Like a fish, I was always at home in the water, and once I discovered surfing as a kid I knew that it would be a huge part of my life. Little did I know, on a summer afternoon, February 6th, 1986 at Doheny Beach in Dana Point, California I would lose touch with surfing for over two decades, and face a life of physical and emotional recovery.
"One thing that I have learned is that it does not matter the level of injury, the sickness, or disease the ocean is healing and if you want to be a part of it and you are open to it, the ocean is more than welcoming and will help to heal your pain both physically and emotionally."
My first board was an old Canyon board, a twin fin, single wing, swallow tail shaped by Rusty Preisendorfer in 1981. Although it was not my favorite board, it was a board that helped to elevate my surfing fast. Once I out grew the Canyon board I got really lucky and scored my first thruster shaped by Gary Linden, the board was owned by team rider Chewy Reyna and was featured in a few surfer magazine shots which made it even more awesome for me as a kid. This board was one of my favorites; it was the first board that I felt comfortable dropping into bigger surf with and then I started learning how to ride the barrel, which was my ultimate goal.
There’s a time in a surfer’s evolution to have a board custom made for them, and that time had come for me. Growing up in Carlsbad in the 80’s there was no shortage of local shapers like Scott Chandler, David Barr, and Trey Sapp. I chose to get my first custom board shaped by Danny Beuler. It was a squash tail thruster that took my surfing to another level but I went through that board like a new pair of shoes and quickly needed another board. My second custom board was shaped by David Barr. David Barr was a team rider for Gary Linden and was also a Linden protégé in the shaping room, his progressive shapes proved it. This board was one of my absolute favorites as it took my surfing to a level I never knew before. My last board and my most favorite by far was shaped by Gary Linden himself, it was originally shaped for team rider and good friend Paul Barr. It was brand new and ready to rock, a channel bottom, swallow tail, thruster. Paul really wasn’t happy with the board so he offered it to me; luckily, right after I cashed my tax return check! It took me a bit to get used to the board but once I did, my surfing ability escalated beyond my own belief. This board handled all surf, especially bigger surf; it allowed me to do monster vertical turns like never before, and it was faster than hell fire in the barrel!
My last surf session had pretty epic surf, it was at “Warm Waters”, a location known to locals from north county San Diego, California, and the left was firing. This break is known more for the right but when the left breaks it can be world class; it was a perfect 4-5ft day in February 1986. I can remember sitting in barrels on almost every wave I took off on and thinking how stoked I was on this board. It was one of the best days of surfing I can remember. A few days later, I was in a freak motorcycle accident that would change the course of my life and my surf career forever.
My name is Charles Webb, aka Chaka, and I am a paraplegic waterman. I have been a paraplegic since, 1986. At the age of 19 years old, I was in a motorcycle accident and ended up with a T-7, 8 incomplete spinal cord injury, which means that I have sensation but no mobility in my legs.
February 7th, 1986 was a day like any other at least that’s what I thought when I rolled out of bed. A few days earlier I had just found out that my favorite surf board had been stolen so I wasn’t on top of the world. Since I couldn’t surf I borrowed my roommate’s motorcycle, a Honda XL 350 and went to meet a friend in Carlsbad, CA. I rode out from Vista and took off down Sunset Avenue and when I was only about 2 miles from my house everything in my life changed in a split seconds time.
I was coming up on an “S” turn and hit a patch of gravel going into the turn; the bike washed out and sent me sliding into the oncoming lane. My first thought when I hit the ground was “I hope there is not a car coming around the corner!” That’s when I saw the grill of the 1967 Buick Sky Lark heading straight for me. My first thought was to jump from the bike, so I wouldn’t get pinned underneath the front of the car. Naturally, I didn’t want to be on it when it ended up there. So I pushed off the bike and my momentum shot me head first underneath the back tire and that’s where the car stopped on my back, pinning me to the asphalt.
While pinned under the rear tire, I still had my faculties about me; I knew who I was and knew I was underneath a car, still very aware of the situation. That is when I noticed my nose was bleeding and my initial thought was, I had an internal head injury! I just kept thinking to myself that I was ok and I was going to live but that was when the weight of the 1967 Buick Sky Lark started to suffocate me. I thought back to a time when I was surfing and I got held under water for too long and I had to take a breath, and that breath was water filled. I felt if I didn’t try to take a breath I was going to suffocate under the weight of the car. I took in whatever air I could fill my lungs with, which wasn’t much but it was enough to bring my heart rate down and stop myself from going into a full on panic.
