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Taking to the water


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POSTED: Tuesday, August 18, 2009

For those who go slowly on land, ocean sports allow movement with an ease and speed that are exhilarating. Unfortunately the ocean's restorative waters are not readily accessible to all. Sandy beaches and lava rock shores of Hawaii are hard to cross in wheelchairs, and there are no grab bars on the beach.

But obstacles are there to be challenged.

Being part of a paddling crew always interested Eric Heddenberg, 46, whom you will find on the King Kamehameha Hotel beach the last Sunday each month. Heddenberg's monthly canoe workout is part of the Kalamaku program, a ministry of Mokuaikaua Church, started in 2007. 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 too often discouraged from trying the unknown.

“;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.”;

But being on the water is a form of therapy. Some rehabilitation specialists think it's possible that the repetitive motion of paddling can restore unused or damaged neural pathways. Heddenberg paddles with his functional right arm but believes the extension and pull action help strengthen his affected left arm.

To Heddenberg the best part of paddling is his ritual dunking, the salty baptism he requests at the end of each run. Second best is sharing a free lunch with the rest of the paddlers, volunteers and families.

Out of the water, Heddenberg lives in an adapted studio apartment at his family's home. Special equipment, design modifications and a male caregiver support his daily recovery efforts.

“;My home therapy is slow and often discouraging, but my goal is to leave this leg brace and wheelchair within a year,”; he said. “;I had lost the memory of the experience of walking, but it is coming alive again.”;

The two men who made the water accessible to Heddenberg and others with limitations are Brian Boshard and Mesepa Tanoai. Tanoai, 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, Tanoai organizes canoe seating, fits life jackets and transfers others from wheelchairs to canoes. He acts as steersman for the 1-mile adventure out in Kailua Bay.

His partner, Boshard, a Hawaiian pastor at Mokuaikaua Church, 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 request for one more turn at the paddles.”;

Kalamaku's goal is not competition, but confidence building. Boshard encourages people to conquer fear and challenge society's obsession with six-pack frames and movie-star beauty.

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 outriggers for stability. More daring paddlers actually instigate an unexpected huli just for the thrill and a good story for the supper table.

The story Heddenberg takes home is not about spotting dolphins, manta rays or even sharks, but about being able to make the transition from wheelchair to water, from being an observer to being a participant.

Two miles south of King Kamehameha beach in Kailua village is the popular snorkel and surf spot Kahaluu Beach Park. On May 28, 2008, a gathering of 191 people with disabilities, caregivers, family and volunteers celebrated 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 stability.

Muscled volunteers carried the surfers over the sand on a plastic Mobi mat to 12 waiting boards.

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

Rosemary Ekert once raced 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,”; Ekert said. “;But life has a way of interrupting dreams.”;

Double bypass surgery was necessary in her 40s, followed by 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,”; she said. “;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.”;

Another life interruption occurred at age 54 when Ekert's left leg was amputated and she was fitted with an artificial limb. Her once-perfect body was ravaged by surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, but her spirit endured. Today a dark tan and spiky hair of many colors completes the picture of this feisty woman.

“;Quitting is not an option. All things are possible,”; she says. “;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,”; she says.

The man who makes adaptive surfing possible is Rick Green. A former merchant mariner and fishing boat captain, Green runs the family business Hawaii Lifeguard Surf Instructors. Surf Lessons is their semiannual service to the disabled community.

“;The feeling of riding an ocean wave will last a lifetime,”; he said. “;Beach Boys music of the 1960s may have changed, but surfing is still a vital part of Hawaiian life.”;

The tradition includes pau hana rituals of blowing the conch shell, chanting and a blessing. “;We treasure the hospitality of shared local dishes of teriyaki chicken, sticky white rice and poke that closes out the day,”; Green said.

His partner in the endeavor is Keahiolani Robbins, whose younger brother was paralyzed at age 16 after a bicycle accident.

“;Just getting in the ocean is a big hurdle for many,”; Robbins said. “;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.”;

He said Internet technology has been a boon for surf safety. Computers can predict water conditions by tracking tides, currents and wind. Information from ocean buoys identify the direction and strength of waves.

Like outrigger canoeing, surfing builds physical strength, sets new challenges and summons undiscovered courage. Heddenberg and Ekert agree that endorphins released during surfing and paddling leave them feeling strong and elated. This encourages one more workout at Pilates or the incentive to walk one block farther than the week before.

“;It's not just exercise or sport, it's life-giving,”; they agree.

As the sun sets over the Pacific horizon, Boshard, Tanoai, Green and Robbins wait on the shore to help others like Ekert and Heddenberg move from wheels to water.