First of its kind prosthetic tested in wave pool

A new type of prosthetic arm – the first of its kind in the world – which has been designed to help surfers with upper body limb differences to ‘pop-up’ on their board, has proven effective for surfing. 

A group of limb-different surfers from across the UK were invited to put the new prosthetic through its paces at a special launch event held at inland-surfing destination, The Wave, in Bristol. 

Named ‘Nicole’ after the individual who inspired its design, the prosthetic has been developed by UK startup Koalaa, which is on a mission to make prosthetics comfortable, affordable and accessible for anyone on the planet. After months of development and a successful trial, the tool is now available for surf fans of all ages around the world.

Koalaa’s patented design sees a soft fabric sleeve being worn that can be fitted with different tool attachments, depending on the task the user would like to do. Knowing that surfing was something many people within the limb difference community were keen to try and that ‘popping-up’ onto the board was a key challenge, they set about creating a solution.

Nicole Brennan dry testing the new limb. Photo courtesy of The Wave

Amongst the surfers taking to the waves in Bristol was Nicole Brennan, age 30, from Chichester who was born with a congenital limb difference meaning that her right arm did not fully develop before birth. She has worked closely with the team at Koalaa on the design of the new prosthetic, which has been named in her honour.

Nicole is founder of The IAMPOSSIBLE Foundation, one of the only disabled-led charities for those with limb differences in the UK and which aims to create a world where ability is not defined by an individual’s form or physical appearance. 

“I spend as much time on the beach as I can and have always wanted to try surfing but never felt like it was a sport that was available to me,” said Nicole. “Being able to push up from the board to a standing position was always a barrier and it’s been amazing to work with the team at Koalaa to create a prosthetic that can make surfing accessible for those with limb differences like mine.”

Nicole added that she struggled a lot and a big part of that was a lack of limb-difference representation. She went through life hiding her arm and wearing jumpers to cover it.

“It got to the point that when I got married, I asked the photographer not to take photos of my arm. But that all changed when I had my first child. After years of hiding my arm, I was done with it. I’d had enough!,” she continued. “Projects like this, which give people the confidence and tools they need to go out there and try new things, such as surfing, show that anything is possible, and that’s a huge step.”

English Adaptive Surfing Open
English Adaptive Surfing Open was held at The Wave this year. Photo courtesy of The Wave

Founder of The Wave Nick Hounsfield said that they started out making a wave pool accessible to everyone.

“Our whole space has been designed to be truly accessible, our surf coaches are trained to provide specific adaptive surf training for those with different needs and we have been huge supporters of Team England Adaptive for a number of years,” said Nick. “We jumped at the chance to enable the testing and launch of this brilliant innovation”

Limb designer Nate Macabuag said he was stoked to see the limb-different community having so much fun trying out the new prosthetic on the water.

“It’s enabling people to go for it and to try new things, or even just helping to make everyday tasks a little easier, is why we do what we do,” said Nate. “All of our designs are driven by our users, their ideas and feedback and they remain closely involved at every stage of the design process. Naming our prosthetics and tools after the people who inspired them is something we always love to do.” 

A further collaboration between Koalaa and The Wave has seen the creation of a special limited edition sleeve cover that can be purchased with the Nicole tool, a percentage of each sale going towards The Wave’s adaptive surf club.