Surfer Luke Sharp is always eager to share the stoke.
So when a friend was organizing an event to help people with disabilities ride the waves, Sharp didn’t hesitate to volunteer for the area’s first Wheel to Surf a decade ago.
You read that correctly – people who happen to rely on wheelchairs, are blind or have other disabilities can experience the joy and freedom of catching a wave. Sound impossible? That’s not a word in Sharp’s vocabulary.
That day on the beach sparked a passion that led Sharp to create the Adaptive Surf Project, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that not only organizes six Wheel to Surf events along the S.C. coast every year, but is helping create similar organizations in coastal North Carolina, Costa Rica and other places. It also works to make beaches more accessible with the installation of mats to accommodate wheelchairs in the sand and the addition of beach wheelchairs on every pier along the East Coast.
“We want to do big things now,” Sharp said. “We’re inspired.”
Sharp didn’t set out to form a charity, he simply volunteered at an event in this new adaptive surfing effort organized by his friend Brock Johnson, who fractured his neck in a diving accident years ago but longed to get out of his wheelchair and ride the waves again.
After that first day on the beach, Sharp spearheaded an effort to replace the paddleboards they used with custom-made boards for Johnson and two other adaptive surfers designed to meet their specific needs. For example, some are made wider and equipped with handle grips at the front of the board so the adaptive surfer can lie on his or her stomach and use the handles to maneuver the board through the waves. Other boards are equipped with a chair for the adaptive surfer.
Sharp managed to raise the needed $3,000 to pay for the three custom boards. He thought, “mission accomplished.”
But then others emerged needing custom boards. Johnson envisioned bigger and better Wheel to Surf events. And having beach wheelchairs equipped with large inflatable wheels to better maneuver adaptive surfers through the sand would help, too.
As the needs piled up, Sharp couldn’t let up. He formed the Adaptive Surf Project around 2014 and started raising money for custom boards and recruiting volunteers to help staff the Wheel to Surf events.
He’s been riding the adaptive surf wave ever since, adding more events, setting ambitious goals and showing others in beach communities how to create their own adaptive events – all while working his full-time job teaching at SOAR Academy alternative school in Horry County, South Carolina.
“There’s no such thing as not having time,” Sharp said. “You just wake up in the morning and choose to do whatever you want to with your time, right? And what’s more rewarding than to give your time to help an individual experience joy. That’s better than anything.”
Participation in Wheel to Surf events has swelled to 100 adaptive surfers who travel from other parts of South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Georgia and other places for the chance to experience 30 minutes in the waves under the close guidance and safety of the expert surfing volunteers. Each adaptive surfer has a team alongside the board at all times. Sharp gives credit to the bravery of the adaptive surfers and the trust they have for the volunteers.
“It takes enough for people to get out of the house when they don’t have a disability, but someone who happens to have a disability, surfing, that’s pretty brave. That takes a lot,” Sharp said.
Want to see pure joy? Look at the smiles and hear the excited squeals of the adaptive surfers as they glide in on a wave – free of their wheelchair or other usual support. It’s the reason Sharp and the volunteers do what they do.
“At one Wheel to Surf, I looked on the beach and all the photographers were taking pictures, and there was a little group of cheerleaders cheering people on and there was someone who had cooked food,” Sharp said. “I realized that everyone was showing up and whatever talent they have, they were giving it for these people so they could surf. It was very moving.”
Sharp and the volunteers have taken hundreds of people surfing, from young children to a fearless, local blind man who routinely elicits applause from beachgoers as he glides in standing solo on a board to a frail, 97-year-old World War II veteran riding the waves for the first time.
“He couldn’t really walk that much. We put him on a surfboard where he could sit down,” Sharp said of the veteran. “We picked up the surfboard, and I looked over and saw a bunch of dudes carrying the surfboard with this guy on it, and tears were running down their eyes. It was just a moving experience. It’s hard not to get choked up when you see these strong men carrying this guy and they are all crying. No one was speaking, just tears in their eyes.”
Those moments help fuel Sharp on long Wheel to Surf days. He, along with the other in-water volunteers, battle the waves for hours with little to no break, determined to create a memorable surfing experience for every adaptive surfer patiently waiting their turn on the beach.
“You just go into beast mode, and at the end all your muscles are shaking and you are worn out,” Sharp said. “But it’s worth it because you bring so much joy to everyone who shows up.”
FROM THE BEACH TO BIKES
Soon, Sharp wasn’t satisfied with just adaptive surfing. What about bike rides? Again, making the seemingly impossible possible. There are now specially designed bikes available for the monthly bike rides at the North Myrtle Beach Park & Sports Complex.
Today, Adaptive Surf Project is thriving, with ambitious goals to share the stoke not only locally, but along the East Coast and expanding opportunities for adaptive activities in cities across the country and overseas. Nearly a half dozen adaptive surfing organizations have formed in coastal North American communities thanks to guidance from Adaptive Surf Project. Sharp envisions adaptive bike rides in Atlanta, adaptive surfing in New Jersey and more.
“As soon as they see it, they are going to want to do it,” he said.
A BEAUTIFUL COMMUNITY
Adaptive Surf Project isn’t just a charity, it aims to nourish a community that goes beyond its official events.
Those who volunteer and participate in the adaptive activities have become a tight-knit community who experience life together. They play music together, offer rides to doctor’s appointments and even help each other move to a new house. Many informally gather on the beach in Cherry Grove every Sunday just to hang out and surf.
“It’s just turned into a really big community,” Sharp said. “We go to concerts together, cook, hang out. We are just friends now. Sometimes it doesn’t even feel like an organization.”
For Sharp, he’s just sharing the stoke and bringing joy. While he’s been honored with awards, including the Jefferson Award from Sinclair Broadcast Group for extraordinary community service last year, he’s quick to downplay his efforts while applauding the brave adaptive surfers, the loved ones who care for those with disabilities, the volunteers who donate their time and the donors who hand him a check after watching an adaptive surfing event.
“And all I do is blab,” Sharp said. “It’s not even like I’m volunteering or doing anything. I’m just hanging out with my friends, hanging out with my buddies.”
Want to donate to, or volunteer with, Adaptive Surf Project? Learn more at AdaptiveSurfProject.com.