Friday, 30 August 2013

Cornwall Calls - and I’m heartened by the work of the Surf Action charity

I'm looking forward to a short break with my wife, Susanne, in the far west of Cornwall - a place we know and love. We’ll be checking into The Gurnard’s Head to begin with and then taking a trip to the Hell Bay Hotel on the Scilly isle of Bryher.

Despite its name, I'm assured the Hell Bay Hotel is a lovely and relaxing place. It might be just what we need because while at The Gurnard’s Head we plan to try surfing. The Gurnard’s Head is near the superb surfing beach of Sennen Cove and despite many visits to this part of Cornwall neither Susanne nor I ever got round to learning to surf. I have a feeling we’re going to find it pretty tiring - hence the need to recuperate while on Bryher.

Great work by Surf Action

While researching available surf schools at Sennen Cove (there seem to be two - the Sennen Surfing Centre and the Smart Surf School), I came across the work of a pioneering charity called Surf Action. The name rang bells and I realised I’ve read about Surf Action in the national press. They’re based in Cornwall and have close ties to the Sennen area, and perform a truly valuable service in helping ex-servicemen who have suffered physical injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

If you take a look at Surf Action’s website, I’m sure you’ll be as impressed as I am by the images of its team taking military veterans and their families surfing. Clearly, the people being helped by the charity have suffered gravely, whether through physical injury or the no less debilitating condition of PTSD. It is heartening to see the smiles of everyone in the sea, once they’ve been taken under Surf Action’s wing.

The charity was the brainchild of Rich Emerson, himself a former soldier who knows first-hand just how damaging PTSD can be. Emerson served with the Queen's Royal Irish Hussars in Operation Desert Storm. He became a physical training instructor and thoroughly enjoyed army life.

“I loved serving in the military, experiencing its camaraderie and sense of purpose. I was proud to serve my country and to help in the liberation of Kuwait,” he told The Guardian. 

Surfing is a life-affirming activity

However, as this story recounts, Emerson’s life went off track after he left the army. He suffered nightmares about the war and the things he’d seen, and began to behave very self-destructively. His first marriage unravelled. He drank too much. He felt suicidal. 

What Emerson didn't know was that he was suffering from PTSD – a condition barely recognised back then. Fortunately, he discovered surfing. It seems that no sooner had he caught his first wave than he was smitten. For me, as a non-surfer, I can imagine why - the sport looks so fresh and healthy, so clean and invigorating. Even in the depths of winter I can believe that for its diehards it’s still a positive, life-affirming activity.

Certainly, surfing was a major factor in turning Emerson’s life around. He got himself back on track and then started putting his energy into helping other soldiers who were similarly suffering. The result, now, is the fully fledged charity Surf Action – which was last year short-listed for lottery funding. 

All in all, the story of Surf Action is a hugely positive one, showing how much we can do to help people in need when we turn our minds to it. I'm not sure that Susanne and I will emerge from our Cornish trip as surfers, but one thing is certain: just researching this niche but compelling sport has led me to a great charity whose work is an inspiration.