A surfing pioneer who’s paralyzed from the shoulders down has made an emotional return to Wales.
Spike Kane learned to ride the waves off Anglesey before moving to America’s West Coast where a horrific road accident left him with life-changing injuries.
He was reunited with his specially adapted surfboard at Adventure Parc Snowdonia in Dolgarrog three years after he first surfed at its artificial wave lagoon which was the first in the world when it opened in 2015.
Spike, a Scouser who now lives in Seattle, was back for the two-day Welsh Adaptive Surfing Championships to show that Conwy can rival California for surf and that disabilities are no barrier to competitive sport.
He was among 20 competitors, including from the USA, France, Israel and some homegrown talent, and came first in the sitting category and third in the prone surfing category.
The 59-year-old said: “I took part in a competition over here and thought I’d be back within a few months so I left it here but it’s been three years since I last saw it. I’m glad it’s been well looked after.”
Spike, originally from Bootle, in Liverpool, took up surfing more than 40 years ago and would regularly travel to Rhosneigr on Anglesey to ride the waves. He worked as an outdoor activities coach teaching other to surf, sail and kayak.
After travelling to the USA, he “fell in love with the place” and decided to live there permanently.
He said: “I met someone, got married and lived there full time. I live in Seattle now but its three hours away from the nearest waves so I spend a lot of time in California riding the waves.”
Spike’s life took a dramatic turn in 2005 when he was riding his motorbike in Seattle and was struck by another vehicle which had run a red light.
He suffered a fractured spine and is paralysed from his armpits and spent weeks in hospital but that wasn’t going to stop him.
“I was aware of adaptive surfing and I’d taken disabled people surfing in Liverpool so I knew the resources available and that doors were not closing on me.
“I’ve always been active and being able to continue surfing meant the world to me,” he said.
His constant companion is his service dog, Buttons. The poodle is named after Hawaiian surfer Montgomery Kaluhiokalani whose nickname was Buttons.
“He was an innovator of modern surfing manoeuvres and was known for his switch foot surfing and for performing the first 360 turn in a major film. Surfer Magazine called him one of the most influential surfers of all time.
“He also had a huge Afro hairstyle and Buttons has a similar hair style,” said Spike.
Spike is looking forward to seeing adaptive surfing become a Paralympic sport.
“We’re aiming at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 2028. We hope that if it isn’t a competitive sport at the Games it will be an exhibition event. The standards are high and we hope the Games will help raise standards even higher,” he added.
The man-made lagoon on the former aluminium smelting site was the world’s first inland venue to host an adaptive surfing championship event three years ago and organisers Adventure Parc Snowdonia have been keen to have the adaptive surfers back – it’s for those with additional needs or challenges – and its proved a big hit with the boarders.
The event feature nine different categories surfers without limbs, competitors who are paralysed and who surf in the prone position and those who need to be assisted onto the wave and caught at the other end with two categories for the impaired surfers.
The driving force behind the event has been Llywelyn Williams, 27, from Abersoch, whose own dreams of becoming a competitive surfer began on the beaches of Porth Ceiriad and Porth Neigwl in Gwynedd.
Those dreams were dashed by a horrific accident when he was 11 which cost him a leg but continuing with his sport has been just another challenge to be overcome and he was back in the water in less than a year.
“I started competing soon after and have travelled all over the world,” he said and since then he has won gold at the English Adaptive Championships in 2018 in the kneeling category and recently represented Wales at the International Surfing Association World Adaptive Championships in California.
He added: “At the US Open championships I wrote on a piece of paper asking if anyone would like to take part in a Welsh championship and more than 40 people said they would love to come.
“I set about organising it and we had a very successful event here at Dolgarrog three years ago but then Covid happened and put a stop to everything and this year we are back again and there are 20 athletes here taking part in the championships.
“I was a bit stressed before the event started but with everything underway, I’m as happy as can be,” he said.
In the event, Llywelyn rose to the occasion and came away with a win in the kneeling category.
Known as ‘Sponge’ to his friends in the surfing world Llywelyn said he got the name after the cartoon character SpongeBob. “I had a gap in my teeth when I was younger,” he said.
He’ll be off to California again later this year for the US Open but before that he will travel to Spain and to Bristol for the English championships in July at an inland wave site.
Swimming lifeguard Isaac Heaher, from Swansea, took up surfing three years ago after he visited the Surfability site on the Gower Peninsula.
A keen swimmer Isaac was born without a thigh bone but has not let the disability keep him out of the water and he has taken part in the British National Championships.
“I went down to Caswell Bay three years ago and began surfing and loved it,” he said.
The renowned facility was established nine years ago and initially stored all its equipment in an old bus shelter.
It became even more well-known after the BBC programme DIY SOS team carried out a Big Build at the site creating a brand new facility catering for disabled surfers and others.
He said: “I learnt to surf before the Big Build and since then the centre has boomed and become really, really popular, “ said Isaac who has visited the wave pool at Adventure Parc Snowdonia several times.
“It’s a great place to compete or just surf. The waves are really good and the facilities are first class. It’s more like the sea than other similar centres.”
Teaching assistant at a Swansea secondary school, Isaac said he enjoys competition and this time came fourth in the kneeling category.
“I’m really grateful to the school authorities for allowing me the time off,” he said.
Another competitor, Tash Davies, 31, from Bournemouth, took part in the prone assist category where the surfer is assisted into the water and pushed into the wave and another crew are waiting for her at the end of her run.
Tash, who has had a weakness in her arms, started surfing three years ago after being invited to an event at Newquay, in Cornwall.
She said: “I watched the others and it looked good to me so I went home and started training. I got into the water with a surfboard and loved it.
“I have been disabled since I was 13 years old and have enjoyed kayaking but surfing is a different challenge which I enjoy taking on.”
Adventure Parc Snowdonia Marketing Manager Iwan Phillips said: “It’s a privilege to welcome the adaptive surfers back to Snowdonia, their incredible spirit and camaraderie highlight the very best of surfing and how sport truly brings people together for all the right reasons.
“For us hosting this event showcases the benefits the controlled environment we have with our facility alongside our ambition to make surfing and outdoor activities accessible and inclusive to people of all abilities or confidence levels.”
The main sponsor for the event is The Mailing Room, a Bury-based family company with an interest in adaptive surfing. AmpSurf, an organisation set up to inspire and rehabilitate people with disabilities, and Llywelyn’s family company, Hopalong Clothing, are also supporting the event.