They came from near and far, with friends and family, and rolled their wheelchairs down the ramps from the Carolina Beach Boardwalk to the beach strand beyond. They were of all ages, backgrounds and abilities, but they had the same goal: to get on a surfboard and ride some waves.
Thanks to “They Will Surf Again,” an event put on by the national non-profit Life Rolls On that is now in its ninth year on the Carolina coast, they were able to do just that on Sunday.
With the help of more than 300 volunteers, more than 50 participants – who varied in ability from those who are able to stay on the surfboard on their own to those with more limited mobility – each got 20 minutes in the water to catch as many waves as they could.
“We don’t turn anyone away,” said Kevin Murphy of Carolina Beach, who is the local organizer for the event. “If they want to get out there and surf, we take them.”
While Life Rolls On does large-scale events across the country, Murphy’s non-profit Ocean Cure helps people of all abilities as well as veterans wounded in battle get into the water through surf camps and other events in the Carolinas. That makes the local team of volunteers uniquely qualified to work “They Will Surf Again.”
“We do this all the time, just in smaller groups,” Murphy said. “But we always have plenty of volunteers. This community is great at coming together for this.”
Murphy’s work with Ocean Cure led to a connection with Life Rolls On founder Jesse Billauer, which led to Billauer bringing the event to Wrightsville Beach nine years ago before the switch was made to Carolina Beach three years ago.
Billauer, who is from Southern California, was a world champion surfer until he was paralyzed in a surfing accident. Despite becoming a C6 quadriplegic, he wanted to get back on a board again, and was able to do so with the help of friends.
“I wanted to surf again,” Billauer said as he sat under a tent Sunday watching others experience the same thrill he gets when he’s back in the water. “That’s how the we came up with Life Rolls On.”
Founded in 2001, the non-profit has helped thousands of people get back on both surfboards and skateboards through free events on both coasts of the country.
“I wanted to give back to the community,” said Billauer, who travels to attend every event. “I want people to be able to have a good time despite their injuries.”
The Carolina Beach event drew people from all around the state, making it a social gathering as much as a surfing one. Two participants, Brice Lott of Raleigh and David Myers of China Grove, met last year at the event and took some time to catch up while waiting their turns.
Both Lott and Myers, who attended for the second year, said they enjoy being out in the water.
“It’s refreshing and a lot of fun,” said Lott, who has some movement from his hips up. “It feels good to be able to get out there. It’s an adrenaline rush.”
“It’s liberating, it’s really exciting,” said Myers, who was paralyzed after an accident a couple years ago and is still getting used to using a wheelchair. “There’s not many ways we can move that fast and be safe. You really need a team to do it.”
The men said they never felt unsafe out in the water, with volunteers stationed at strategic points (deep water, mid-water and shallow water) along the way.
“They turn you around quickly too, so you can catch as many waves as possible,” Lott said, adding that he’s attended Ocean Cure events before. “I look out for this day each year and can’t wait for it. I really look forward to it.”
Brunswick County resident Mike Love, who watched from his wheelchair on the beach both before and after his turn in the water, also looks forward to the event each year.
“I come with my friends and have lots of fun,” said the 22-year-old, who participated for the fourth year. “I really hope they will bring some more people out here from everywhere so they can surf, too.”
That, according to both Murphy and Billauer, is the goal.
“It really doesn’t get better than this,” said Murphy of the growing turnout each year. “The community of Carolina Beach especially really gets behind it, and as it continues to grow and more people learn about it and come out here, the more awareness we get.”
“I want to share the inspiration not just with paraplegics and quadriplegics, but with others as well,” said Billauer, who is also a motivational speaker. “I want to inspire fully able-bodied people to come out and see this as well, so they can truly appreciate what they have.”