Disabled surfer turning the tide
Seated in the foyer of the Elangeni Hotel in Durban this week, with his tailor-made wheelchair next to him, the bright-eyed blond adventurer’s aura is captivating.
Hearing how he lost the use of his legs 20 years ago in a carjacking in Cape Town and how the ocean helped breathe meaning into his life, it’s clear the life he lives surpasses that of many able-bodied people.
Before the carjacking that landed him in a wheelchair, Hansen was already surfing.
He describes his first time back on a board on the waves without the use of his legs as debilitating. “I started on a body board but I couldn’t actually surf, I couldn’t catch waves. All I could do was lie on this thing and it made me frustrated as the muscles on my back hadn’t built, so I couldn’t paddle.”
The strong-willed and positive-thinking Hansen says his legs felt heavy and so did his mind. He felt stiff and couldn’t move properly, something which terrified him as a surfer who was once fluid in the water.
“It wasn’t nice, but with perseverance, as with anything in life, we can conquer that disability, whatever it is - whether it’s of the mind or body. It was liberating to be in the water, but humbling and frustrating.”
Hansen says the healing effect of the ocean contributed immensely to the priceless life he lives today and it is this journey which has prompted him to start a Sea Rehabilitation (Seahab) centre in Panama, where he currently lives.
“When I first went into the ocean without the use of my legs, I never knew anyone else in a wheelchair, anybody else paralysed or disabled. So I was with some people that I didn’t really know, and they sort of carried me into the water and I didn’t know the tricks.”
He says with the knowledge he has gained from his healing journey in the ocean, he feels he is now equipped to be a helping hand to those in the same position he was in back then.
“I have worked everything out from the bottom, from the lowest you can go, mentally and physically. So now when I get somebody who is new from the hospital and new in a wheelchair, I know exactly how to introduce them into the sport of surfing and the ocean - whether it’s on a kayak or a surfboard. I know how to do it in a way that it’s an enjoyable experience and empowering.”
Hansen says while this will not be an easy journey for some, nature is far more powerful than using pills and what is perceived to be therapy.
He says the Seahab centre, Devocean, will be a pilot project in Panama with the hope that after its success it can be taken across the world. And the first place after Panama would be South Africa because this is where his heart lies.
“There is this beautiful powerful form of natural healing right at your doorstep in Durban: the sea. It’s within anybody’s grasp, all you need is a pair of shorts, you don’t need money.”
When surfing, Hansen ties both his feet with a bungee rope, lies on his belly and does what he knows best - connect with the ocean and catch waves.
Any other person would be terrified at the prospect of not being able to kick their legs in water and would probably describe Hansen as fearless.
And after surviving the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami alone on a yacht and staring at what he describes as “an immense barrel that was almost a dream wave to surf on”, Hansen says he had a new respect for death.
“The tsunami empowered me because I survived it and a lot of my friends died. I watched people dying, I saw boats sinking. Here I was, this guy that was paralysed, alone on this yacht, and I managed to survive it. It taught me I have this capability and this ability to get through situations in life by using my mind and being clear about my actions.”
Retelling snippets of that December morning of the tsunami, Hansen says he had been living on the yacht for a year while sailing across the ocean with his Cape Town friend, James Taylor, before he was left alone on the boat.
After a year on the boat, he had become in tune with the ocean and the way nature moves, with the wind, with the birds and with the way the ocean was performing, so when he was alone that morning he could tell something was wrong.
He says there were four waves. When the first one - which was about 2m high - came through, he knew he had to act really quickly. He crawled across the deck to the anchor and cut the anchor line.
“I wasn’t afraid, but I knew that death was close if I didn’t act. But back then, I also had a bit of a gung-ho attitude. That’s why I didn’t fear death, I didn’t care what happened to me because I was searching for something that would make me feel really alive.”
Hansen is also something of a treasure searcher.
“We have been looking for treasure up and down different coasts of the world. We have found a few amazing old coins and trinkets from the 1400s and the 1500s, and we found these somewhere in the Indian Ocean.”
Hansen, who often free dives, explains how he makes it to the bed of the ocean to find these precious treasures: he ties his legs together and then ties himself to a sea scooter, or he throws down a long rope with an anchor and then pulls himself down. He is able to hold his breath longer than many people because his lifeless legs have very small muscles, which means less blood circulation, which translates into him using less oxygen.
“Some of the coins are from 1492 and they have the VOC sign on them, which was the Dutch East India Company.
“You get to hold a piece of history - kings and maybe princes held the same pieces of silver or gold, the history is precious. And so are our oceans.”The Independent on Saturday