Blind surfers ride the waves in Carlsbad

When Nicole Bissett returned to her home of San Diego after a year away for work, she knew the beach would be one of the first places she would visit.

On June 4, she climbed on her surfboard, paddled out in the water and stood up, catching waves and feeling free from life's stresses.

She felt happy and safe, even though she was in complete darkness.

Bissett has been legally blind since birth. The Mira Mesa woman began surfing a few years ago with the San Diego Blind Community Center, and took part in a the 22nd annual Blind Surf event on Sunday at South Ponto Beach in Carlsbad.

"I gotta have me some beach. I love it. It feels great, nice and refreshing to have some time outside. I love anything to do with the ocean," she said.

"Everybody thinks, 'Oh, you're blind. You're in a prison of darkness.' It's not like that. It's all in what you make it and your attitude toward life. If you want to feel sorry for yourself, sure, that option is there. But there's a lot to do in life."

Bissett was one of 15 blind and visually-impaired surfers who braved the waters at the event, where 105 volunteers from Swami's Surfing Association assisted them on the shore and in the water.

For each surfer, between five and seven volunteers surrounded them on all sides to guide them on the waves.

Mikey Tom, who volunteers with Swami's and has assisted at the event for four years, said Blind Surf is great for people who are not in the water often to "feel stoked" off being in the ocean, the environment and riding waves.

The Cardiff resident said he'll sometimes ride waves with his eyes closed to have a similar experience as the blind.

"It's just someone experiencing something that I've never experienced on a wave," he said. "Paddling out, closing my eyes, taking a wave and closing my eyes is a completely different feeling than having sight. Just to be able to pass that feeling off onto someone else, so someone else feels good about what they're doing and get confidence for other things in their life, is great."

Matt Allen, owner of Maui Surf Academy in Encinitas, said working with the blind is a reminder of something regular surfers take advantage of.

"I've definitely done it so much where surfing is comparable to a drug," he said. "It's like you always need more, get a little jaded and forget that it's so amazing that we get to do this. For them to step in and be out of their comfort zone, you get to feel that right alongside them and it kind of brings you back to the beginning of why you started surfing in the first place."

For many of the blind surfers, like Bissett, riding waves is not an everyday task. But Scott Leason has continued regularly surfing even after losing his sight more than two decades ago.

Leason, 61, of City Heights, lost both of his eyes nearly 24 years ago when he was shot in the head by armed robbers while working at a convenience store. After recovering, he was determined to surf again, even through the new obstacles.

Since then, he has won two world championships, one U.S. championship and has inspired the creation of sight-impaired surfing divisions. He will compete in his third International Surfing Association World Adaptive Surfing Championship this summer.

Leason has worked with Surf Coach Pat Weber of the San Diego Surfing Academy for 16 years and considers Weber his "eyes" when he's out in the water.

"I totally have to listen to everything that he's saying and execute his verbal commands," he said. "My success to me is that he gets me in a wave, I pop up, I drop in and I'm standing."

Lucy Dolan, who surfed for the second time at the event, said she believes blind people can do anything they set their minds to.

Even as she fell off her board, with the volunteers around to catch her, she continued smiling.

"It was kind of hard today because I have a bad left leg, but I said I was going to get on there one way or another," she said. "I was scared but all of the help around me made sure I stayed on that board and stayed safe."

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