Surf Wise Therapy

Transforming young lives through ocean-based wellbeing initiative

“Life changing” is how 17 year old Monique from Amberley describes her experience on our ocean-based wellbeing pilot; a collaboration between Community Wellbeing North Canterbury Trust and Surfwise Waikuku Surf School to harness the transformative power of the ocean to strengthen the resilience and wellbeing of local tamariki and rangatahi.

“Before I started surfing I struggled with depression,” says Monique, “but I’ve learnt so many new coping strategies. Waves are like life – sometimes smooth-sailing, easy to be in, sometimes waves are huge and you have to stop and think and find a way through, but once conquered, it’s like, ‘I can do this!’ It’s taught me things can be really hard sometimes but you always get through – gives you new knowledge about how strong you are, even if you don’t feel it.”

The pilot initiative took place over summer and saw small groups of tamariki (aged 9-13) and rangatahi (aged 14-19) from across North Canterbury learning how to surf and taking part in on-shore sessions to equip them with tools to support their mental health.

The idea for the programme started to form in 2020 after Community Wellbeing Team Leader, Cushla Waghorn, herself learnt to surf with Surfwise.

“I tried learning to surf about 15 years ago with the support of my huband but felt like I was out of my depth the whole time, so gave up,” says Cushla. “But a couple of years ago I realised that I didn’t want to be standing on the beach watching my husband and children connect with the ocean, and each other, feeling like I was missing out!”

Cushla began talking with women in her local community about their experiences learning to surf. “They all spoke about the safe, welcoming and encouraging environment at Surfwise and it gave me the courage to take up the challenge of learning to surf again.”

Two years on, Cushla is now a member of the Surfwise ‘Lady Wave Tribe’ and is a regular out on the waves with her family at Waikuku Beach.

“So much of what you do in the water as a surfer is a reflection of life,” says Cushla. “Life is full of challenges and set backs and you need to find your way through these – focusing on the small wins, being in the moment and laughing at yourself. Like life, the ocean doesn’t wait for you to be ready, you have to be present and aware of your surroundings at all times. You need to be able to laugh at yourself as you tumble and fall, be ready to get back up again and again. Surfing can give you great skills for life.”

After encountering the transformative power of the ocean first hand, Cushla was keen to find a way to enable the tamariki and rangatahi she connects with through her work at Community Wellbeing, to have the same experience.

“Cushla and I floated the idea of collaboration for a while,” says Tammi Martin, co-owner and operator of Surfwise Waikuku Surf School. A keen surfer and qualified PE, health, outdoors education and art teacher, Tammi has spent the past 20 years working in teacher education and more recently, leadership development.

“It was in a leadership team meeting at Community Wellbeing, where we were exploring how we might support young people in ways other than talk therapy or through our existing wellbeing services, that we found a way to make it happen,” says Cushla. “Someone mentioned funding opportunities with Sport Canterbury – we applied for a grant to develop the pilot, and fortunately, we were successful.”

Like Monique, 12 year old Ashlee from Hawarden also describes the programme as life-changing.

“The ocean has had a big impact on me,” says Ashlee, “I can come here, plug my feet into the sand and feel calm and happy, like I belong. There are lots of big waves out there, but I’ve learnt if I can get past big things I can build bravery. It’s helped me become more confident.”

Parents too are noticing big changes in their tamariki from participating in the programme.

“Isaac loves sport but sometimes finds it difficult to manage his anger or excitement,” says Jason from Waipara, dad to 11 year old Isaac. “I’ve seen major improvements in Isaac’s ability to manage his emotions. The kids in the programme aren’t stereotyped or labelled, they are all treated the same. I’d recommend it to anyone, whatever the challenges.”

“At a biochemical level, we are transformed by crashing waves – increased endorphins, serotonin, adrenaline and dopamine which enhance our mental state.”

Young people from across Waimakariri and the Hurunui took part in the pilot.

“We’re very grateful to Sport Canterbury for their funding for this pilot programme,” says Cushla. “And we’d love to find private sponsors who are keen to help us transform the lives of more young people in our district.”

“I’d only tried surfing once before this,” says Odin, “but it’s really fun and helps calm me down. I’d really like to keep surfing.”

It’s always amazing to watch individuals claim their power,” says Tammi. “The ocean invites us to learn so much about ourselves, about others and our connection with our environment. The following whakatauki helps give a richer understanding of the stories of the land and the people of the land and was used to frame the shape of our programme design. ‘Ko au te moana, ko te moana ko au’ – I am the ocean and the ocean is me.”