Injured Israeli army veterans find healing and balance at sea
By David E. Kaplan
“I don’t know whether I am a landman or seaman,” says Israeli injured vet, Eyal Abro, the inspiration and cofounder of SEASU. This happily unsettled question for Eyal is happily helping to settle lives of Israel’s war wounded!
SEASU is a therapeutic and transformative paddling programme for veterans of the Israeli army living in the wake of physical, emotional, and spiritual trauma.
“The philosophy is embedded in the name,” explains brand builder and a cofounder, Michael McDevitt Shai. “SEASU is inspired by the Finnish concept of ‘Sisu and is best understood as extraordinary courage, undying resilience, and resolute purpose when adversity is unthinkable and success unlikely.”
Every Thursday morning at 6.00am, some 15 vets together with some eight volunteers meet at the SEASU club house on Michmoret beach, nine kilometers north of Netanya. They come from all walks of life and professions, all highly motivated with the love of the challenge and with one thing in common – they were injured in the military and have sought through a unique paddling programme a way forward.
Soon decked out in their surfski outfits, they take to the sea on their special sleek kayaks imported by Eyal from South Africa, and are beyond the waves and breakers paddling through the rolling high and low swells. There is another feeling out there in the open sea that resonates among the army vets, “that unique spirit of camaraderie,” says Eyal, “of friends who there with you and for you come hell or high water – proverbially speaking.”
One of the oldest in the group is 64-year-old serial entrepreneur Shlomo Nimrodi, who has founded, built, and led a diverse range of global industries, led three IPO’s, several M&A transactions and is at the heart and spirit of the veteran paddlers.
A grandfather of five, Shlomo has been with the group for four years. Injured at age 21 while fighting in a special units in the IDF,
Shlomo lost his left leg above the knee as well as suffering “a lot of collateral damage in many parts of my body.” This did not deter this man who thrives on challenges whether in business or in sports.
In the years following his leg amputation, “I skied, did triathlons, and while I lived in the States for 15 years , I managed to do the NY City triathlon and the Westchester Triathlon, and I guess in one of those ski trips, somebody told me about surfski, and suggested I try it.” Never deterred by a new challenge Shlomo tried, and “I fell in love at my first try.” Trying at first to do it with his prosthetic leg, “I felt at some point this was more of an anchor, so I just left it in the room and started to paddle with one leg.”
This writer found interesting Shlomo’s use of maritime parlance – “anchor” – to describe that which was holding him back!
Shlomo compares the uncertainty, challenges and the risks at sea as similar to the hi-tech arena where he daily operates. “Every time you go to the ocean its different – different weather, different vision, different feeling, different risks and it’s exciting; it raises the adrenaline.”
Another leg amputee paddler, is Eran Peri, who was injured 15 years ago in the Second Lebanon War. He relates how tough it was to come to terms with his disability. “I was told there was a guy who I should meet. I was against it; least of all to meet another amputee but when that guy turned out to be Shlomo, who we soon discovered we shared the same birthday, date – it was a sign – we became instant friends and I started sport again – skiing, cycling and long-distance running.”
The banter between Shlomo and Eran was inspiring.
“Hey, Shlomo, how many times we went skiing together?” meaning a lot.
“Not enough!” replied Shlomo.
And when Eran observed, “We are not getting any younger,” Shlomo replied:
“Are you kidding!”
Always looking for new challenges, when surfski arrived in Israel through Eyal, Eran was at first skeptical “ But soon fell in love with it. I don’t know if it’s the combination of the morning sunrise and the fact that the sea is different every day; overcoming the cold water, and then the group of people that take care of each other – whatever it is, it’s a winner!”
“I too at first was skeptical. The group was composed of people with multiple challenges or disabilities. One guy with PTSD who used to be sea sick after 5 minutes, would throw up and we would have to go back and today, he is one of the best, and like all of us, he loves it.”
The Art of the Craft
Michael describes the sport’s craft as “long, narrow and lightweight similar to a kayak with an open “sit-on-top” cockpit. Propelled by two-sided paddles and designed to cut through water with incredible efficiently, SurfSkis are built to seat one or two people and can be adapted for individuals missing limbs or using prosthetics to utilize the craft’s pedal and pulley rudder system. We have even created seating platforms for paraplegic individuals.”
Eyal adds that the beauty of the craft is that “it basically puts everyone on a par. So whether someone is amputated or has PTSD issues, on the water, everyone is equal.”
Shlomo adds, “On water it does not matter if you have one leg or half a leg, you are pretty much the same.”
