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    Return to the water

    Return to the water
    Kayaking gives woman a new life

    By Susan D. Brandenburg
    Shorelines correspondent

    Born under the sign of Pisces, Laurie Murrelle has been a water baby from the womb.

    She was raised on the east coast of Florida in Palm Beach County, where her father owned a marina. Sailing, surfing and waterskiing came naturally to her -- just a part of growing up on the water's edge. Her summers were spent in the Bahamas, living on her grandparents' boat and sunbathing, swimming, fishing and diving for conch. On spring breaks from high school, she went fishing and diving for lobster in the Florida Keys.

    "Even when my son, Brandon, was born, I labored in the bathtub," remembers Murrelle. "It has been a common theme throughout my life. I've always loved being in the water."

    In the water near Ward's Landing on the Intracoastal Waterway in Ponte Vedra Beach on July 13, 1986, Murrelle met the rest of her life -- a life destined to be spent on land in a wheelchair as a quadriplegic.

    "Ward's Landing was a hot spot back then," Murrelle recalled. "An old high school buddy had a ski boat and we met at the Palm Valley Bridge. I wanted to slalom from shore and I jumped off the side of the boat into a sandbar that was only 16 inches from the surface. I knew better. I just did it without thinking. When my head hit, I knew my waterskiing days were over."

    Murrelle's son, Brandon, was 2 1/2 years old when his mother had her spinal cord injury. His grandparents, Roger and Linda Bloome of Palm Valley, took care of him while Murrelle spent six months at Memorial Rehab in Jacksonville.

    "Brandon has helped to take care of me all his life," she said, "and we've lived in my parents' house on Roscoe Boulevard since I came home from rehab." Brandon is a junior at Nease High School.

    "He's already working part-time and very independent. His caretaking days may just about be over," Murrelle said proudly. "Although I've needed a lot of help and support from family and friends over the years and still do, I hope he learned some of his independence from me."

    With limited use of her arms and hands, Murrelle drives a modified van with hand controls and uses a sliding board to transfer herself in and out of her wheelchair to bed, shower chair and driver's seat. A home health aide comes daily to help her shower. After becoming a quadriplegic, Murrelle earned degrees in psychology and health science from the University of North Florida and later continued her education at UNF, entering the master's of social work and rehab counseling programs and serving on the Rehab Counseling Advisory Council.

    Until two years ago, when hit by a series of medical complications and injuries from an automobile accident, Murrelle worked as an information and referral specialist for the Independent Living Resource Center of Northeast Florida in Jacksonville.

    "Laurie's strengths are in organizing and obtaining volunteers, funds and corporate sponsorships for special events," said Andrea Williamson, program director for the center. "She was tireless, not only working for the center, but working as a mentor, one-on-one with consumers to help them achieve their goals of independence. She was a great example for them, but her medical problems have kept her from working for quite a while."

    Murrelle remembers waking up on the morning of Feb. 26 with physical pain from her injuries and a feeling of dark depression.

    "It was my 39th birthday," she recalled. "I prayed that God would send me a diversion to my adversities." That night at Harry's on Florida A1A, while sitting in her wheelchair surrounded by friends at her birthday celebration, Murrelle felt a tap on her shoulder.

    "I prayed to God for relief and He sent me living water," Murrelle said.

    The messenger that night was Walter Bunso of Kayak Adventures at Jacksonville Beach and his life-changing question was, "Have you ever kayaked?"

    Handing her his card and ignoring her amusement at the question, Bunso explained to Murrelle that he was a certified American Canoe Association instructor and had an adaptive paddling endorsement, which equipped him to train people with disabilities.

    One cool spring morning in March, Murrelle met Bunso and his friend, Chuck Williams, at a lake.

    "I was a little nervous," admitted Murrelle. "I stopped at the store for a small bag of peanut M&M's on the way there."

    After picking her up and setting into the front cockpit of a red tandem kayak, Bunso began fitting her with small pieces of foam padding to stabilize her upper body. He put foam on either side of her hips, one behind her back and a small roll under her knees. Once she was comfortable in the cockpit, Bunso began to make adaptations to the paddles. Using two tile trowels, tiny pieces of foam, and several inches of duct tape, he fit the paddles to her hands.

    The adaptation took about 30 minutes.

    Then it was time to go kayaking.

    Except for a brief stint of aquatherapy in the mid-1990s, it was the first time Murrelle had been in the water for 15 years.

    "When we slid into the water from shore, it was like being home again," remembers Murrelle. "We paddled around for about an hour. I wanted to roll over. I wanted to paddle backwards. I wanted to race. My cheeks hurt from smiling so much. ... I never wanted that experience to end and I haven't been the same since."

    Since she took that first plunge into kayaking, Murrelle has emerged from the depths of depression and has a new direction in life.

    "I want to make this opportunity available to everyone," she declared. "I believe anyone can and should try kayaking at least once. As a quadriplegic, when I sit in the cockpit with pads stabilizing my balance and the proper adaptations to my paddle, I'm in total control of the situation. It's empowering."

    In October, Bunso and Murrelle partnered to establish the Disabled Paddlers Association, a not-for-profit organization that will cater to people with disabilities. The mission is to introduce, encourage, support and advocate inclusive and accessible paddling opportunities for everyone, including those living with a disability.

    "Our membership is open to the able and the disabled alike," said Murrelle.

    Empowered by her return to the water after all these years, Murrelle hopes the Disabled Paddlers Association will provide a new career for her.

    "We've had two meetings so far and have a small but solid core of members," she said. "Our first big event will be in March, a Spirit of Suwannee" paddling overnighter with meals and entertainment, but in the meantime, we will be raising awareness and encouraging others to take the plunge. It's a fantastic feeling to look back at my wheelchair sitting on the shore without me in it."

    Murrelle dreams of one day fulfilling the last wishes of her grandparents and spreading their ashes in the Bahamian waters where they lived and loved together.

    "If I could find a trainer and partner to kayak the 50 miles across the Atlantic from Palm Beach to the Bahamas," said Murrelle, "I'd use the event to raise awareness and funding for spinal cord injury research and an ultimate cure for paralysis."

    Does anyone else enjoy kayaking? I have done both fresh water and sea kayaking (I am a T11 para, complete) and was wondering if anyone else kayaks regularly. Where are the best places to go? I've spent time out in Western Maryland and along the shore of Acadia National Park in Maine.


      Chipper or anyone

      Searched the web for disabled kayak resources but couldn't find anything helpful.

      Any suggestions? Especially for Colorado.



        Hey! How about a place in South Florida? I LOVE the sea and have been trying to get into one of those sports.... any info???

        Thoughts become things, choose the good ones!


          Move topic?

          Perhaps this should be moved to the Recreation and Leisure forum?

          I know a number of kayakers with disabilities. In our area they mostly sea kayak, but running whitewater is also possible. Generally to have a roll you need to have some hip muscles or at least very strong trunk muscles though, so without that a wet exit needs to be perfected (I used to kayak in my younger days).

          I know in San Diego they teach disabled kayaking skills at the Mission Bay Aquatic Center (Parks and Recreation), and I believe it is also taught at a number of other disabled sports centers, including some that teach skiing in the winter months.

          Using the search feature on this site:

          I found 47 references for the word "kayak" under Programs and Facilities. This might be a good place to start.