As we prepare to move back into Level 3, Kiwi surfers are itching to get back to their nearest spots to catch some waves. Juliette Sivertsen chats to Restoke founder Hayden Thorpe about his yearning for the water, and why people need surfing now more than ever before.
When the wave starts to push, the adrenalin kicks in. Your body needs to focus. Will you fall? Or will you make it? You enter a space where there's no judgment. It's just you and the ocean. You begin to slide down a wall of water. The board is flying. You are free.
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It's this feeling Hayden Thorpe is craving, after a month of not being able to surf during the lockdown. He misses the freedom surfing provides, specifically, the buzz during that moment of speed and power as he slides down the face of a wave.
"This is the point where nothing else in the world matters, it's like a space in time that your brain and body has been searching for. You choose what the next few seconds will hold."
Thorpe, 34, has been surfing since his teenage years, and is the founder of a surf therapy programme called Restoke. The free course, which is fully funded by donations, is an eight-week mental health programme for people living with mental distress and uses surfing as part of the therapy process. It's based at West Auckland's Piha, where participants receive surf lessons and have access to counselling sessions as part of the programme.
"Surfing feels like you have been gifted time to find yourself and fly, all while being in the presence of nature and the humbling effect that has; it's regeneration for mind, body and soul," he explains.
It's been tough for surfers not being able to get in the water this past month, especially when the swell and wind direction at this time of year create great surf conditions, says Thorpe. "Surfing is an essential part of people's mental health and being told you can't do it, makes you feel caged in and stressed."
When New Zealand moves into Level 3 this week, surfing will be permitted. But the Prime Minister has been clear that it's just for experienced surfers who can head to their local break. On the Government's Covid-19 website, it states clearly that if you're not experienced, don't surf.
Thorpe's had to put the surfing part of Restoke on hold during the lockdown but he's hoping to resume lessons when we reach Level 2. The counselling sessions have been able to continue via Skype for the participants - who he calls "restokers".
"We will wait and see what is said about what we can and can't do closer to the time. Learning to surf has its risks and we don't want to jeopardise the work the country has put into this."
Social distancing in surfing
Adhering to social distancing rules won't be a problem, as surfers are already experts at it. Everyone wants their individual space in the water to make sure no one else "steals" their wave, and to avoid being run over by another surfer.
The anecdotal feedback Thorpe has received from his restokers suggests many come away with reduced levels of anxiety and a greater sense of calm.
"Some say the community aspect is a big part of the healing process. Others say the free counselling is just what they needed because they can't afford to see a counsellor," explains Thorpe. "It humbles me every time I hear of how someone else's life is made better because of the time, work and money we put in.
"I think your body really enjoys the physical exertion, the adrenalin, the breathing practice, the focus and having the space to relax and think. The endorphins in your body from surfing make you feel alive."
The mindfulness of surfing
Joanna Madsen is one of the counsellors at Restoke and is a registered member of the New Zealand Association of Counsellors. She says it's the mindfulness of surfing that makes it so good for a person's wellbeing.
"Surfing involves being present, involves all our five senses and being focused on one activity," she says. "These are all components of mindfulness which is researched to be beneficial to our mental health."
And just being near the ocean can also provide a boost to a person's spirits.
"It can be many things to many people, a place where people can find enjoyment, as well as calmness, as well as power, as well as spirituality and nature. It can be a source of many different things to different people."
Where can we surf in Level 2?
New Zealand has plenty of good surf spots but, for now, the advice is to go to your nearest beach, not your favourite. Thorpe says when he can travel again, he'll be enjoying places in Northland like Ahipara, and also Taranaki. "Taranaki has some amazing spots with views of the mountain while you surf. Incredible really."
But getting back into the water after a month away, comes with mixed emotions.
"So much anticipation and excitement but also, 'man I wish I did some upper body and breathing exercise instead of sitting on the couch'. But the relief, the joy that seems to wash over you when your foot touches that saltwater is awesome."
One thing's for sure - Thorpe won't be mucking about getting into the water.
"I'm a grab-life-by-the-balls kinda guy, so I grab my wettie, or boardies in the summer, grab my board and run to the beach."
Surfing for mental health
Although you can't learn to surf right now, here are some surf schools that aim to support mental health, where you can learn when restrictions are lifted:
Restoke (surf therapy), Piha - restoke.co.nz
Wavewise, Westport - wavewise.co.nz
Rapu, Piha - rapuadventures.com
Mount Maunganui Surf Academy - www.surflessons.co.nz
Learn to Surf with Daisy, Taranaki - learntosurfwithdaisy.weebly.com