Interview With James Shoffeitt of Serene Waters Adventure Therapy and Recovery - The 124 Society

Interview With James Shoffeitt of Serene Waters Adventure Therapy and Recovery

I understand you are living in Southern California, what city are you living in?

I’m currently living on the central coast of California in a small town called Cayucos just north of Morro Bay. My company is headquartered in Orange County, California. After living in Southern California for my entire life, I wanted to explore living in another region. As of June 2024, I will be returning to SoCal to live in the Costa Mesa/Huntington Beach area.

When did you start surfing, and why?

I just remember as a kid surfing always being a part of my family life. My dad was a surfer. I don’t really remember making a conscious effort to start surfing. It was just a part of our life. On weekends, we would make the long drive through Topanga Canyon down to Malibu and up to the beach breaks of Zuma. I could remember as a seven-year-old Grom riding white water on the inside while my dad surfed. So the ocean was always a part of my life in the background at least. After seven trips to juvenile hall, 2 attempts of rehab, about four different high schools and moving from family member's house to family member's house, one of my uncles introduced me to riding waves on a bodyboard at an infamous place called the Wedge in Newport Beach, CA. That’s where I first learned how to really get barreled. I still grappled with alcoholism and addiction for a period of time after that. After I was a year and a half sober, I returned to Orange County, California, and there were a couple of years where spending as much time in the water and chasing barrels at the Wedge, Aliso, and Salt Creek was one of the few passions I had. Over the years, my responsibilities grew and my pace of life changed. My love for the ocean is stronger than ever, but the way I ride waves has changed, slowly transitioning from riding fast hollow tubes to average beach breaks to nowadays, I love just cruising on a longboard or fish at a mellow point break.

Who founded Serene Waters and what compelled them to do so?

I founded Serene Waters in 2016. There were a number of reasons and motivations for why I started the program. What really drew me to this type of work was my own experience. After surfing on and off throughout my childhood and adolescence, I found myself sober for just over a year and a half, and had moved back to Orange County, CA to be a part of my daughter's life. I was a young (20 at this time) dad and fell in love with the ocean as a means of coping with all the difficulty and turbulence that came with being a young man, who is now somewhat nearly sober, only a year and a half, and having a lot of challenges with fatherhood, the family court system, and custody issues. It was a means of escape to get in the water. Surfing helped me so much at a very difficult time in my life. I knew I wanted to share this with other people. I had been working in the addiction treatment space, so it kind of went together like peanut butter and jelly. At first, I worked at a treatment center in San Juan Capistrano that had an existing Surf Therapy program, and another therapist who founded that group was kind enough to train me and pass it on. And like any good entrepreneur, I wanted more freedom, more money, more control of my schedule, and I saw opportunities to share this with other treatment centers in the community and reach more people.

What are your thoughts on how COVID contributed to California's mental health crisis?

I don’t know if the situation has gotten better or worse from a statistical standpoint. As a society worldwide, I think we have all seen a growing demand for treatment services and therapy. I feel like it’s the 'what came first, the chicken or the egg' type of question. I believe all this stuff was already laying dormant within most people, and COVID lockdowns really unmasked it. Not sure if it just became more acceptable to speak about or ask for help. It does baffle me to this day that there are still people who claim addiction and mental health issues are made up. I believe the demand for human services is higher than the ability to treat it at this point in time, especially for less fortunate populations that can’t afford cash pay services or premium insurance policies.

What type of programs do you have and can you share more information about them?

We have two main services that we offer through Serene Waters Adventure Therapy: our adventure therapy groups for recovery/mental health centers and our therapeutic Surfing and Mindfulness lessons. The groups with the treatment centers are the core foundation of our program. A lot of other Surf Therapy organizations offer a service to a specific population and hold events with voluntary sign-ups. Our service is a bit different; rehab centers contract us to fill group time slots for their patients, so a lot of our attendees are not necessarily opting to attend a Surf Therapy group, but they get the opportunity presented to them. We try to encourage as many people as possible to try it. I think this is great because it gives people the opportunity to try something they might not be ready to do if they were on their own or having to sign up and drive themselves. It is kind of handed to them, but a lot of times that’s what we need in early recovery. We don’t like to ask for help, and getting out of our comfort zone is not necessarily at the top of our list, so it’s a cool opportunity to invite newly sober people into the ocean as a recovery method. For those that dont participate in the surfing aspect of group we still facilitate a group check in, mindfulness exercises, and allow them time and space to experience being on the beach in their own way.

What specifically do you think benefits your participants by surfing, rather than doing another outdoor activity?

What’s great about the Surf Therapy outings is that whether people decide to surf or not, they are getting a therapeutic benefit. There is a book out there called Blue Mind, and it breaks down Blue Mind theory written by Dr. Wallace J. Nichols. He describes the psychology around being in, on, or even near water and what that can do for a person's mental health. When it comes to other activities like hiking, most people know how to walk and they tend to just do that at their own pace. There’s no need to ask questions, receive feedback, ask for help, or learn a new skill. If someone is to learn surfing successfully, they’re gonna have to do all those things, so it really does force people out of their comfort zone not just with the ocean, but also with their communication and trust skills. The ocean itself is such a mystery. As a species, we know more about outer space than we do our own oceans. The truth is water scares the shit out of a lot of people; oftentimes, a participant getting out there, even if it’s just a swim or boogie boarding, can be an act of courage and faith for them. We try to utilize that principle as a way to help motivate and empower people to face fears and other areas of their life as well.

Are you partnering with any other organizations or agencies?

We do partner with several treatment programs in the Orange County area, such as Pace Recovery (a program for young men), New Method Wellness (a co-ed dual diagnosis program), Rising Roads (a program for young women in recovery), and ROWI treatment center for teens struggling with substance use and other mental health-related disorders. We would definitely be open to collaborating with other surf schools to provide more programming to people and also team up with other Surf Therapy organizations with a similar mission that focuses on helping people in recovery from substance use and other mental health disorders. I’m definitely open to creating another part of Serene Waters that is modeled as a nonprofit that helps provide these programs for folks in county/state funded facilities that don’t have the budget for these types of activities. I think everyone can benefit from holistic therapeutic services, and I hope to reach more people in the future. If you have skills in the nonprofit sector and are exploring what that could look like, please reach out to me at

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