The All-True, Unbelievable, Death-Defying Tale of the World’s Greatest Paraplegic Surfer

Photographs by Ed Wray

It is a bright November morning in Bali, and Bruno Hansen is heading toward Nusa Dua beach, a surf spot on the island’s south shore. He’s checked the tide charts and is determined to be in the water by 9 a.m.

Hansen rides a customized motor­cycle of his own design, equipped with a lever made of stainless steel pipe that allows him to shift and brake with his hands instead of his feet. A sidecar holds his surfboard and wheelchair.

He pulls into the parking lot and drops off the board, leaning it against a banyan tree, then parks a few yards away. In a single maneuver, he releases the bungee cord binding his legs together, slides off the bike seat and into his chair in the sidecar, and rolls backward off the sidecar and onto the ground. He pulls a sarong out of his backpack, flings it open, drapes it over the chair to shield his lower body, and changes into his boardshorts.


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Hansen is lean and strong, with broad shoulders and muscular arms. His face is tanned and lined. Sun-bleached blond hair hangs down to his collarbone, and a faint layer of white stubble covers his chin. But his body is bifurcated. His legs belong to a different man. They’re flaccid, devoid of muscle tone. He must move his lower limbs with his hands, the way someone might reposition a gnarled rope that keeps getting in the way.

He’s in motion now, wheeling himself over to his board. “You can’t spend all day at the gym and think you’ll be fit,” he says. “The only way to train is to surf. It’s to keep the connection to the ocean.” All surfers, of course, are connected to the sea. But for Hansen, the bond is deeper: Water is the sole medium in which his body is unbound by circumstance.

Positioning the board horizontally across the wheelchair’s footrest and balancing it against his knees, Hansen starts to wheel himself toward the beach. The board see-saws precariously back and forth, nearly tipping off. He stops to steady it with his hand.

He wheels himself over a stone curb and onto the beach about 50 feet from the sea and drops from the chair, hitting the sand with a thud. Sitting on his behind, the surfboard attached with a leash to his ankle, he ties his legs together and begins hoisting himself backward, palms flat on the sand, facing away from the sea. It’s an arduous process. He goes for a bit and stops to tow the board toward himself. Then he starts moving again.

As he drags his limp body, he tells me his legs are deadweight. He’s thinking, he says, of chopping one of them off.

“Just to lighten the load, you know?”

He looks up at me, squinting into the sun. “These are my decisions in life,” he says cheerfully. “Do I chop my leg off, or don’t I?”

Once at the water’s edge, his body heaves with relief. He drops his head back, wetting his hair, and paddles out to the surf  break.

When Hansen is in water, he is released. On land, everything is a mission. He’s in exile. But in the water the hard work all fades away. His body is weightless. He can exhale. In the water, he is formidable, guided by instinct and knowledge. He’s in the zone. Home again.

I first met Hansen a few years ago in Bali, before he became a two-time ISA World Adaptive Surfing champion, besting 75 athletes from 19 countries to become the greatest paraplegic surfer in the world. Hansen competes in the “Prone” division, in which surfers ride belly down on their boards, relying solely on the strength of their upper body. That’s difficult enough, but the real challenge for paraplegic surfers like Hansen comes during wipeouts, when they’re being tossed around in the froth with no ability to kick their way to the surface.

But Hansen’s titles are the least of his accomplishments. His life story is an implausible series of  ”and-thens” — a string of audacious adventures and brushes with calamity that seem too extreme to be true. He grew up in the 1970s in Rhodesia and spent his young adulthood surfing, traveling the world, and captaining yachts in Southeast Asia until a carjacking in South Africa snapped his spine. Six years of darkness followed; Hansen persevered. He sailed the Indian Ocean. And then, alone on his boat in Thailand, he survived the 2004 tsunami that took the lives of hundreds of thousands.

Send Hansen a text asking, “Where are you?” and the response could be Costa Rica, England, South Africa, California. There aren’t many places that are off-limits. These days, you’re most likely to find him in Panama, where he hopes to build what he calls a “seahab” facility, where disabled people can learn surfing, kayaking, diving, and sailing, and use the ocean as a means to get the mind and body strong again.