Regarding safety, all paddlers are required to wear a Personal Flotation Devise (PFD) and carry a mobile phone within a waterproof sleeve in case of emergencies.
“The most serious catastrophic ‘emergency’ we encounter with these guys is when for some personal reason they are unable on a Thursday to not join us!”
So what inspired Eyal to ‘paddle’ this path forward?
Born to a South African father who met his Israeli mother on kibbutz Nahshon when he volunteered during the 1967 Six Day War, Eyal grew up in Cape Town where he fell in love with the sea and water sports, excelling in water polo. Returning to Israel as age 18, he joined the IDF, where he served deep in Lebanon as a machine gunner close to combat but never experiencing it directly. However, the thoughts of “life and death” experiences he went through, did not leave him unscathed “and although I had light PTSD, even if light, it’s something you need to take care of and I did through the therapy of the sea and combining it professionally by starting my club, SurfSki Israel, in Michmoret that has 160 members and in the last four years, giving back to society through SEASU.”
He adds that “PSTD never really leaves you but today I am thankful to it because it is who I am and has been the inspiration to try heal others through my love and passion for the sea.”
Psychological consultant, Roy Haziza, who brings a career of academic research and applied treatment of military-focused PTSD to serve SEASU’s leadership, volunteers, and post-trauma veterans, explains the transformative therapeutic qualities of the Surfski.
“The anticipated journeys of army vets that were derailed by injury or trauma need to be restored or repaired and a new journey is required that is about letting go of the past of imagined futures to make way for a new identity to appear.” The journeyman “must overcome the feeling of often hopelessness and dissabilities to reassert the control of mind over body and develop a sense of health and ability and I believe SEASU paddling offers just that. The paddlers set out to sea on vigorous paddling adventures, conquering difficulties, fears and aches, pushing their bodies and spirits to new heights of health and ability. And they also discover a new group that they can identify with on this adventure.”
By paddle skiing, they “find a sense of balance, learn to control their breathing while feeling the water, the wind, the salt, like ancient mariners and all throughout, they have to stay focused, keep up with the group while always concentrating on the technique. This is why I say that surfski paddling is a medium of transformation and rebirth.”
Shelter from the Storm
By his own admission, SEASU cofounder Michael McDevitt Shai says he is “the odd man out” being “a native New Yorker who came to Israel 10 years ago” and who has no “military background.” However, “I have found a real home here in Israel” and it was by sheer chance that “I became involved.”
He says that unlike Eyal, “who was into spearfishing, I was never a sea person; I was more into cycling and marathon running. However, when my wife and I and the kids left Tel Aviv and joined the seaside community of Michmoret, I felt ready for a change – a sea change!”
That change came during a storm one winter’s day.
Taking a walk on the beach, “we got caught in a sudden severe rainstorm. Seeking shelter, we ducked under – and as fate would have it – the awning of Eyal’s surfski club which set off the alarm. A club member came looking, probably afraid someone was trying to break in, and after chatting, he kindly offered us a lift home telling me the owner’s name. Shortly thereafter, having dinner with a friend, in Tel Aviv and telling the story of being caught in the storm and when I mentioned Eyal’s name, he said, “I served with him in Lebanon. Great guy!” So I ended up joining the club and fell in love with it.”
Discovering that Michael was a photographer, “Eyal asked me if I could shoot some photos for him of group of guys who were IDF veterans – amputees and those with PTSD. I watched these guys on the beach with their surfskis like Shlomo and Eran and another paddler, who suffered both physical injury and PSTD. His story was horrendous. Called to intervene in a terrorist attack in a private home, he was injured by a knife-wielding terrorist and lost his eye by a bullet ricochet meant for the terrorist. Following numerous therapies and medications, he finally found balance in his life through Surfski.
So, armed with his camera, the soon-to-be cofounder of SEASU zoomed in on these battered, bruised but tough guys on the beach who dispensed with their day clothes as they had their disabilities as they prepared to embrace the challenges of the sea. “It was so inspiring, like something out of Greek mythology of mighty men unafraid, embarking on a maritime adventure. I wanted to be part of this adventure and share their story with the world.”
So, for the professional brand builder and more recently passionate paddler who through a rainstorm was destined to meet Eyal Abro, and then joined by another South African from Cape Town, Sean Rice, the ICF World Surfski Champion, SEASU was born.
Bearing the scars of the past, a group of heroes vigorously embrace the future.
*For all inquiries, whether looking to join SEASU or those looking to support SEASU to contact Michael McDevitt Shai at: firstname.lastname@example.org
**To see additional photos, check their INSTAGRAM as well: https://www.instagram.com/seasu_united/
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