Writer/Surfer

Where have all the girls gone? Image: Schwartz


The Inertia

I just returned from another amazing solo surf trip. After talking with a South African surfer there, he pronounced me a soul surfer. I’m not sure if I agree with his label for me. I do know that my need to surf other destinations outweighs the need to have someone by my side to do it. This is not to say that I haven’t enjoyed surf trips with a friend or a significant other. This is to say that having someone by my side is not a requirement before I decide to go on a trip. I know there are other girls who also feel this way, but why do I never see them?

People are busy and with different priorities. I like to go to places as under the radar as possible, whether near or far. A lot of times this means some tricky logistical maneuvers, and in this busy world, I recognize that some would rather just fly and have their wave immediately at the ready. Also, since I am not gregarious by nature, I enjoy meeting foreigners and locals, but I equally enjoy the chance to have solo sessions in amazing new locations. One has to be okay with solitude on multiple levels to be okay with the far-fetched solo surf adventure.

I often see other solo travelers, and to date, all have been guys. I have met guys from many nationalities on their own solo adventures, but I have yet to meet a fellow girl solo traveler. I know they are out there, but this makes me wonder if there are so few surf girls traveling alone that we never run into each other? Talking to friends on the subject, two plausible options have come up to explain this. Girls tend to be more social creatures that might prefer to do their surf travels with company. Otherwise, maybe if they do fly solo, they are choosing more easily accessible breaks, whichare perceived to be safer.

I do admit that when traveling solo it can be awkward. Handling one’s own gear is the first practical obstacle. If you crave distance, as I do, trips usually entail multiple legs to navigate. Even if you travel closer, like my recent trip to Nicaragua, being able to handle and load your gear on a variety of vehicles – be it planes, cars, boats and motor scooters is a must. I had to learn to travel light and to choose which boards to bring. Whether it’s arriving in Jakarta and being swarmed by touts upon disembarking or hitchhiking the dirt roads of a foreign country lacking strong infrastructure, carrying your load with ease is a must. When arriving in a country where touts are in the airport, they will immediately accost you. I’m sure this is true for guys as well but for a girl alone, they can be unrelenting. I had to learn who to accept help from and to do so firmly and with confidence.

The bro network is international and a tough nut to crack. Not that I wish to be a part of the network, but there is valuable knowledge there. There is no bro-hookup as a surfer girl traveling solo. It doesn’t matter that I’ve been surfing for over a decade, my home break has sharks and is challenging or that I’ve traveled to multiple continents for waves, I’m still a girl in the surf and treated as such. If I were a pro girl surfer would it be different? I’m not even sure.

When paddling out at a new spot, when it comes to getting information about waves in the area, getting the better waves, it feels like I have to prove myself first. This is a sticky situation if you travel to some foreign breaks that might be considered challenging. When you paddle out you may not be just the only girl but sometimes both the only girl and the only American. As this might be true for guys as well, it’s more of an anomaly to see a lone girl surfer. When it is time to take that first wave, you may be representin’ a lot, best not fail. It’s thoughts like these that friends tend to say to me, “It’s only surfing” and my answer, “Whatever, it’s true.” Foreign breaks whether at home or abroad can be complicated fields to negotiate. As a girl, the first wave you take – all eyes are on you – whether you want to admit this or not. You must nail it and you must be able to handle your board. After that, you can relax, but if you miss the first wave, your odds of getting additional waves will decrease. Surfers that I know are judgmental by nature and very judgmental when it comes to girls in the lineup.

As with any new break, following standard etiquette ingratiates you into the lineup. I have found that if you charge and surf your waves well, you will be promoted. I am more introverted by nature and people always say to chat your way through the awkward beginning of a surf session in a foreign locale. For me, that just doesn’t happen, as much as I wish it would. I quietly sit and take the scraps but I always end up advancing.

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  • veraniego

    This is one of the best article@s I´ve seen on this website. Great analysis and insight into traveling, surfing, and marginalizing of women in surfing. 

  • skycedar

    Elizabeth- we are out there!!  I do roughly 3 solo-trips a year, usually to more remote places (being crowd and strip-malls-in-paradise phobic) and have never really met another solo-female surfer.  Your experiences sound like exactly the same things that I have said a hundred times about the challenges.  I will say, though, that while the first take-off is critical for establishing cred, etc., I have also almost always been treated with the utmost respect by most of the male surfers I have encountered on my travels and have made so many friends this way.  Even if I don’t nail that first drop or bottom-turn, in the end I think most guys appreciate the rarity of me being out there alone and often offer a hello or hand.  Sadly navigating the sexual advances on the beach are another story.

