys riding the waves with the Surf Lessons team and Eric, though paralyzed from a stroke, is first on the water on a monthly canoe outing.

Being part of a paddling crew is of great interest to Eric Heddenberg whom you will find on the King Kamehameha Hotel beach on the last Sunday of each month. “I used to be an active athlete and professional pianist. Things are different since my stroke in 2005. Physical therapy demands much of my time.” Eric paddles with his functional right arm, but believes the extension and pull action help strengthen his affected left arm. Some rehabilitation specialists think it is possible that the repetitive motion of paddling can restore unused or damaged neural pathways.

According to Eric, the best part of paddling is his ritual dunking, the salty baptism he requests at the end of each run. Second best is the sharing of free lunch with the rest of the wet and sandy paddlers, volunteers and families.

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I visited Eric in his adapted studio apartment on the grounds of his family’s home. Special equipment, design modifications and a male caregiver support his daily efforts at recovery. “My home therapy is slow and often discouraging but my goal is to leave this leg brace and wheelchair within a year.” Eric claims, “I had lost the memory of the experience of walking, but it is coming alive again.”

When Eric joins others for his monthly canoe workout he is part of a program started in 2007 named Kalamaku, a ministry of Mokuaikaua Church. Kalamaku uses the outrigger canoe as an instrument for building strength and recovery of the whole person. The outings are an adventure for the soul who is too often discouraged from trying the unknown.

Two men have made the water a friendlier option to Eric and others with limitations: Brian Boshard and Mesepa Tanoai. Mesepa, of Samoan heritage, knows how being one with the water can change the spirit. “After high school I was an accomplished all-sports athlete, but unfortunately I found drink, a mean-spirited companion that ballooned me to 245 pounds and sent my life on a downward spiral. Canoeing brought me new friends, a new purpose and a healthy 190-pound frame.” As part of the Kalamaku team, Mesepa organizes canoe seating, fits life jackets and transfers Eric and others from wheelchairs to canoes. He acts as steersman for the onemile adventure out in Kailua Bay.

Mesepa’s partner is Brian Boshard, a Hawaiian pastor at Mokuaikuaua Church. Brian is no stranger to pain, but sports-related injuries, bone spurs and arthritis barely slow him down. “I relate to people by their name, not their disability label. My reward is the smiles, laughter and requests for one more turn at the paddles.”

Brian empowers people to do their personal best, to go beyond the fear, beyond the public exposure of braces or orthotics, beyond the sight of their imperfect bodies in contrast to society’s obsession with six-pack abs and movie star beauty.

Kalamaku’s goal is not competition, but confidence building. Requirements? The open water and the motivation to push the body one more inch, one more stroke. For every passenger with a limitation there is an able-bodied paddler for instruction and encouragement. The bowman sets the brisk pace by calling “hut” every 15 strokes, the command to switch paddling sides. There is little fear of capsizing (huli) as the canoes are outfitted with outrigger extensions for stability. The more daring paddlers actually instigate an unexpected huli just for the thrill and a good story for the supper table that night.

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The good story Eric takes home is not about spotting dolphins, manta rays (or even sharks), but about being able to compete in life—to make the critical transition from wheelchair to water, from being an observer to being a participant.

Two miles south of King Kamehameha Beach in Kona village is the popular snorkel and surf beach, Kahalulu. On May 28, 2008 a gathering of 191 people with disabilities, caregivers, family and volunteers celebrated a unique occasion, Surf Day. Seventy six people discarded braces, walkers or wheelchairs to ride the waves. Some had only admired the ocean from a distance but were now surfing, sitting or prone, with ride-along lifeguards for extra stability. Muscled volunteers carried the surfers over the sand on a plastic carpet (a Mobi mat) to the waiting boards—twelve were in action that day. This was my first surfing experience, and I was caught by the adrenaline rush as my board hurled me forward on the crest of a wave.

In the 1900’s Olympic gold medalist Duke Kahanamoku and other Hawaiian athletes rode their heavy 20-foot long boards into a new era of surfing for pleasure, notoriety and competition. Today wave riders use buoyant lightweight boards of fiberglass and epoxy, just the right ingredients for those not favored with strong, perfect bodies.

Rosemary Ekert once raced her then-perfect body in competitions across lava fields and in 60-mile relays. “After three years in Okinawa as an Army medic, I returned to Hawaii to work as an X-ray technician. But life has a way of interrupting dreams.” Double by-pass surgery was necessary in her 40’s, followed by small cell lung cancer that carried a solemn prognosis—only a few months to live.

“A humorous side effect of my illness was short-term memory loss. I couldn’t remember the doctor’s prediction of imminent death, so I carried on as if I had a full life ahead of me.”

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Another life interruption occurred at age 54 when Rosemary’s left leg was amputated and she was fitted with an artificial limb. The perfect body was ravaged by surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, but her spirit endured. A bronze tan and spiky hair of many colors completes the picture of this feisty woman of determination and abundant optimism. “Quitting is not an option. All things are possible,” says Rosemary. “You are only as handicapped as you choose to be. My biggest challenge is removing my artificial leg in front of onlookers at the beach, a public acknowledgment of my disability.” She still struggles to keep a positive attitude and needs to carefully monitor her artificial leg so that it does not create skin infection. “I want to go beyond what I did with two legs,” Rosemary vows. Watch for the blond one-legged surfer coming in on a swell in the twilight hours at Kahalulu Beach. All things are possible.

The man who makes adaptive surfing possible is Rick Green. A former Merchant Marine and fishing boat Captain, Green runs the family business Hawaii Lifeguard Surf Instructors. Surf Lessons is their semiannual service to the disabled community. Green promises, “The feeling of riding an ocean wave will last a lifetime. The Beach Boys music of the 1970’s may have changed, but surfing is still a vital part of Hawaiian life.” The tradition includes the island protocol of blowing a conch shell, chanting, and a blessing by a local elder. “We treasure the hospitality (ohana) of shared local dishes of teriyaki chicken, sticky white rice and poke (raw fish) that closes out the day.”

Green’s partner is Keahiolani Robbins. “Just getting in the ocean is a big hurdle for many,” Keahi says. His younger brother was paralyzed as the result of a bicycle accident at age 16. “I see disabled people sitting on the beach just watching, not involved. My personal motivation is to change that picture, to transform watchers into surfers.” Keahi and Rick have compassionate hearts as they serve the less able rather than the profit margin.

Keahi explains how Internet technology provides important safety information for surfers and paddlers. Computer data can predict water conditions by tracking tides, currents and wind. Information from ocean buoys identifies the direction and strength of waves. “Only the daring go out in dangerous water,” warns Keahi, “because the sea can have no mercy.”

Like outrigger canoeing, surfing builds physical strength, sets new challenges and summons undiscovered courage. Eric and Rosemary agree that endorphins released during surfing and paddling leave them feeling strong and elated. This encourages one more turn at Pilates, the incentive to walk one block farther than the day before, or indulge in one less macadamia nut cookie. They concur that water draws them closer to the earth and soaks their soul with salt water. “It’s not just exercise or sport, but is life giving.”

As the sun sets over the Pacific horizon, Brian, Mesepa, Rick and Keahi wait on the shore to help the Rosemarys and Erics move from wheels to water.

by Jean M Hartley

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