SURFABILITY: Surf’s up for everyone at special needs surfing school 

Six years on from starting his training school, thousands, mainly children and young adults, who never had a hope before of being active in the open sea and surfing are trying a session or taking courses, some using new equipment he has developed. Clifford, whose big break came through youth charity The Prince’s Trust’s enterprise programme for aspiring young entrepreneurs, runs Surfability from Caswell Bay, on south Wales’ Gower peninsula. “We have access there to some of the UK’s best beginner waves,” he explains. “By catering for each person’s additional needs with our surfing, healthcare and lifeguarding skills they can get the most out of surfing while having a safe and really enjoyable experience.

“Those with cerebral palsy or high level spinal injuries are among the many who come to us.” 

The preparation required to make the courses possible, with the right equipment and training techniques, have turned Surfability into a pioneer developing new kits and guidance that did not exist before.

As well as creating the UK’s first seated tandem surfboard for those who cannot sit up unaided, there is also an easy-to-use wetsuit with additional protected zips. Boards for those with vision difficulties are in the pipeline.  

Having seen time and again how surfing can liberate, boost well-being and confidence Clifford also observes: “People do not always realise the obstacles the disabled face.

“Ordinary wheelchairs don’t work on sand. We have special ones, and getting in and out of wetsuits requires a lot of manoeuvring however mobile you are.” 

He worked with the University of Wales Trinity St David on the prototype for the seated tandem surfboard, and a new version with a more comfortable, stable seat is being tested. 

The innovations have caught the eye of potential collaborators in the global surfing community, including Californian special needs youth adventure charity Best Day Foundation. 

Bookings from travel groups in the sector are also growing with Surfability hosting a group from Austria recently.

As a child who had physical coordination struggles Clifford understands only too well the frustrations of being stuck on the sidelines and how to overcome them.

He never gave up his dream of being a surfer and at Swansea University took to the waves and then ran a surf club through a mainstream school for those with autism. 

Success there proved there was a demand, and when his job ended he applied and was accepted for The Prince’s Trust enterprise programme. 

“That made me realise my own idea for adaptive surfing and coaching could work. I had the practical coaching skills but they gave me the business knowledge” he says. 

Instead of a conventional small business structure, he decided to make Surfability a Community Interest Company with income from teaching, £10 a session, supplemented by grant funding.

“This has kept costs down making it more inclusive and fits with our ethos as a community service,” he explains.

Four instructors are employed with vital help from 30 volunteers – it takes four to take one person surfing with the tandem board.

The business is now an all-year one thanks to Surfability running sessions on the indoor wave simulator at Swansea Leisure Centre waterpark. 

To improve the experience for wheelchair users it is developing a new body board. 

Raising more funds to meet the demand remains a constant challenge although further collaborations with physical injury organisations and new product development offer further ways to scale the business.   

But Clifford is in no doubt that his days initially with The Prince’s Trust “learning how to write a proper business plan and having a mentor made a huge difference.

“One of the Trust’s Will It Work grants enabled me to test the trading viability of my adaptive ideas. Without those I would not have come so far so quickly.” Backing Youth Ambition, new partnership between The Trust and Lloyds Bank Group, aims to get more than 1,000 young people aged 18 to 30 to start their own businesses over the next three years. A £1.2 million donation from the bank is backed by a support through fundraising, volunteering and mentoring throughout the UK.