Disabled men rediscover ocean with help from Surfing Madonna nonprofit

The ocean was just as Bob Wineman remembered it. The smell. The sand. The waves.

Sept. 22 marked the first time Wineman had gone into the ocean in 50 years, a feat made possible by volunteers and the nonprofit Surfing Madonna Oceans Project.

Wineman has been a quadriplegic since age 16, when he was in a car accident after returning from a backpacking trip. Before that, he was an avid surfer, frequently hitting spots across Southern California, including Swami’s Beach.

“To get out there and experience it again was just awesome,” said Wineman, who was grinning ear to ear after exiting the water at Moonlight Beach. He added it was difficult to “find the words that describe the feeling.”

As part of its mission to improve beach access for those with disabilities, the Surfing Madonna nonprofit purchased two floating beach wheelchairs and a 148-foot-long mobi-mat, a long pad for wheelchairs and strollers that was rolled out near the Moonlight Beach lifeguard tower.

Wineman thought the ocean-centric chapter of his life had closed. But when a neighbor recently showed him pictures of the floating wheelchairs in action at Moonlight Beach, he realized he, too, could be out there.

“Some of these people here have known me a long time — they’ve seen my journey,” Wineman said. “And I’m thrilled they were there to help and see me get back in the water.”

One thing had changed: Wineman doesn’t remember the water being so warm. Lifeguards confirmed it was a balmy 76 degrees, a harbinger of the upcoming El Niño weather pattern.

Volunteers and those with the nonprofit helped push him past the crashing waves at Moonlight Beach — but they didn’t stop there. They made it to a buoy about 200 yards offshore, and then opted to just float for a bit, enjoying the healing power of the ocean.

“The buoy looks way out there,” Wineman said. “To get out there and touch it — I never thought I would do that.”

They also guided Jeff Rose, another person who had once ruled out returning to the ocean. About 20 years ago, he was diagnosed with Friedreich’s ataxia, a degenerative neuromuscular disease.

Rose, who lives in Oceanside, just so happened to spot the wheelchairs two months ago while briefly stopping at Moonlight Beach on the way home. For the first time in quite a while, he imagined himself getting in the ocean.

“I wanted to try one, and so they got me in the water,” Rose said. “My whole world just shifted.”

Rose, who owns an alkaline water company called Kangen Water, said the ocean is a place free of judgment.

“On land, there’s being considered disabled and maybe judgment,” Rose said. “Out there, in that world, there’s no judgment. Everyone is on the same level.”

Robert Nichols, chairman and founder of the nonprofit, said helping the two men get in the water was “much more fun than surfing a perfect day.”

“Just the stoke on everyone’s face makes it worth it,” Nichols said.

The Surfing Madonna nonprofit is named after the famed “Surfing Madonna” mosaic, which hangs on the Leucadia Pizzeria wall facing Encinitas Boulevard and Coast Highway 101. The nonprofit funds a number of ocean-related causes; it’s supported by proceeds from the annual Surfing Madonna 5K/10K and other nonprofit ventures.

Nichols said the nonprofit plans to buy more floating beach wheelchairs.

“I want these people to know they have a support team behind them if they ever want to get in the water,” said Nichols. “The water — it’s a healer.”

Friends and family cheered the two men on. Donna Orr, Wineman’s sister, said it’s just like the old days.

“We were a beach family,” she said, adding, “I’m thrilled he’s in the ocean again.”