I'm still not sure how I do it, says inspirational one-legged surfer

Losing a limb in a motorbike accident did not stop Donovan Kane from competing for waves. Now he mentors aspiring adaptive surfers who'd like to do the same

15 December 2019 - 00:00 By Guy Oliver
Donovan Kane lost his leg after a motorbike accident.
Donovan Kane lost his leg after a motorbike accident.
Image: Guy Oliver

The rack of tequila floated above the heads of the Hotel Glencairn crowd with a gentler rhythm and speed than usually achieved by Friday night revellers.

It was gripped by a bear-like hand. The ocean-weathered tattooed arm pirouetted, not a drop of tequila spilling from the eight shot glasses and the bearer swung past like a pendulum to a table of friends. Having one leg does not exempt you from buying and fetching your own round.

Donovan Kane's stump is a high cut, a few inches shy of his torso and not suitable for a prosthetic latch. He readily concedes he was lucky to lose "the right leg", both literally and figuratively, in the motorbike accident. For a goofy-footed surfer it was one less adjustment to return to the water.

A 48-year-old former navy conscript denotes his demographic. The easy S-bend on the Cape Peninsula's St James coastal road put him in another box at 19 years old. The contour road is an intuitive, lazy sashay for a biker and an unexpected deception for the motorist. The accident report could not conclusively determine who strayed across the white line in the collision that mangled Kane's leg.

After six months in hospital and post-surgery complications from opportunistic infections, Kane decided to lop off the tattered remains. He was discharged a month later. A celebration at the Brass Bell delayed his return to surfing by another two months, after he tumbled down the bar's steps to smash his only ankle.

Riding the breath of an ocean is a selfish, ruled-based pursuit. False Bay's Kalk Bay Reef ranks among Kane's favoured breaks. "It's quite dangerous. It can be hectic. A very fast take-off. Everything is about the take-off and it's quite a difficult drop.

"The rules are rules. They are there to stop accidents. If you have a small car, no-one gives you a gap. No-one sees my leg missing in the water. But they do know and there are no favours."

Surfing is more religion than sport and Kane was an early convert. He was born in East London and torn from the coast by his parents' separation, but the sea remained a constant lure. At 14 years old and living in Joburg with his father, he made a bid for East London by bicycle and was picked up four days later, approaching Bloemfontein.

His parents relented and Kane moved to his mother's East London home and was schooled at Hudson Park, his playground the Indian Ocean. He became a life-saver and provincial school surfer.

Donovan Kane rolls a cigarette at the Hotel Glencairn in Cape Town.
Donovan Kane rolls a cigarette at the Hotel Glencairn in Cape Town.
Image: Guy Oliver

Kane's first attempt to surf in the early 1990s after the amputation was at Muizenberg, a break favoured by novices. He had no template and persevered through trial and error. His short-board style suited both right and left breaks. Standing, with both hands gripping forward, requires the dexterity of a gymnast and brute force to wrestle a wave. There are inevitable spins in the ocean's laundry for misjudgment.

"I'm still not sure how I do it. I don't have as much speed as a normal person, but I'm not far behind. I always get a barrel or two - even when it's small I can tuck in. It's a small advantage."

His mother relocated to Cape Town for a couple of years after the amputation. Unsuccessful attempts at getting compensation from the Road Accident Fund dragged on for five years. Kane headed to Joburg for the promise of work and a decade-long wipeout followed.

I became a heroin addict ... But the universe is weird. I saved a lot of lives. I gave a lot of addicts a second chance using mouth-to-mouth and CPR from my life-saving training
Donovan Kane

"I became a heroin addict. On the streets begging at the robots and living in a Rosettenville crack house. But the universe is weird. I saved a lot of lives. I gave a lot of addicts a second chance using mouth-to-mouth and CPR from my life-saving training."

Kane put himself through rehab and convalesced with his father in Mpumalanga. He completed a landscape gardening course and returned to Cape Town in 2013. He noticed that more maimed and wounded bodies were competing for waves.

"The kids sometimes stare at you. People on the beach are pretty surprised and congratulate you when you come out of the surf. I did feel self-conscious at first, but I got over that. Some people are scared to surf and [abled-bodied] people will come up to you say 'will you take me surfing?' So I do. They all get hooked, the kids as well as the grown-ups."

Last year he competed in the SA Adaptive Surfing Championship, held under the auspices of the non-profit Made for More, at Durban's North Beach, and came stone cold last.

This year he finished second in the AS2 category, a classification for competitors with amputations above the knee or elbow. His current SA ranking is a passport - funding permitting - to compete in California's International Surfing Association's World Adaptive Surfing Championships, scheduled for the first quarter of 2020.

Made for More, established in 2016, seeks to empower those with disabilities.

Kane mentors aspiring adaptive surfers and joined a community well versed in the injustices of buying a pair of shoes for one foot and burying crutches on the beach to thwart theft.

Kane was "taken under the wing" of surfer and competition judge Chris Heath and "he shaped me a board".

"He watched how I surfed on all the boards and made me the perfect board, with a double concave that goes into a single concave and the rails are not as sharp," Kane says."My surfing has just got better."

And he has an eye on surfing's debut as an Olympic sport in Tokyo next year, as the Paralympic Games are under pressure to follow suit.

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