Thursday, 3 October 2013

Surfing with diabetes: Face-planting and packing the right kit.

When you start dating, you could choose to put on your best clothes, douse yourself in perfume and dine at the most expensive restaurant in town.  That, is a great way to get to know each other.  The other option of course is that you could, as Jamie and I did, drive to Cornwall, squeeze into a frighteningly tight wet-suit not designed for someone with a chocolate habit and throw yourselves repeatedly into the powerful battering waves of the North Atlantic Ocean.  While doing so, you will of course also face-plant the water over and over again with blind optimism, sheer determination and in an attempt to 'impress' the other.

We first caught the surfing bug when we stumbled across  Escape Surf School, back in 2007. Based under St Christopher's Inn Hostel, Newquay and overlooking Towan beach, it was a beautiful place to be for our first date.  On the first morning we immediately clicked with the instructors, Mike (pro-surfer, coach to the British Surf Team and possibly the most friendly man alive) and Will (awesome guy who's won countless competitions, coached the British Junior Surf Team and can even surf without a surfboard.  Show off.).

Wet-suit unfriendly
diabetes paraphernalia.  
Surfing is a challenging business: not in the least for a person with Type one diabetes. Let's put aside the issue of blood testing in the water (extreme aqua blood testing?) and think about where the hell you keep your glucose tabs, insulin, blood test meter and insulin pump when wearing, well, little more than a skin-tight neoprene wet-suit. Considering there is barely space for my ample rear-end, finding space for my diabetes paraphernalia is even more of a challenge.                   

This September Jamie and I made our way back to Cornwall for our annual anniversary trip, and what better way to celebrate than to head back to our favourite surf school, catch some waves and work on our surfing style (see also: face-planting).  

Before heading into the water on day one my blood glucose was a fantastic 9.0 mmol: a great number pre-surf.  With a swig of Lucozade and the removal of my insulin pump, I surfed for the whole session with no problems, and as we got back to Escape's welcoming warm showers and Belushi's legendary burgers, I was rocking a perfect 10.0 (mmol).  It was a resounding success, by anyone's standards.  As was my face-pl...I mean, surfing.  My husband on the other hand, rocked it.

Jamie, who tells me that he is expecting O'Neill's call any day...
Day 2 however told a different story.  My pre-surf BG test revealed a 4.0 mmol and as 3.9 mmol is technically already a hypo, I devoured most of my first bottle of Lucozade before we'd even left for the beach.  I put the remainder of the bottle and my blood test kit into Escape's first aid bag, and headed in the direction of the waves. Why it didn't occur to me to take my second (full) bottle of Lucozade I will never know, but one hour in and after a monster wipe out, I felt the tell-tale signs of a hypo arrive.  I told Will I was heading in, enrolled the help of Jamie to babysit my board while I tried my hand at extreme aqua blood testing, and made for the beach.  Escape instructor Sarah had already spotted me wandering in, dragging my board behind me in a less than cool-looking way, and came to check things out. Calm but attentive, she jogged off to get my testing kit, like it was no big deal. There is nothing worse than a panicker when you are feeling hypo, so Sarah's chilled-out attitude was a breath of fresh air.   

Thank you to the photographer, for the photos...
...and the shorts!
Luckily for me the photographer, there to catch our most impressive surfing attempts (see also: watery face-plants), let me to dry my hands on his shorts because I forgot to pack any tissue to dry my fingers (worst prepared diabetic ever award?).  But then what better way is there to get to know someone than to wipe your salty, water-wrinkled hands all over their shorts?

As it dawned on me that my second bottle of Lucozade was at the top of the hill in the changing rooms, I prayed I was just tired from the surfing (see also: sea-bed face-planting). I watched nervously as the meter counted down.

5, 4, 3, 2, 1.

3.2 mmol.  


I looked back up at the hill I might need to climb, wishing that the last mouthful of Lucozade I just finished would be enough to raise my BGs.  I knew it wouldn't be.  

"Hey", I heard from over my shoulder.  "Here you go, have these."

As I turned around Sarah placed in my hand a full packet of glucose tablets and smiled. And just like that, her eyes were back on the surf watching the surfers get acquainted with the sea-bed (see also: beachy face-planting).

I let out a sigh of relief.  

It had never occurred to me that the surf school I learn with might need to be diabetes-savvy. I have always been fiercely independent in my management of diabetes, so other than the mandatory 'type one diabetes' on the medical form, I don't really demand the help of others, or expect them to be prepared.  But as I discovered this year sometimes, they need to be. Because even someone with 26 years of diabetes experience can mess it up sometimes.  

Wild dolphins, who swam amongst us for over an hour
My own complacency after just one successful surf could have brought me crashing to my knees and ruined a fantastic surf (see also: every kind of face-planting there is), but thankfully for me Escape Surf School were totally prepared.  Not just in the amount of instructors they have watching over our inexplicably comical efforts to walk on water, but also in the supplies they took to the beach and the speed at which they calmly dealt with my efforts to derail their lesson.

Escape, thank you. Not just for a weekend where I experienced wild dolphins playing in the harbour while we surfed, but also for being prepared for all eventualities: especially unprepared people with type 1 diabetes.

Can you guarantee the surf company you chose have supplies if you need them to?  I can tell you first hand that Escape do. 

See you next year! 

Me, apparently trying to kill Sarah


  1. Nice blog and cool photos Anna. Ever thought of using energy gel sachets and maybe putting them in a waterproof SPI-belt? Kitesurfer Pete Shaw (also has T1) takes gels out with him just in case.


    P.S. Guess what I'm doing tomorrow :-)

    1. Hey Kev,

      That's a great idea. We took an Aquapac one year as getting the wet suit off would be a challenge, but not sure why none of that occurred to me while we were away. Too excited to be back there I imagine :)

      What are you doing tomorrow??

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  3. I see the sea is not stand it ... great. I wish I could be like you!
    teefury , redbubble , threadless.

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