Standup From A Wheelchair: Charles Webb’s Story

Photo: JP Van Swae

SUP From A Wheelchair: Charles Webb’s Story

Charles Webb, like 480 other standup paddlers, took on the Open Race at this year’s Battle of the Paddle. But unlike those 480 other paddlers, Webb is paraplegic.

The 47-year-old, Oceanside, Calif. local lost the use of his legs after a motorcycle accident in 1986. His surfing obsession—which he’d lived for—was over. Until this year, when he discovered standup. Kawika Watt, owner of Onit Ability Boards, had developed a standup board for disabled paddlers with an all-terrain wheelchair that locks in place. He met Webb and started training him. Webb’s courageous story resonates with the paddling community. A couple of weeks ago, we posted a photo on our social networks of Webb paddling at the BOP and it went viral. So we tracked him down to hear how SUP changed his life, in his own words.—WT

I was at my wits end. I had two rotator cuff tears in my right shoulder and I’d torn the left one in 2010. In January (2013) I detached my right bicep when my dog yanked my arm in just the wrong way. Surgery would have put me out with my arm tied to my side and needing a nurse everyday. I don’t have a caregiver, I work a job and take care of myself. No one takes care of my laundry or takes out the trash.

My brother, James McDonald, was hanging at the beach in Carlsbad talking with this guy about SUPs for wheelchairs. Kawika, the owner, was talking about this prototype board he’d built but he didn’t have anybody to ride it.

My brother called me early Sunday morning—too early for me—after he talked to this cat and they’d figured out that James Rouse, one of the dudes that funded (the board), funded it with me in mind. We knew each other! He said, “You gotta get down to the beach.” I got out of bed and checked it out.

Kawika believes in helping people. We were two people praying for the same thing. I wanted something to get me back to a normal life and he wanted to help people with that. It was too surreal to be a coincidence.

I was the first person to ride the board and then we started training and rehabbing my shoulder. I’d been doing rehab for a couple years without much success and all it took was paddling three times a week, five or six weeks and I was stronger than before I’d injured myself. The benefits are amazing.

Webb competing at the Urban Surf 4 Kids Race on Mission Bay.

Webb competing at the Urban Surf 4 Kids Race on Mission Bay.

Eventually I thought we should take the outriggers off (the board). When we took them off I was like, “I think I could catch a wave.” Kawika said, “That’s not what it’s made for.” I said, “I know, but I think I can surf!”

Three weeks before BOP we went to Doheny. The first wave I rode I didn’t fall. It was the craziest thing. I couldn’t believe it. I caught five waves that day, one all the way to the sand.

I didn’t tell anybody, I just signed up for BOP. I emailed Rainbow and was like I’m gonna do your four-mile race, you just need to be OK with me coming. Barrett Tester and Pat Huber went to bat for me. Thumbs up to them.

When I showed up I thought there would be like 100 people or so there. I got to Doheny and there was a line a half-hour long just to get into the park. I was like, “Am I in the right place?”

It was the most exhilarating experience I’ve had in a very long time. I wish I could have enjoyed the paddle more but it was kind of crazy with all the people.

I went to another race in San Diego a couple weeks later and Chuck Glynn told me that Rainbow gave me an award (at BOP). I was a little overwhelmed with everything, the race, Laird Hamilton coming up to me and the female winners congratulating me. I got a little freaked out and split. I contacted Barrett after I talked to Chuck and said that I was super humbled. Sparky (Longley) invited me to come to the headquarters to meet him.

Webb on a waveski and having fun. Photo: Jeff Wallis

Webb on a waveski and having fun. Photo: Jeff Wallis

Now I’m surfing on a waveski. I can surf on the paddleboard but it’s not really made for surfing. I just wanted to show what this thing could do. I met the guys at Infinity and eventually went out with Steve (Boehne) on a tandem waveski. I got it right away. Steve told me that I was basically using the paddle like I’d been doing it for a long time. He was like, “You need to go surf on your own.” I’m borrowing a board now but Steve’s shaping me one.

Now we’re helping other people get on the Onit Boards, from para-athletes to the mentally disabled. It’s an awesome experience. It’s turned into this beautiful movement of helping all these disabled people.

I’m going to do BOP again and five to eight races this year and hopefully I’ll recruit a couple more people. I’m also going to waveski more and compete in the disabled class. The disabled waveski guys totally charge it. They inspire me.

The standup community is an awesome place. It’s non-judgmental and it’s a testament to the sport. It made me want to be a part of it. Just from September the paddling has completely changed everything about my life. I couldn’t be more grateful.

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