What intrigued me about Hansen when I met him is the same thing that intrigues me now: He is the freest person I have ever encountered. He is not trapped in any way. He is neither tied down by responsibilities nor hampered by fear — even his physical limitations seem irrelevant. “Many people dream of doing big things, but only a precious handful actually make things happen,” says James Taylor, a fellow adventurer and close friend of Hansen’s who crossed the Indian Ocean with him on a yearlong sailing trip in 2004. “Bruno is one of those people. What makes him even more remarkable is the fact that he accomplishes all of this without use of his legs.”

This freedom did not come to Hansen easily, but at this point it’s sewn into his skin. “At my lowest point, I chose to live wild and free, to take huge risks, to stare closely and laugh at the face of danger rather than live a safe life — where I would die old, sad, and angry, thinking of what I could have been.”

It was 1998, and Hansen was 27, the captain of a charter that took South Africans surfing in Sumatra and diving in Phuket. His looks, like his manner, were robust and alluring. He was carefree, hungry for adventure. He could tell a good story and make the beautiful girls laugh; there was usually one by his side. Sometimes more than one.

One evening, Hansen was sitting on deck, talking with a guest. The subject turned to their greatest fears. For Hansen, the answer was simple: losing his legs. “Not being able to surf,” he told the guest, “or walk on a beach holding hands with a girl.”

Three months later, he would wake up in a hospital in Cape Town. The first words he would hear were stern. “Son, I shoot from the hip,” the doctor told him. “You’re paralyzed, and you’ll never walk again.”

Hansen had been on a short trip to Africa to visit his biological father in Zimbabwe and then meet with his boss, the owner of the charter company, who was based in Cape Town. On the night before he was due to return to Thailand, the two men went out to dinner and then on to a bar, where Hansen met an attractive girl who also worked on yachts. They had friends in common — an “instant connection.”

As Hansen was leaving, the girl pulled up in a convertible. She called out to him, “Hey, Bruno! I’ll give you a ride!” He looked at the gorgeous girl with the long blond hair, jumped into her car, and off they went.

They roared down the darkened highway, talking and laughing and missing their exit. Soon after, Hansen noticed headlights in the side-view mirror: a car weaving toward them. Seconds later, it pulled up alongside them, and one of the four men inside opened his window and shouted at them to pull over. When Hansen and the girl refused, the men pulled out guns and began firing.

His memory after that is fragmented. The car skidded. Then it all went black. He doesn’t recall the car flipping and rolling, but it did. It landed on its roof.  “I’m hanging upside down,” Hansen says. “She’s hanging upside down. And I say to her calmly, ‘Don’t panic. Let’s get out slowly. We’ll be cool.’  ”

Two of the carjackers appeared and began dragging the girl from the car. Two others started to drag Hansen out, as well. His body was halfway out the window when the car began to roll again, down an embankment and landing on top of the girl, the engine burning her.

“I was lying on my back, completely helpless, just listening to her scream,” Hansen says.

We are seated at a local cafe near the beach in Bali. Hansen’s blue eyes are fierce and direct. Recalling the carjacking, he is matter-of-fact, unsentimental. “When you listen to another human being scream that way — not an ‘Ugh, there’s a spider’ scream — we’re talking deep terror and pain,” he says. “It’s the most haunting noise.”

Hansen, for his part, was trying to figure out what was happening. “I couldn’t move my fingers,” he says. “I could only move my eyeballs. I was in and out of consciousness.” Still, he wasn’t scared. “Maybe it was the arrogance of youth,” he says. “But I was thinking, ‘I’ll be all right.’ I was 10 feet tall. I could do anything. I felt invincible.”

The T12 vertebra sits at the base of the thoracic spine, and the extent of the spinal cord damage determines how severe the injury is. Once at the hospital, it was explained to him that the damage was complete. He had broken his back, and there would be no movement from the waist down. In a sudden and radical instant, Bruno Hansen had become a paraplegic.

This would not be the first time Hansen had been forced to adapt to adversity. He was born in 1971 in Bulawayo, Rhodesia — now Zimbabwe — a war-torn country, teeming with Robert Mugabe’s “freedom fighters,” whose reign of terror was pervasive. His mother, Diana Hansen, a measured Brit, recalls, “As a six-year-old, he trudged by foot to school on a road frequented by baboons, leopards, and sometimes elephants. There were periodic mortar bombs. His perception of danger must have been intense.”

