Palo Alto resident gets veterans back in the swim

Motorized surfboards restore sense of freedom, adventure to physically disabled people

On a sunny day in Malibu, Jesse Billauer, belly-down on a surfboard, cruises swiftly across the water as surfers nearby enjoy the ebb and flow of the ocean waves.

Billauer is a quadriplegic who lost the use of his limbs in a surfing accident, but despite his disability, he's able to surf again.

Using a small, onboard electric rotor and steering with a joystick, he drives out into the open water, steers himself around and catches the wave of his choice -- all without assistance.

This board is one of several created by GoodLife Mobility, a nonprofit organization founded by Palo Alto resident Dainuri Rott.

Rott had been surfing all his life but sometimes couldn't muster up enough paddle power. So in 2003 he built the electric-powered board for himself.

The board's motor can produce around 1420 watts of power to propel the rider. A person paddling himself can probably produce only 300 to 400 watts of power, he said.

"It's basically a fan in the water that creates thrust to drive the board forward," he said. "With the jet, no parts protrude underneath."

In 2004, Rott met Billauer.

"At the time I saw him being pushed into waves by friends, and while I thought he showed tremendous courage and trust and skill, I knew that an electric-powered board would give him back most of the independence he had lost because of his accident," he said.

Rott said he was particularly interested in helping wounded military veterans get out with the board, even if it's just on flat water.

"Why not give them experience?" he said. "Anywhere there's water and a veteran, we have the toys."

Veterans Jesse Woodeil, Shawn Ryan and Julia Olsen, who is also a board member of the organization, have used the board.

For Ryan, the freedom that comes from going out in the water is what's important.

"You don't get too many opportunities to be independent," he said. "You want to do whatever it is you used to do, but it's harder than you realize to just get in touch with people who make stuff like this."

The board allowed him a chance to get back out to nature. Before his injury, he skateboarded, snowboarded and other did other recreational activities. He also has three sons he loves to spend time with outdoors.

While he said riding at Redwood Shores is amazing and feels there are many opportunities in the Bay Area, he would really like to go to Hawaii, he said.

Rott said that the warm weather and the presence of the Palo Alto and Menlo Park Veterans Affairs facilities are what make this area a great place for his company.

Now that he's launched and refined his boards, Rott is looking to increase production.

"There is an opportunity to reach a bigger audience," he said. "We've got to get some money, get some more people and get more boards out there."

The company's received some help along the way. The "Jesse I" prototype was partially funded by a grant from the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. GoodLife has also received support from several companies and business people, including Jeff Clark of Maverick's surfboards (who designed the Jesse II surfboard), Len Hill of North American Marine Jets (who helped design the steering system), Lenco Marine (which contributed their waterproof marine actuators for the steering), Castle Creations (motor controllers), and Pomeroy Industries Unlimited (mechanical design.)

Rott said the staff for GoodLife Mobility came in as interns who wanted to help the disabled.

Using computer-aided design, the staff can experiment with the design and see how the components fit together and then print out models that closely represent the intended product.

Staff member Percy Pei is working to create paddles made of carbon fiber to aid in steering.

By making use of the material's stiffness, he said, he is reducing the amount of material used and reducing the cost. Their electric power can be activated by a wireless trigger. The staff is also finishing work on a long board that will be able to hold two people.

Rott had previously founded GoodLife Trikes to assist elders who had lost their driver's licenses. In 2009, he expanded to serve physically challenged people and veterans.

While there may be veterans who aren't specifically interested in surfing, Rott said the general idea of giving back to them is something for which many are grateful.

"What they appreciate is how people take the time to say, 'Thank you for your service,'" he said. "They need to feel like they're seen."

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Like this comment
Posted by wayne lerrigo
a resident of another community
on Dec 9, 2013 at 5:50 pm

Dinuri, congratulations on this incredible work of human kindness. This is a great product. I hope this will really take off and lead to other great opportunities.

Wayne Lerrigo
Kalimantan, Indonesia

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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