August 26, 2014

Riding the wave to recovery

By Kelly Burch

When you think about surfers, do you picture the lovable stoner, lighting up in a VW van before spilling out to catch some waves? Since Jeff Spicoli in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” surfers have had a reputation that doesn’t exactly line up with recovery.

“Hollywood has put stigma on surfing that it’s a sport stuck on stupid,” said Garth Tarlow, a former pro surfer and the head of marketing at O’Neill.

The truth, however, is far from that Hollywood caricature.

“Surfers were pioneers with incorporating eastern philosophies, and trying things that were new and healthy,” said Paul Moen, CEO of Balboa Horizons treatment center. Moen, who is an avid surfer himself, said that from yoga to smoothies, many healthy living choices that are common today originated in the surf community.

“Surfers have always sought out how they can get better performance,” he said.

Since riding a wave can look effortless, it’s easy to forget that surfing is a serious workout, from the cardio endurance needed to paddle out to the core strength necessary to stay balanced on the board. Being impaired or abusing your body simply doesn’t fit in with the physical demands of the sport.

But the relationship between surfing and recovery goes beyond not using.

“There are endless metaphors that apply,” said Nancy Sobel, an L.A.  psychologist who surfs daily.

More and more recovering addicts are finding that the principles in surfing – mindfulness, balance, and respect – align perfectly with the values of life in recovery.

“You know that you need to respect the power of the ocean. The metaphor there is that there is something bigger than you,” Moen said. “That is one of the first steps in [many] programs.”

Being on the water is an intensely spiritual experience for many surfers, and helps them connect to their higher power.

“For me surfing is about being surrounded by all of this that god created,” said Dan Eberhardt, another sober surfer.  “This time of year you can see whales and dolphins – even baby dolphins that are days old – swimming by. There are great white and huge rays. All these different things are going on that we can see in the water.”

The connection to nature and the divine is part of what drives surfers to get into the water as often as possible.

“When you get out in the ocean, you realize that we are all connected to the universe,” Moen said.

The connection between surfing and recovery is so strong that at Balboa Horizons, patients are invited to participate in a water activities program, which includes surfing.

“When they get into water they’re having fun, laughing, and falling down. They’re able to associate with having fun in recovery,” Moen said. Being outdoors and doing a healthy activity with friends is vastly different from what most addicts were doing before – using inside and often alone.

“We talk about contrary action in recovery, and this is the opposite of what they were doing before,” Moen said. “You never get sick of seeing dolphins come by. You can’t see that when you’re alone in a room smoking or shooting dope.”

Renew caught up with Tarlow, Sobel and Eberhardt to get behind the stereotype and find out how it’s possible not only to surf sober, but to use the sport as an important tool on the road to recovery.


“I say, why not do it sober and take it all in?”

Garth Tarlow has been surfing since he was eight years old, and the sport has defined a large portion of his life. He began competing in the early 1980s, and became a sponsored athlete. After he graduated high school he decided to pursue a professional surf career. He competed until 1995, and since then he has mentored some of surfing’s top talent around the globe. He currently works as the head of marketing at O’Neill, the largest name in surf apparel. He is also the water activities director at Balboa Horizons treatment center in Newport Beach, California.


Garth Tarlow was young and successful, making a name for himself on the professional surf tour. However, like many people who find success quickly at a young age, he also found himself confronting the dark side of the lifestyle, staying up to party.

“I was not focused on goals or the opportunity that was in front of me to take advantage of,” he recalled. Things changed when Tarlow found out he was becoming a father. “I had to figure out how do I max out this life and this career, and make this great special thing last.”

When Tarlow got sober, he was finally able to really take advantage of his talents.

“For one, the people who were doing endorsements were taking me seriously. I realized there was an opportunity here to continue to go down this road, have people take me seriously, and become resource for a company later on.”

Since 1990, Tarlow has been living soberly in the surf scene. Although he admits there are certainly surfers who still enjoy the party lifestyle, the sport doesn’t deserve the reputation it has, he said.

“People bring up that connotation to the sport, but it is continuously clearing up because of the professionalism and family aspect. Today you can have three generations of a family surfing, so the sport is cleaning up — you do see that.”

Serious surfers need to avoid unhealthy habits that might affect their performance.

“Here’s what it comes down to,” Tarlow said.  “Any athlete that wants to perform at their peak is only going to come to that by eating right, living right and resting right. If you’re punishing your body with drugs and alcohol there is no possible way to have peak performance.”

Just getting out in the water promotes healthy lifestyles, Tarlow said, from being in the healing ions of the salt water to being present with one’s self.

“There is something kind of special to be amongst nature with friends, and to take it in and feel each stroke of the water,” he said. “It’s a really spiritual thing.”

As the water activities director at Balboa Horizons Tarlow is now teaching other people in recovery to connect with their higher power through nature.

“It’s about getting people out of their comfort zone and into water to see if something spiritually clicks. Not everyone will have massive change, but maybe something will click,” he said.

Being out on the water allows people to connect with themselves and each other in new ways, Tarlow said.

“There’s a lot of dialogue out in the water. It’s an opportunity in recovery for people to learn together. Getting away from it, leaving everything on land and going out on the ocean lets you carve out your own experience.”

