Tackling Child Abuse, One Paddle At A Time
As a survivor of childhood abuse, Damien Rider is passionate about breaking the shame and silence; inspiring others to speak out. His decision to paddle 800kms from Coolangatta to Bondi to raise awareness was one of his biggest challenges yet, but he’s only just getting started.
WORDS: Jas Rawlinson
It was at just six years of age that Damien was forced to hide under jetties and in skate parks, terrified to go home for fear of what would happen. After years of abuse, he found himself constantly walking destructive paths, finally realising he was the only one who could change his life.
In January this year, Damien completed an 800 km solo paddle from QLD to NSW in just 17 days, breaking three world records in the process. Alone in the ocean, hundreds of kilometres from home with only his board and a few supplies, Damien Rider was truly at the mercy of mother nature. Arms aching in the tide, with sharks circling and knocking at his board, he found true peace and purpose.
Today Damien is the founder of Paddle against Child Abuse, an organisation which brings together ocean paddle sport communities for the common cause against child abuse. On the sunny coast of Coolangatta, I met with this big–hearted athlete to talk about the issues closest to his heart, what it’s like to fight off sharks, and his upcoming plan to paddle in the Arctic.
Extended Interview with Damien Rider
Firstly, I think I speak for everyone when I say congratulations on what you’ve achieved so far. An 800km solo paddle from Coolangatta to Bondi is no small feat!
I’m guessing you’ve had quite a few people ask if you’re a little bit crazy after taking on that paddle?
Yeah I guess a lot of people were wondering that. I was planning on another paddle first–and it was really only two weeks before that I decided to do the 800km paddle. I called my mate and was like, “hey, I’m feeling pretty good, I’m feeling strong; I won’t do this 200km paddle – I’ll paddle to Sydney instead.” Knowing me and how I train, he just went, “No worries I’ll see you in Bondi!” When I started to tell other people they were like, “wow, are you crazy? Are you sure? Can you make it?” I said, “well, I’m not even sure that I can, but all I can do is give it a go really.” Consecutively, I’d only paddled 40km at one stretch [at that time].
Wow, that’s a massive jump!
That [800km paddle] was really tough, but once the first few days were over and done with, and all the emotion and thought was gone, it was just about getting into a rhythm and going for it. There were still some hairy times, no doubt; with the weather and sharks. I was by myself and there were no support boats; no one on land or anything.
Yes, I did read that there were a couple of sharks circling you at one point! Did you have anything on the board to protect yourself with?
(Pausing) A knife and a Go–Pro (laughs).
And what did you do in that moment?
I grabbed the Go-Pro first (laughs).
Of course! You can always come back for the knife later.
(Laughs) I did pull the knife out once I’d come out of Evans head. I saw a really big fin…I was a bit freaked out. I kind of just kept as calm as I could and just cruised in; tried not to worry about it too much. I thought I would have seen more than I did, and there were definitely some parts that I paddled over where they were there for sure–you can just sense them.
I saw a big one when I paddled out of Coffs Harbour – he was probably about 15 foot. Then later on after Seal Rocks there were a few, about two–thirty, three in the afternoon. The biggest one I saw was probably about 22 foot long and about 9 foot wide. He cruised past about 70 metres away from me, just hugging the sand. By then I was that fatigued and sore. I’d been warned about this Reef section called Big Gibba where white pointers hang out, so [just beforehand] I’d sussed it out from the headland. There were two swimming around [which were] about six foot long, so I’d picked the board up – which was 17, 18 kilos – walked over the headland with it, and then got back into the water. I paddled about two km’s and this wave hit me and almost broke my neck. I went under water, almost drowning, and thought: ‘I’m in a lot of trouble.’ I started paddling and saw another one [shark] and I said, ‘just eat me! I’ve had enough, just bloody eat me!’ (laughs). But he just cruised on by, and I kept on going.
It’s definitely a phenomenal story! What was the rest of the paddle like once you’d gotten past those moments?
It was really emotional for me. I guess breaking through those physical pain barriers for the first five days really brought out a lot. A lot of memories were drawn out from the physical pain I was going through, and the aloneness, and a lot of talking to myself. Everything was coming out. Once I came out of Coffs Harbour I really got into a rhythm, and just really started to enjoy it. I knew this was what I was going to do. I knew I was going to make it.
I guess that was the time where I’d really found peace in what I was doing, and the reason I was doing it.