Diana was born to British expats on a farm in Rhodesia. Bruno’s biological father, a bakery owner from Italy, left when Bruno was two. Diana married Hans Hansen, a Dane whom Bruno considers to be his father. An only child, Hansen was, and still is, very close to his parents, who instilled in him a stoic self-reliance.

In 1978, Diana and Hans were aboard Air Rhodesia’s Flight 825 to Salisbury, the country’s capital, when shortly after takeoff, the plane was hit by a surface-to-air missile fired by the Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army. Thirty-eight passengers were killed in the crash. Ten more were massacred on the ground. Hans and Diana were among the eight survivors.

Hansen heard about the crash on the radio a few hours after it happened. He was staying with his aunt and uncle, and while they were fraught with worry, he remained calm. He just knew that his parents would be OK. “I had no anxiety,” he recalls, “just a strong instinct they would survive.”

The family soon fled the country and moved to South Africa. Thus began a transient and peripatetic childhood — from South Africa to Denmark, Portugal, Spain, France, Germany. There were 14 schools in 12 years. Hansen learned to adjust to foreign languages and become inured to loss: homes, pets, friends, routines. As the new kid, he was often bullied. It toughened him up. Eventually, the family settled in Durban, South Africa, where Hansen learned to surf, cementing a bond with the ocean, which remains a sanctuary for him.

At the time of the carjacking, Hansen’s parents were living in Cornwall, England. After hearing what had happened, they rushed to the hospital, where he remained for a month. (The girl also survived. Hansen never saw her again.) After a complicated operation in which steel rods were inserted into his back, Hansen was stable enough to be flown to a spinal unit in En­gland. The doctors recommended a year-and-a-half of rehab; Hansen lasted eight months. “He said, ‘I’m out of here,’ ” Diana recalls. “And so in true Bruno form, he came home to Cornwall, to a horribly unsuitable house. Hans carried him up and down the stairs. It was all painfully gut-wrenching and tearful.”

How we end up in a certain place, at a certain time, and the choices we make and the order of events that follow, is something Hansen would come to think about often, trying to connect all of the what-ifs. What if he hadn’t taken up his boss on the invitation to party that night? What if the girl hadn’t missed the intended exit?

The way Hansen sees it now, if he hadn’t lost his legs in the accident, he would have lost them some other way. He can’t articulate why he thinks like this, but he does. As the years unfolded, he would come to believe, the way some people believe in God or destiny, that the accident occurred because he was meant to extract a richer experience from life.

In the immediate aftermath, there was no sense of acceptance or understanding. Hansen tried to remain positive, but the pain was intense. Sleeping became impossible, and despair soon set in.

In 1999, Hansen left England. Traveling with a nurse and a friend, he set out to a remote corner of Brazil to visit a spiritual healer named John of God. When that failed, he made his way to a doctor in San Diego who specialized in a controversial surgery that had to be carried out in Tijuana because it lacked FDA approval in the U.S. His back was sliced open, and shark embryo cells were transplanted into his spinal cord to try to regenerate the damaged area. “That was the most terrible thing I did — worse than the accident, actually,” Hansen says.

After recovering for a few months in San Diego, he hitched a ride with “a bunch of hippies” in a camper van and headed down the coast to Mexico, on his own in his “old, shitty wheelchair.” He was drifting, drinking, angry, and isolated. One night, he was sitting around a table, drunk, with some Mexican guys. A revolver was pushed his way. The bullets had been emptied out, save for one. “The guy said, ‘Stop whining, man. Stop complaining about your life,’ ” Hansen says. “Mexicans are macho. They don’t pity.”

Hansen took the gun, put the barrel to his temple, and pulled the trigger. The chamber was empty. He put down the gun and passed out.

He continued in his torpor to Rio Nexpa, a Pacific Coast beach he’d heard about from some surfers. He was winging it: no money, no idea what he was doing or where he was going. Yet somehow his radar for attractive women remained intact. “I saw this pretty blond girl walking past, and I said, ‘Excuse me, are there any South Africans here?’ ” Hansen says. He had heard that a group of them might be passing through. “I had been quite well known as a surf captain,” he says, “so I knew they would help me out. She said, ‘I think there’s still one here.’ ”

As it happened, some South Africans had just left. But one guy had stayed behind: Craig Sanderson, who was one of Hansen’s closest friends in grade school. Sanderson had visited Hansen in the hospital in En­gland, but “he’d never seen me use a wheelchair,” Hansen says. “He thought he was hallucinating.”