Like many surfers, Tarlow also finds that the lessons from the waves can be used on land or sea.

“It’s the concept of letting go, letting nature take its course and being amongst it.”

The water activities program also helps people who are newly in recovery redefine sober fun.

“People say why would you do something so psychedelic and cool without drugs or alcohol,” Tarlow said. “But I say why not do it sober and take it all in.”

For Tarlow, sharing his experience with surfing and recovery is a natural high in itself.

“When you actually take someone who has never gone, and turn someone on to their first wave or their first time in the ocean ocean… They always say, ‘I get it, I understand what you live for.’”

“I knew this sport had something for me that I really needed.”

Nancy Sobel is a psychologist who practices in L.A. She has been sober for 34 years, and has worked extensively in recovery communities around the world. In addition to her practice, she runs the Global Adolescent Project to help teens that are living on their own ( For more information on Dr. Sobel visit


            Nancy Sobel was familiar with the ocean. She grew up near Boston, got sober in Hawaii, and lived much of her life in southern California. She was an ocean swimmer, and loved spending time on the beach, but that was one water activity she couldn’t bring herself to try

“I had always wanted to surf, but it looked too hard,” she recalled. “At the time, in 1978, it was all the hardcore guys, and there were not a lot of women. Surfing wasn’t a big thing.”

When Sobel was 48 she was in Hawaii with a band that she was working with. The bass player woke up early for a surf lesson, and when Sobel mentioned she wanted to try the sport, he demanded that she tag along.

“He totally shamed me into it,” she said.

Sobel’s first lesson wasn’t about paddling out or standing up, but about learning to shut off her brain.

“The teacher was a local Hawaiian guy and he said to me ‘are you a doctor?’ I said yes, and he told me ‘this sport doesn’t work if you think about it. You have to not think and feel it.’ When he told me that I became completely hooked. I knew that this sport had something for me that I really needed.”

Today Sobel is 59, and surfing is still part of her daily recovery journey.

“I surf and then come back and write,” she said. “Surfing has a million metaphors, from the wet suit and body consciousness to looking at conditions that change every single day. That is life, right? You may think you know what you’re doing, but it’s subject to change. You have to be flexible and able to read the conditions.”

 In addition to using surfing as a tool for her own recovery, Sobel works to expose other people in recovery to the sport. If she thinks it will be a good fit, she even takes clients for mindful surfing sessions, which incorporate talk therapy, meditation, and hitting the waves.

“Mindfulness is being fully aware in the moment,” she said. “That’s something you have to be with surfing. Wherever you look, that’s where you’re going. If you look down, you’re going to fall. That’s the greatest metaphor for recovery.”

“Surfing really helps me keep grounded.”

Dan Eberhardt, of Manhattan Beach, works in business development in the healthcare industries. But when he’s not in the boardroom, Eberhardt, 47, is dedicated to his recovery from alcoholism, a journey that he began 13 years ago.

 Dan Eberhardt was on his surfboard bobbing in the waves when he realized that he needed to make changes in his life. He had been telling himself that even though he was partying all night, the fact that he could wake up and surf at 6 a.m. meant he wasn’t an alcoholic. But that lie was beginning to fall apart.

“I was looking back at beach and I had absolutely zero passion for surfing. That showed my mental state with life — I had zero passion,” he recalled. “I had a moment when I broke down.That’s when I started my program to recovery.”

His passion for life was what inspired Eberhardt to learn to surf in the first place. After participating in motorcross as a child he was searching for another high-intensity activity that would give him the natural high that he felt on his bike. He found it in surfing.

“There was an instant connection,” he said. “I had always been connected to nature and loved being out in nature. Getting in the ocean, understanding salt water and waves, understanding nature, seeing dolphins… I thought this is just way too cool, to be surrounded by all these new things that God created.”

Eberhardt was hooked, so when he felt his love for the water slipping away he knew alcohol had taken over his life. He joined AA, and now with 13 years of sobriety under his belt Eberhardt has rekindled his passion for surfing and uses his time on the water to center himself and work on his recovery.

“When I’m [surfing], my head is pretty quiet. I’m so focused on right here and right now. I’m not thinking about the future or the past, because right here right now everything is perfect. That is very spiritual.”

Eberhardt takes that spiritual connection from surfing and applies it to his daily life.

“If I’m paddling for a great wave, rather than pissed off if I miss it I’m ok, knowing there’s another that will come. If I get worked over by a wave I know another will come,” he said. The same mindset applies to life. “This too shall pass, and there is something better coming soon. Surfing really helps me keep grounded.”

When he is able to surf and center himself regularly, the small annoyances – like being stuck in traffic – don’t have such a big effect, he said.

“When I’m connected to God and life, the little distractions don’t mean anything to me. When I’m focused on what I think I should get and something gets in the way I remind myself it’s not my wave.”

Two days a week Eberhardt attends a 5:30 a.m. meeting that he and friends organized near the beach. They have a quick meeting and some meditation, and then hit the waves.

“It starts my mind right,” he said. “I start the day and put things in perspective. About ten of us get out there on regular basis, and we’re just laughing the whole time like we’re 14. All my passion has been restored.”


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