Surfing Hawaii

02.11.22 09:55 AM By Dan
For this travel series, we collected three stories of people navigating travel with a physical disability. Below, hear from Robert and Laurie who sampled the waves and mountains of Hawaii.
Robert has been living with an incomplete C4 spinal cord injury since early 2020, and uses a powerchair. He and his wife Laurie are experienced travellers, and over the last year they’ve been exploring how to travel post-injury with a few domestic trips. In August, they made their first foray back into overseas travel with a three-week trip to Hawaii. We picked their brains for travel tips, and to hear a few highlights.

By Robert and Laurie

Tip 1: Give yourself plenty of time, and allow plenty at the other end

When we left Melbourne, we gave ourselves 3-4 hours before the flight. That meant we were able to have really good conversations with the ground crew about how we wanted things done, and we got really good seats. We were able to show them how to put the powerchair into freewheel mode, and things like that. When we were in Hawaii, we didn’t have control over transport to the airport, so we only got there two hours before, and it seemed really rushed. 

Tip 2: If you’re taking a powerchair, dismember and instruct

Thankfully, our powerchair didn’t get damaged in transit. We took the legs off - we’ve got actuators on the legs - so we put them into a separate case, and we took the controller off. The airport staff were very concerned about the batteries. We’ve got a gel battery, which can’t be taken out. And when the controller’s off, it discharges the battery anyway. But they still took a bit of convincing, so just stay patient and stand your ground. 

We had put the instructions that came from the manufacturer with the chair - but maybe next time we’d write our own, stating: this is a gel battery, these are the dimensions of the chair, this is the weight - so it’s all there for them. Plus, when we were moving around Hawaii, knowing the weight and dimensions came in handy for boarding buses. 

Laurie and Robert found the pulic bus system very acceccible, but limiting in where it could take you.
Tip 3: If you can self-transfer, consider leaving the powerchair at home

Because Robert can self-transfer, next time we wouldn’t take the powerchair. We’d take a manual chair with power assist. There weren’t many maxi taxis, and the ones they did have were very expensive. Public transport was very accessible, but it limited where we could go. If we had a manual chair, Robert could have transferred into a normal taxi, or we could have hired a car. If self-transferring isn’t an option, we did notice you could hire a powerchair over there for $250 US dollars a week, so that could be something to explore.

Tip 4: Make friends with your concierge, and don’t be afraid to ask for help

We’d spoken to a group that takes disbaled people out surfing, but the beach they planned to go to was really difficult for us to go on. So we spoke to the concierge at our hotel, and she was able to put us in touch with a local surf company that was able to accommodate us. Concierge desks are great resources, make sure you use them! 

Tip 5: Ask for a room with minimal furniture 

Because Robert can stand and walk for short distances, we booked a normal hotel room, but with a roll-in shower. Unfortunately, our room had two queen sized beds, which meant there wasn’t enough space to move around. They couldn’t move a bed out, so we moved into a normal room without a roll-in shower. So, make sure you ask for a room with as little furniture as possible. 

Robert’s highlight: 

For me, the highlight was surfing. I had a one-on-one session with an instructor called Uncle Max. He took me out to where the waves were forming, pushed me off, and followed me down. There was another guy waiting closer to shore, and he’d catch me so I didn’t hit the rocks. 

We did have a wipe-out though. There I was, lying face down in the water, and Lauire’s yelling ‘roll Robert, roll!’ But Uncle Max got to me in no time. And the people who helped me onto the board were surfing quite close, so if there was a problem they could come over and help - I felt totally safe. 

The guys helping got as much of a buzz as I did - you could see it in their faces. It was great. And the water! It was 24-25 degrees, and absolutely beautiful. 

Robert's dream of surfing at Waikiki was born earlier in the year. While at a Skills For Independence course on Sydney's northern beaches, he was shown a jet-propelled surfboard.
For Uncle Max, the minimum physical ability he’ll work with is being able to get up on your elbows. But I’ve seen a video of how other companies can do it for people that can’t lie on their stomach. They have them sitting up, and they have another person that sits behind them. And then they have a third person who paddles them out, turns the surfboard around, and surfs in behind them.

I came up with the idea that I wanted to surf in Waikiki while I was at Sargood in NSW, for the Skills for Independence course. The staff there showed me a surfboard with jet propulsion. Eleven years earlier I was surfing with my boys in Waikiki, and so I thought if I’m going there again, I’m going to surf - I’m going to make it happen, somehow. 

You get these harebrained ideas on goals and activities you want to achieve, and you’ve got to follow them - if you sit there waiting for them, they’re never going to come.

Laurie’s highlight:

We went on the most incredible helicopter ride. I found a company that could take Robert, which was called Blue Hawiian. They had a chair which was attached to a slide. Robert transfers onto that, and then they move the chair next to the Helicopter, and a mechanism pulls him up the slide to the door, and then he slide transferred into the helicopter. I loved seeing the different colours of the water. And you get to fly over parts of the island that nobody can get to because the terrain is too rugged. You see waterfalls 1000 ft in the air. It was awesome. And very reasonably priced - about $300 US per person.
As seen in the November issue of NewsLink - get your copy here

Peer-led capacity building programs at AQA

AQA's Living Well Project offers a range of courses that build on practice that is informed and delivered by people with lived experience of spinal cord injury or a similar disability. Learn more.                                                                

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