Sanderson encouraged his old surf buddy to paddle out again. But Hansen’s first time back on the board was a letdown. Just one year earlier, Hansen had been surfing in Indonesia. Now, he felt stiff, weak, uncoordinated. Hansen kept at it, but any relief his return to the ocean provided proved temporary. One morning, he paddled out on a longboard. Pondering his future, he decided he would rather drown. He slipped off the board into the ocean, thinking he would sink to the bottom and go peacefully. Instead, he was buoyant. “I tried to go down, but I couldn’t — my ass was like a cork, and I floated,” he says. “I remember staring up at the sky, cursing God: ‘Bloody hell — can’t you just let me finish this?’ ”

Hansen climbed back on the board and paddled over to some rougher water, where he thought he’d be more successful. Instead, by accident, he caught a wave. Instinct kicked in, and he began riding it. And, suddenly, he no longer wanted to die. The feeling was, he says, “elation — just being super-stoked that I’m riding a wave.” It was a sense of pure joy: speed, power, and movement, all at once. “No orgasm can come close to what I felt at that moment in time,” he says.

As we’ve been talking, some electronic dance music nearby has been growing progressively louder. The heavy bass beat thuds even more, and we pause to see where it’s coming from: A husky Russian in Ray-Bans, speakers mounted on his motorbike, is cranking the volume. Hansen glares at him.

“That’s the kind of guy I would have slapped around when I was up on my legs,” he says without breaking his gaze. “They impose what they like on everyone else.”

He continues staring at the Russian in silence. I imagine that he must be processing a warrior’s heartache — the inability to act on physical aggression.

He turns back to me, and his expression is acquiescent and placid. “Yeah,” he says, “I was a bit of an idiot that way.”

After six months in Mexico, Hansen returned to the grayness of England, where he began sliding again. He tried to live a “normal life” in Bournemouth, getting around on a hand cycle, but he was broke, bored, and restless, spending most of his time smoking weed with friends.

A friend in South Africa bought him a ticket to visit, and while there, they had an idea: Hansen could smuggle weed from Africa to Europe in the tires of his wheelchair. He delivered the package to a friend, who sold it. He took the money, returned to South Africa, and bought an old boat, which he worked on for a while before swapping it for a 46-foot catamaran. “I decided I wanted to go back to the life that I had before,” he says. “My old life.”

Following six years of darkness, Hansen’s life was beginning to open up again. He and James Taylor, whom he’d met earlier that year in Mozambique, spent a month refurbishing the catamaran. Their plan was to spend a year at sea on the Indian Ocean. Sailing, surfing, treasure hunting — a proper adventure. “We just had this mission we were working toward,” Taylor says. “And I could see that nothing would get in his way.”

A month later, they set sail from Durban to Mozambique, Madagascar, Comoros, the Seychelles, the Maldives, and then on to Thailand. Hansen piloted the boat from his wheelchair, while Taylor performed most of the heavy lifting — pulling up the mainsail and handling the anchor. The demands were rigorous. Powerful storms with enormous waves tossed Hansen from his chair, leaving him crawling around the deck for safety. He was banged up and stressed. But the danger replenished him, too. There was no time to dwell on his predicament.

“I learned to handle the hardship without complaint,” he says. Along the way, he also learned how it felt to be capable. He could surf and dive and spearfish; he developed a talent for free diving. (He is able to hold his breath for some six minutes.)

Once they arrived in Phuket, Taylor returned to South Africa for Christmas. And after a year at sea, Hansen was able to navigate life on his own. He would get off the yacht, climb into a dingy, row close to the shore, anchor the dingy, throw the wheelchair overboard, swim to the beach, and then pull the wheelchair in by a rope. Once on land, he’d head for his scooter, which he had fitted with a vegetable cart to haul his chair. They were happy times. He didn’t have a plan, but when Taylor returned they thought they might sail on to Sumatra.

