Growing up as a girl surfing in the UK, I experienced a whole range of feelings in the ocean - joy, when flying across the face of a wave. Determination, when a big set came through and I hadn’t quite made it out back. Frustration, when guys would paddle up to me and ask me if I knew the rules of the lineup, or drop in because they thought girls couldn’t surf. Warmth, through the feeling of community that grows quietly as I shared a sunset with other stranger surfers in the lineup. Cold, when peeling off a 5mm wetsuit in a car park and I literally couldn’t open the car door because my fingers have decided to no longer cooperate.
Undoubtedly, most of us who surf have felt fear in the sea. Being caught in the impact zone; coming up to find your leash has snapped; bailing in water that is only thigh depth. But ultimately, we choose to be in the ocean - so whatever fears we have to face, we are facing willingly, and even relishing them.
Sadly, not everyone gets to choose when, and how, they end up in the sea. I came face to face with this reality when I started volunteering out in Lesvos, a Greek Aegean island very close to Turkey which hundreds of thousands of refugees have passed through in the last ten years. The feelings people told me they associated with the sea presented a stark contrast to my own. Mortal fear, that the overcrowded boat they were on would sink. Relief, when they set foot on dry land. Determination, to continue on their journey to safety despite the enormous barriers put in their way by European border policies.
I went through a whole period of time where I didn’t know whether it was right to feel happy in the sea, where others experienced such deep trauma. This year alone, over 2,800 people have lost their lives in the Mediterranean. This seemingly beautiful sea has essentially become a graveyard - so it felt wrong to swim in its warm waters and smile.
But I began to realize that this mindset puts the blame on the sea itself for being dangerous when actually it is hostile policies that weaponize our oceans and turn them into safe spaces for some and dangerous places for others. I decided I wanted to start a project that would address this injustice - and so Reclaim The Sea was born.
Reclaim The Sea is a nonprofit organization with a simple vision: that the sea should be a safe space for all. We aim to provide people with the tools that enable them to reclaim the sea as a safe place when it has been one of trauma, using trauma-informed swim, surf and paddleboard lessons. Unlike a ‘normal’ surf or SUP lesson, we run our sessions with a focus on nurturing a sense of being held, being heard and building community. We also make sure that we never push anyone to do anything they aren’t comfortable with, and everything goes at the pace our participants need. And yes, that does mean that putting on wetsuits might take an hour - all part of the fun!
Since starting in 2022, we have completed two full women’s programs and one for men, all of whom are refugees or asylum-seekers in Plymouth, UK. We began as a two-woman show led by myself and our co-director Rebecca, supported by a few volunteers who were, admittedly, mostly my friends. Eighteen months down the line, we now have a large and thriving group of volunteers in Plymouth and are looking at launching Reclaim The Sea projects around the country and potentially beyond.
The people participating in our programs have demonstrated incredible resilience and bravery. Some had never been in the sea before; some hadn’t been in the water since arriving in the UK to seek asylum; some were already excellent swimmers but didn’t know how to access the beaches and sea in Plymouth. Yet everyone embraced the sessions in whatever shape that took for them, with many going on to continue visiting the sea after our programmes finished.
One of our most exciting achievements is that three of our first program’s alumni (sealumni) decided they loved paddleboarding so much that they wanted to become instructors. Thanks to the support of the Water Skills Academy, they were able to begin their journeys to becoming qualified instructors - which would not only enable them to be instructors on future Reclaim The Sea programs but it also opens up an employment path in the blue space. We couldn’t be happier, as this reflects our efforts to create true sustainable change.
Some of the comments our participants have made have also encouraged me to reevaluate my own connection with the ocean, and why I love it so much. I really believe that the sea is a space of innate equality - somehow, our performances of self and our tough shells dissolve in the water, and we become playful, silly, and open in ways that seem particular to this blue environment. My work with Reclaim The Sea has also enabled me to find more joy in mushy, blown-out surf; not to be so easily frustrated on those days when you feel like you’ve forgotten how to stand on a board, and to embrace the icy winds that whip across the shore when I’m going for a winter dip.
As we know as women of the water, the journey towards equality in this space is not an easy one - but it’s also incredibly rewarding. We can’t stop once gender equality in surf and sea has been achieved, but instead must keep up the work until the sea is truly a safe and equal space for all.
In my own efforts to realize this goal, I have tried to expand my focus to address the systems in place which are making the sea an unequal and dangerous place. Besides our sea-based programmes, Reclaim The Sea also campaigns in the political sphere for safe passage and for dignified, humane asylum policies. More recently, this led me to start the campaign against the UK’s plan to house people seeking asylum - many of whom have direct experience of sea trauma - onboard an accommodation barge, which we believe can be likened to a floating prison. Through our campaign #NoFloatingPrisons, we have written open letters, organized protests, and investigated the possibilities of legal action against the policy. As a result of one protest in July, I was arrested - simply for standing in the road with a sign saying ‘Refugees Welcome’.
If it is criminal to welcome refugees and support their rights, then our legal systems have failed us. I will continue to stand up for justice at sea and on land, through my activism, sharing my passion for surfing, and through further learning. I am now researching sea borders and refugee rights at Harvard University, where I also hope to plant some seeds for Reclaim The Sea programmes in the US. If you’re a justice-loving surfer or water person based over on this side of the Atlantic, please don’t hesitate to reach out - let’s make things happen!
Tigs's Playlist for WIG!!!
Tigs Louis Puttick is the founder of Reclaim the Sea and currently is a Kennedy Scholar at Havard University with a focus on refugee rights, forced migration and borders from a multi-disciplinary perspective. The Kennedy Memorial Trust seeks to promote ideals of intellectual endeavor, leadership, and public service' through its scholars.
Photos by: Bella Bounce
Illustration by Jasmine Hortop
“Because I was born with a certain passport, I can enjoy the sea…” An interview with surfer, activist, and founder of Reclaim the Sea, Tigs Louis-Puttick, who lives in NW France By Sam Haddad, Substacks (2023)
Reclaim the Sea, Words by Tigs Louis-Puttick Images by Heather Davey, Finisterre (2023)
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