I imagine it would be very therapeutic being out there alone; really challenging yourself and pushing through.
Yeah definitely. In the first five days I probably nearly died ten times. Overcoming that and keeping on going–it was a big test within myself. It definitely changed my life in that sense. I guess after there everything changed. There was a lot more marine life–friendly marine life–and Nambucca Heads was absolutely beautiful. White sand, palm trees, nice clean waves, no one out…from there it was really amazing.
I’ve seen some really beautiful images of you and your son, who is now 14. Is he a bit of a water boy like you?
Yeah he comes out with me on the paddle board. He’s not a surfer but he likes paddle boarding – he’s long and lanky so he’s got the build for it.
As many people would know, the solo paddle was actually part of a much bigger plan to raise awareness of child abuse through your organisation Paddle against Child Abuse (PACA). Can you tell us a bit more about when PACA first began?
Before I left Melbourne [last year] I knew I wanted to start paddle boarding. I’d surfed, but never done paddle boarding. Before I did the 800 km’s I’d only started paddle boarding ten months before hand, so it was very new to me. I could barely paddle 800 metres at first–being up on your knees is completely different. But after that I could feel emotions coming out, and I could feel me finding more peace within myself from my own messed up childhood.
I’d already been in contact with Child Protection Week to see how I could help them, or how I could help get their word out there for that week, so I went home and looked up ‘paddle boarding guinness book of records,’ and saw ‘longest distance in 24 hours’. I thought ‘sweet, I’ll just do that. I’ll train my ass off and I’ll do that, and I’ll support these guys and get a bit of local stuff out there.’ But then in dealing with them, they weren’t really hitting the issues I would have liked (for me to put my name to), so that’s when I decided I’d start my own: Paddle Against Child Abuse (PACA). I put on a two day paddle festival, surfing and paddle boarding and all that, and then I just kept on training. I didn’t really know what I was going to do; I thought I’d just do that paddle, but then a few things happened and now it’s all I do. I work at it everyday, this is my life.
The thing with it is, I’m not a charity,and nor would I ever want to be. My sponsors give me clothes and things like that, and for the documentary I have sponsors who want to advertise, but I don’t ask the general public for money and I never will.
I’ve heard that PACA plan to build a series of beachfront safe houses for survivors of abuse. What will be the vision?
Yeah, [they’ll be] between Coolangatta and Bilinga– it will be absolute beachfront. [My vision is to] grab kids who are on the crossroad–between the ages of 15 and 17, trying to have a go themselves–and basically give them the tools to move forward. If they come with me and PACA I can guide them in the right direction, otherwise they’ll go to drugs, gangs, whatever it is. I’ll also run daily and weekly programs for foster parents and people just struggling with their kids at home. They can come down and do boot camp or paddle boarding, learn to bond with each other. [It’s about] keeping the families together so they can work better in a more happy and healthy environment rather than just butting heads at home.
That definitely sounds like a very inspiring vision. Do you recall at what age you really felt you found your voice and passion for raising awareness of child abuse?
Just last year really. When I did my first promo of the paddle I was going to do, I got inundated with people who had gone through similar things. The first clip had 50,000 views in the first two days and I probably got 10,000 messages from people all over the world, saying, “thankyou, you’ve helped me to open up and tell my family about things.” They’d tell me how they’d sit there at the table over dinner, pull up my clip and start talking about what had happened to them. It just kind of grew from there.
I’m sure that would really make you feel at peace with the path you’re on and what you’re doing with your life.
Yeah, yeah for sure.
You mentioned a little bit earlier about the documentary coming out called Heart of the Sea. Can you share more about it?
Heart of The Sea is going to be a full length feature –around 88 minutes long– and National Geographic have said they’ll put it out to 300 million homes across the globe and also promote PACA. The doco’s been fantastic for me to do. [When filming] I had to go back down to places where things had happened to me, in Ballarat Victoria and Adelaide, and I’d never been back to those places since I was a little kid. Everyone was really worried. For me though, after the paddle, it was totally fine. There was no emotional attachment. There were more memories than I could ever have thought of, had I not gone back there. Standing on the rocks, and in caves and on beaches..there was a flooding of memories. But there was no emotion.