Hansen was alone on his boat on the morning of December 26, 2004, when, without warning, the tsunami hit. The day before, he’d been out for a Christmas lunch with some surf skippers, and he awoke with a hangover. An odd wind was coming from the back of the yacht. He noticed that part of the reef was starting to stick up, and soon the boat was caught in a whirlpool.

Then the first wave came through, about six feet high. Hansen crawled to the bow, cut the anchor line, and aimed the boat beyond the waves and into deeper water. He managed to get the engine started, only to see another wave — this one about 20 feet high — about to hit. “That’s when I felt dread,” he recalls. “Not fear — just disbelief.” Engine screaming, he raced toward the wave head-on, hoping to crest it before it broke. “The ocean,” he says, “was going crazy.”

He made it over that monster wave, and then over the fourth and largest wave, a tower of water 30 feet high. After the tsunami subsided, Hansen waited in the safety of deeper water. Deck chairs and debris floated by, as well as dead bodies. Soon he was without fuel, food, or water. He remembers thinking “how insignificant our lives actually are and how important we think we are. In 15 minutes, it can all change. And in the end, nature will always rule.”

After three days, he spotted a familiar-looking yacht. It was the Moonpath, a South African boat he had skippered six years previously. He radioed the captain for help. Hansen’s boat was the Sunlord. As Hansen tells this story, it’s clear this symmetry is significant: The Moonpath and the Sunlord tied up together.

The damage from the Indian Ocean earthquake, which triggered the tsunami, was severe. With a magnitude of 9.3, it was the third-largest earthquake ever recorded, killing at least 230,000.

But Hansen had been spared, yet again — saved by a combination of luck, skill, and timing. Why?

Hansen had asked this question before. But this time was different. Rather than ruminating, he discovered instead that not analyzing the situation was more productive. “It’s almost like riding the rapids,” he says. “You’re on the tube, and you’re in for a rough ride, but if you hang on long enough, you’re going to pop out in some clear water down the river. That’s how I go through it now,” he says.

“Nature fixed me and healed me with a good thrashing.”

The ride back to Hansen’s house takes longer than usual because I’m following him in a taxi; the road he usually takes is inaccessible to cars. It’s a notable test of patience to build a house from scratch in Bali. But Hansen leased a small piece of land on an out-of-the-way hillside and somehow pulled it off. It feels like a tree house — without walls and illuminated by daylight. It’s sparsely furnished and equipped with an elevator Hansen constructed to take him to the second level.

Since the tsunami, Hansen has been in perpetual motion. He left Thailand for Bali, where he built a few wooden shacks and surfed some of the island’s most challenging breaks. He’s been treasure hunting on friends’ boats up and down the east coast of Africa. He returned to the shaman in Brazil — only this time, the encounter resulted in a sense of peace. He’s been whitewater kayaking in Uganda, where his parents were living. And he wants it known, “Since I’ve been in a wheelchair, I’ve met the most beautiful women of my life.”

Soon Hansen will return to California to defend his title as the world’s top paraplegic surfer. He’d like to win but shows no signs of anxiety about it. “I don’t get stressed or ponder or worry,” he says. “I don’t get freaked out by anything. Nothing scares me. I was thinking: ‘What really scares me? What fears do I have now?’ I can’t think of any. Except maybe the fear of hurting someone.”

He reaches for a box of dried sweet tamarind. “You want some?” he asks. He cracks open the long, curved pod, removes the stringy insides, and digs out what looks like an elongated date. “You pick out the seeds.”

Throughout our conversations, there have been numerous times when Hansen punctuated a sentence with “That’s what made me who I am”: an anecdote from childhood; the day in Mexico when the wave rebooted his system; crossing the Indian Ocean; surviving the tsunami. It’s a long list.

“My mind can’t be broken,” Hansen says. He means it. Hansen’s physical transformation forced him to become introspective. Wisdom was gained. He now occupies a space few people would understand: a place of fearlessness, where he is truly unstuck.

I ask him again. There’s really nothing you’re afraid to lose?

He thinks for a long time and shakes his head. “Nothing.” Then he smiles, and I can’t tell if he’s serious or not. “Well,” he says, “it would be a real inconvenience if I lost an arm.”

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