Surfin’ to Sobriety

We don’t know if this is what the respected Tabankulu Recovery Centre, a rehab facility for recovering addicts in Cape Town, had in mind when they decided to implement surfing as part of their rehabilitation programme.

According to an article in the US based Christian Science Monitor, patients at the respected clinic are encouraged to take up the sport to help wean them off their various addictions and personal problems.

Once a week, an assortment of people struggling with alcoholism, drug addiction, bulimia, and other troubles pick up their boards and learn to surf in the waters around South Africa’s “Mother City.”

Their surfing instructor, Lenny Stolk, is himself a former heavy drinker and drug addict who kicked his habits seven years ago.

After his rehabilitation, Mr. Stolk returned to work, but was made redundant in June this year, which is when he thought about starting up LJ’s Surf Clinic.

“I spent 90,000 to 95,000 rand on the van and surfboards and spoke to the clinic,” says Stolk. “I did not want it to be a surf school.

“I wanted it to be a surf clinic to help addicts and people with problems,” says Stolk. “I’ve looked on the Internet and can’t find anywhere else that offers it.”

Since September, Stolk has taught about 20 people to surf.

Tabankulu offers a treatment programme in three different stages based on a 12-step recovery plan.

Most patients are from Britain and different parts of Africa, but it currently hosts people from Sweden, Holland, and Ukraine. They pay some R150 000 for a typical nine-month course of treatment.

Once a week, Stolk teaches two groups of five or six surfers, but he is keen to stress that it is seen as a “reward” for progression with other elements of the program.

“It takes my mind off drugs and my treatment,” says one of Stolk’s students. “It’s given me hope for the future.”

Cinic administrators say that surfing offers a new challenge for patients and fills a gap when they might otherwise be tempted to revert to bad habits. “It’s about having fun,” says Tabankulu director and owner Hugh Robinson. “The biggest task for a recovering addict is finding new enthusiasm for life. Surfing gives that – it gets the juices going, new excitement and passion. Also, when you get out into the sea on your board you realise how large the world is and how small you are.”

“It’s easy to say no and go back to drugging and drinking, but learning to surf gives you a real sense of achievement which is important,” says Stolk.

“I know what it’s like when you give something up,” Stolk adds. “It was okay for me because I’ve always surfed. But for those who’ve always drugged, you need something to fill your gap. It’s a good, clean sport and can be addictive!”