Suddenly, I heard the sound of fire igniting, the tank on the bike had ruptured and the gas was ablaze. I was on the downhill slope and gas was draining in my direction. Now the thought of me burning was running through my mind and the thought of me suffocating seemed like a blessing. Relieved, I heard the sound of a fire extinguisher putting out the fire and thought, “Thank God someone has a fire extinguisher in their car!” A paramedic slid under the car and started asking me questions like, “Do you know who you are and where you are at?” I responded in classic fashion, “My name is Charles Webb and I’m trapped under a car on Sunset Ave!” The paramedic fixed an I.V. to my arm and that’s when I blacked out...the first time.
Upon awakening, the first thing I sensed was that I could breathe and that the weight of the car was gone. Instinctively, my first reaction was to get up off the ground and try to walk it off. I quickly realized I could not walk and started to panic. Immediately, I thought “I am never going to surf again!” then I freaked out screaming, “I’m paralyzed!” Seconds later, I was crawling on the ground when the paramedics were trying to keep me from moving calling for morphine, again I blacked out. In and out of consciousness, I could tell they were cutting off my jacket and putting me on a stretcher. I awoke again to them loading me on to a helicopter, “Life Flight” which flew me to Palomar Medical Center; it was the closest trauma center. The turbulence of the helicopter landing was the last thing I remembered, and the first time I remember feeling extreme pain, a level of pain I never thought possible.
The next time I woke up was after my surgery, and I began to comprehend how much the human body can endure. How in times of extreme pressure or when in a life threatening situation the human spirit wants to live, it wants to thrive. Pinned underneath that car there were a few seconds I thought I was going to die, and then that thought was quickly replaced with thoughts of living. Those thoughts were of surfing, the ocean, sunny days at the beach, and the smell of salty air. These are the thoughts that got me through it all. I thought I was going to die and all I could think of was living the life I already had.
My love for the ocean never left me after my accident as I have been an avid sports fisherman most of my life and really developed a deeper love for it once I was paraplegic. The unfortunate part was that once I was paraplegic it was so painful for me to watch surfing that I just distanced myself from it all together, and this was one of the biggest mistakes of my life. I say this in the hopes that if someone in a similar situation reads this maybe they will not waste the time I did away from the surf. One thing that I have learned is that it does not matter the level of injury, the sickness, or disease the ocean is healing and if you want to be a part of it and you are open to it, the ocean is more than welcoming and will help to heal your pain both physically and emotionally.
I dabbled in many different arenas to try to find something that would fill my soul like surfing did. I played in a few different music bands over the span of about 20 years and it did come close to filling the void. There was still something vital missing and that was the feeling of pure stoke that only the ocean can give you!
In March of 2013, at 6AM on a Sunday morning, I received a call from my brother. At the time, 6AM on a Sunday was way too early, weekends are for sleeping. You see I worked a corporate job and after 17 years of working it was taking its toll on my body heath wise. My brother called me to say he met a person (Kawika Watt) that has a prototype adaptive paddle board for a person in a wheel chair and that nobody has ridden it yet. After my brother and Kawika spoke a bit more they found out that the person that funded the project was an acquaintance of mine; he had mentioned me to Kawika Watt so this was sounding more and more appealing to me. I went to meet Kawika and within 48 hours I was on the water doing research and development (R and D) on what would eventually be called an Onit Ability Board.
After only a week of doing some R and D on the board we quickly found out that I was gaining strength in an existing shoulder injury that wasn’t responding to other types of rehabilitation that I tried previously; and, after three to four weeks there was a noticeable difference in the results with paddle boarding. Within a few months of paddle boarding and using it as rehabilitation, I was paddling strong and my injured shoulders were both gaining strength, and that is when I decided to try surfing on the board. We decided that the safest place to do this would be at Doheny Beach in Dana Point. Needless to say, this system is not made for surfing and it was not well received at first. After making it known that I was going to make this happen one way or another, we packed up the board and charged it.
I caught five waves that day at Doheny Beach, the first waves I had caught in 27 years! It was one of the best, most memorable days of my life. One of the best parts about it for me was I was able to share this special day with my brother James, who is also a surfer. My brother James is one of my best friends and he has always been there for me, through it all.
A few weeks later, I would have another life altering moment during the Battle of the Paddle at that very same spot, Doheny Beach.
Next Story: Battle of the Paddle…