A rehab center harnesses the therapeutic powers of the sea
Nestled along the west crook of Denmark, between the North Sea and the Strait of Skagerrak, is a strip of land known as Cold Hawaii. The coastal region looks just as you’d expect for the Scandinavian seaside—charming fishing villages, vast sand dunes, windswept heathlands—with one notable exception: an oceanfront dotted with surfers.
Venture a few dozen kilometers south and you’ll stumble across another unlikely spot: Surfgaarden, a rehabilitation center for veterans and those struggling with PTSD. As indicated by the center’s name, it’s no surprise the two are so close by.
“At Surfgaarden, we use Ocean Therapy as the main component in our rehabilitation process,” says General Manager Peter Emil Højlund. “The area’s high latitude brings northern storms over the coast, creating the perfect swells for surfing. The water is our foundation to help get people back on track for a better life.”
Surfgaarden’s approach is not a one-size-fits-all solution. “We make individual goals for each person,” explains Peter Emil. “It’s a community here—we use the ocean, the outdoors, and physical activities. We laugh together and have fun, and we also meet and talk about the serious stuff.”
For Peter Emil, it’s a program that resonates with him on both a professional and a personal level. “I come from a surfing background,” he shares. “I’ve always had this feeling. This deep connection to the ocean. I know how great an impact it can have in one’s life, so now I’m on a mission to share this feeling, and to help others ride this wave.”
Every day at Surfgaarden looks different, but they all involve the same fundamentals. Peter Emil and his team "support both parts of the central nervous system” by balancing physical, adrenaline-packed moments—mornings in the gym, afternoons adventuring in the fjords and sea—with calming activities such as meditation, yoga, and tending the greenhouse.
“Most of these guys have performed at an extremely high level,” explains Peter Emil. “With PTSD, there’s stuff going on in the brain, but also in the body. These traumas, these feelings, they tend to get stuck. Their autonomous systems are glowing red, and we need to help them overcome these triggers.”
This is why, when it comes to the act of self-forgetting, surfing is the perfect medicine. The Ocean Therapy approach Surfgaarden uses is derived from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Flow Theory, a methodology that taps into the psychological state of total immersion in an activity.
“Surfing requires full focus and concentration,” reads the center’s website. “You are in a field of tension between control and non-control. When that happens, everything else disappears, and you experience flow.”
Peter Emil adds that much of his patients’ suffering also comes down to the question of identity. “We’re here to help them adapt to a new life,” he says. “They’re no longer soldiers, so what are they?”
In addition to the therapeutic effects of surfing, it’s this question that the ocean answers in a deep and profound way.
As Surfgaarden’s mission states, “The size and forces of the sea alone put the world in perspective. It makes negative emotions and experiences appear less significant. A form of catharsis or cleansing can take place, simply by being in the sea.”
Surfgaarden uses the ocean & outdoors to help veterans get back on track for a better life.
The rehabilitation center is located in Denmark, in a region known as “Cold Hawaii.”
Through contact with the sea, veterans can regain their sense of perspective and identity.
The benefits of jetboarding
We met up with Peter Emil and the Surfgaarden crew on a sunny day in spring, at a beachfront just up the road from the center. After some brief instruction, about 15 veterans took the Radinn jetboards out to ride in the inlet of Thisted.
For a group whose background centers on high-tech gear and army equipment, the jetboards were awe-inspiring. “This was a dream come true for a lot of the veterans,” explains Peter Emil. “To cruise around on the water like a superhero. It stimulates that curiosity about what is actually possible in the world.”
When asked about how the Radinn measures up to true wave-surfing, Peter Emil responds shrewdly.
“I see this debate going on like ‘ah these electrified products, it’s cheating, it’s not real surfing,’ and so on, but my opinion is if there are more people in the water, more people that are having a good experience out in nature, why does it matter if you have an electric engine or not?
“You’re making these adventures accessible for new populations. I love the idea of bringing more people out into nature and giving them a deeper connection with the ocean. Period. That’s it.”
Learning about Radinn was an exciting experience for a group so familiar with high-tech gear.
Each one of the veterans had the chance to try the jetboard around the inlet of Thisted.