I had a chat with this psychologist–he’s on the documentary–Brett Addison. He’s been working with people with childhood traumas for about 35 years. [He said] I’m the only one he’s ever known in 35 years that’s broken the hold of PTSD. We’ve got a great interview with him and I. We’re looking to start doing lectures and seminars in universities about how to break free of it.
The [beach] houses are going to help people hands on, but the documentary will reach millions of people so it’s more important for me.
What do you think is most important for survivors of abuse to know in order to break through their trauma?
I guess the hardest thing is letting go of the comfort around you that you know is bad for you, and just believing and trusting in who you are without listening to other people. Be proud of who you are. Don’t be afraid of breaking free of people around you who aren’t good for you. In short, I guess it would be: find a place and activity that makes you naturally happy and start there. You need a balance between positive and negative.
Child Abuse is a massive problem in Australia, and so often people ask the question: “what should we do if we see it happening?” I think this means Australia has a long way to go in understanding child abuse. The solution is a difficult one, but can you give any advice on what people can do if they really want to make a difference or get more involved in supporting your vision?
I guess the first thing is: don’t be afraid to speak up. Back in the day we used to have neighbourhood watch and we used to campaign that it’s okay to speak up if something is going on in your neighbourhood. Child abuse is a difficult one because people don’t want to interfere in other people’s families, so it’s tough in that sense.
The government’s got a lot to do with it. The government and legal system is so far behind a lot of other countries. The fact is, most abuse – physical or mental – comes from parents [male and female].
I started to go down the path of ‘how can I fix this?’, but it’s pretty difficult to fix when so many people have a different opinion to you. It’s a long drawn out battle to try and fix that one, so I thought, ‘I’ll fix the victims, and I’ll start there’. That’s what changes the future.
It’s about breaking that cycle. The documentary is really going to do that too, because obviously, I mean, I don’t really look like…there’s no stereotype you know? The most hardest guys sitting in prison will watch this documentary and there’ll be bits where they’ll go, “you know what? He’s right about that. I can relate to him.” Kids can relate; most people can.
I think a lot of things I’ve done along the way–like I won the Men’s Health Man of the Year–I don’t really care about at all. I only look this way because I paddled all that way–I didn’t diet for eight weeks (laughs). But it gives more credibility to what I’m doing.
Just coming back to what you were saying about there not being a stereotype, do you feel that might be one of the most common misconceptions about child abuse?
Yeah definitely, for sure. Also people thinking it’s an economical issue, that it’s only the poor people out in the western suburbs that this happens to, when that’s not really the case. There are a lot of professional mothers and fathers who just don’t care about their kids–they’re too busy in their careers; sending them off to boarding school. And these are the ones who become drug dealers or blow their heads off, because they’re searching for love and looking for it, but their parents are just paying them off with money.
With all that you’ve done, what would you say your proudest accomplishment has been?
I guess my proudest accomplishment…would be finding myself and finding my peace. And knowing that’s what I’ll use to help others.
That’s something that a lot of survivors struggle for many years to find, so it’s amazing to hear that not only have you been able to work through those issues, but you’ve been able to use them as a catalyst to help others.
In August Damien will be taking on his next challenge: a 150 km solo paddle in North East Greenland, as well as looking forward to the release of his documentary Heart of the Sea. Keep up to date with what he’s up to on paca.com.au
GET THE FACTS
- In 2012 – 2013 approximately 122,496 finalised investigations were carried out into child abuse in Australia. (According to Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2014). Child protection Australia 2012–13. Canberra: AIHW. Retrieved from Australian Gov website source)
- Emotional abuse and neglect are the most common primary forms of substantiated abuse in Australia (According to Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2014). Child protection Australia 2012–13. Child welfare series 58. Cat. no. CWS 49. Canberra. source)
- Girls are 5 times more likely to be abused than males (According to Sedlack, et. al., 2010). In Bravehearts publication. source)
- Indigenous children are almost 8 times as likely to be the subject of substantiated abuse or neglect. (According to: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. In ABC ‘Rates of abused and neglected children on the rise in Australia.’ source)
- Abuse is most common in children 1 year and under. (According to: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. In ABC ‘Rates of abused and neglected children on the rise in Australia.’source)
- Childhood abuse can contribute to many different health issues, including depression, anxiety, addictions, personality disorders (Spila, Makara, Kozak, & Urbanska, 2008) eating disorders, sexual disorders and suicidal behaviour (Draper et al., 2007). (In ASCA. ‘Impact of Child Abuse.’ source)