Everybody’s Gone Surfing

No need to see to surf in Californi-a

In 1963 the Beach Boys sang, “Catch a wave and you’re sittin’ on top of the world.”

Now, almost 60 years later, who would know that better than the guests of California’s Encinitas Lions who have been hosting an annual Surfing Clinic for the Blind and Visually Impaired for more than 25 years.

Lions working beachside stand during surfing clinic
California’s Encinitas Lions have been hosting an annual Surfing Clinic for the Blind and Visually Impaired for more than 25 years.

Participants, some with their families, have traveled as far as 375 miles from Phoenix, Arizona, or 475 miles from San Francisco, to be part of this day at South Ponto Beach north of San Diego. And for those who don’t want to surf, they are welcome and happy to enjoy the sun and sand, the view, and the lunchtime hamburgers and hotdogs grilled by hospitable Lions.

Roger Oberholzer of Folsom, California, who lost complete sight in 2002, hopes to be one of those who spends all of the time in the water. This will be his fourth time to enjoy the surf clinic.

“It’s cool,” he says. “I’ll use as much water time as they want to give me. I don’t mind getting thrown over by the waves.

Blind woman catching a wave
The blind and visually impaired can surf with a little help from local surfers–and Encinitas Lions.

“The biggest thing to learn is that you can do it. People say you can’t do it. But you can. Obviously we need the visual help because we can’t see the waves. We can’t get the timing.

“What’s most amazing to me is that people come just to help you,” says 49-year-old Oberholzer, an athlete who is planning to run the California International Marathon in December. “It’s amazing that people just volunteer. They give up their time. This wouldn’t be possible without the Lions.”

Lion Bob Mangini, who has been the event chair since 2005, says, “Many of our guests have never gone to the beach. They don’t get the opportunity, and they don’t get to be pampered. We have had people here who have never touched sand.”

visually impaired woman surfs with help from Lions
Some participants have traveled as far as 475 miles from San Francisco to be part of the Lions’ surf clinic for the blind and visually impaired.

The Lions work as chauffeurs, greeting their visually impaired guests at the bus or train station, and driving them to the beach where their day starts with breakfast at 9, followed by time in the water, then the lunch barbecue.

The popular summer event at one of California’s prime surf spots was closed due to COVID-19 in 2020, but in 2019 at least 55 visually impaired and blind people, many with their families, enjoyed the day. Mangini says the surfers ranged from age 7 to about 70.

While the Lions pay state lifeguards and rent the beach space, they partner with San Diego’s nonprofit Urban Surf 4 Kids to provide instructions and water safety. Urban Surf also brings the wet suits and surf boards along with multiple experienced surfers who work one-on-one with participants and safety teams of six to eight that help launch people on the boards.

Community surfers also stop by to help, says Mangini, and Lions serve as catchers in the shallow water near the shore, assisting people as they get their footing on the beach again.

“It’s a warm fuzzy feeling you get when you do something like this,” says Mangini, who is not a surfer but enjoys the day. “They all look forward to this once-a-year day at the beach.

“It’s California,” he says. And who has ever known a bad day surfing in California.