  • Elizabeth Henlein

    It makes me so happy to hear of other girls solo surfing trippin out there! Keep surfing 🙂

    • Littleorangutan

      Hey, I have been a chronic solo soldier for some years. Normally out of necessity as I wanna go surf. So I go with or without you. The feminist issues you touch upon are issues that come up everywhere – in every sport, religion and culture. I have been looked after as a total beginner , and encouraged by so many epically cool guys that I sometimes feel it is easier to take in a new line up as a girl. Yes we get dropped in on more, etc but the stoke and new friendships I have made just from going out and doing my thing is wicked. I also wonder why aren’t there more girls, but secretly I like being a little but the maverick and a little bit special, just sometimes

  • Loopiloo

    Love it!! I can totally relate to that! Where I live, there’s no waves, I have to travel to find waves but really, I need more water time. It will be great to meet more surfer girls!

  • Alisonteal

    I’m right here!!! 😉 http://www.alisonsadventures.com 

  • Anonymous

    Yes!  You bring up some great points about what it is to be female and a surfer. 

    We also watch the buoys, get up early for DP and are just as frothy for waves as the next guy, but surfing is a different world for women.  For one, we’re vastly outnumbered in the lineup (at least in NorCal), so when you paddle out, everyone notices.  That feeling of “all eyes on you” is a familiar one and because of that, I think we all feel the pressure to surf better than they expect. 

    Also, the bro network as you call it (love that) is very real…it’s not necessarily good or bad, but it’s definitely there.  I think some guys don’t really know where to place us…”do I try to seduce her? (hey baby, do you surf here often?) or treat her like one of the guys? (hey dude, I have to take a dump).”  And even if we become “one of the guys,” we’ll never actually be one, and I think this causes some dissonance.  At the end of the day, we are all out there cause we love the ocean and love to surf so why not smile and say hello to the next gal you see in the lineup?

    Thanks again for the article — it’s great to hear about other ladies who are out there charging and traveling around the world chasing waves!  

  • jaime

    i have done many solo trips, and i know others as well…

  • Leelee

    I wish I would see more of us!!! all I see is rude boys and girls who look at me funny for going alone , like I wasn’t good enough to go with friends lol .. How can you say “I like being alone ” and not sound crazy to everyone? no way in hell
    I just got back from costa rica – panama – mexico , and I gotta say its hard for us out there. real hard. so its good to read this and see that I’m not crazy and this is in fact an amazing way to travel.. hope to see all of you in my next trips!

  • Leelee

    I wish I would see more of us!!! all I see is rude boys and girls who look at me funny for going alone , like I wasn’t good enough to go with friends lol .. How can you say “I like being alone ” and not sound crazy to everyone? no way in hell
    I just got back from costa rica – panama – mexico , and I gotta say its hard for us out there. real hard. so its good to read this and see that I’m not crazy and this is in fact an amazing way to travel.. hope to see all of you in my next trips!

  • Leelee

    I wish I would see more of us!!! all I see is rude boys and girls who look at me funny for going alone , like I wasn’t good enough to go with friends lol .. How can you say “I like being alone ” and not sound crazy to everyone? no way in hell
    I just got back from costa rica – panama – mexico , and I gotta say its hard for us out there. real hard. so its good to read this and see that I’m not crazy and this is in fact an amazing way to travel.. hope to see all of you in my next trips!

  • Leelee

    I wish I would see more of us!!! all I see is rude boys and girls who look at me funny for going alone , like I wasn’t good enough to go with friends lol .. How can you say “I like being alone ” and not sound crazy to everyone? no way in hell
    I just got back from costa rica – panama – mexico , and I gotta say its hard for us out there. real hard. so its good to read this and see that I’m not crazy and this is in fact an amazing way to travel.. hope to see all of you in my next trips!

  • Leelee

    I wish I would see more of us!!! all I see is rude boys and girls who look at me funny for going alone , like I wasn’t good enough to go with friends lol .. How can you say “I like being alone ” and not sound crazy to everyone? no way in hell
    I just got back from costa rica – panama – mexico , and I gotta say its hard for us out there. real hard. so its good to read this and see that I’m not crazy and this is in fact an amazing way to travel.. hope to see all of you in my next trips!

  • CathC

    I can’t stop nodding in agreement as I read your article. Every point should resonate with any female surfer – no matter what level. The element of proving yourself when you first get out is the most poignant for me. You do feel like all eyes are upon you but then I think so what – let’s show them. Often you have to pull a ‘tough girl’ approach. It feels silly, somewhat pathetic but than it’s a reaction to how some males treat you in the water. It does make me laugh. And I do realise that it is a sport whereby we all have to prove ourselves to our peers firstly – not matter what sex we are and sometimes because of the fact we are females we can be the ones to pull out the surprises and show those guys how its done. Thanks for your words..

  • Camila Guell Iturralde

    Hy girls! I am happy to read you all. Congrats for the article Elisabeth! I have felt exactly as you explained many times. I do travel always alone as I don’t know girls to surf with and guys…..I am getting bored about guys lately!! I am planning a trip on February for a month to surf. I am from Spain, I am Goofy and I am looking for medium size waves not too crowded and maybe warm water (last doesnt matter that much) I have been in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Panamá, Canada, Australia and Portugal. Any suggestions??? Thanks!!!!!!

    • Kai Hilomen Negado

      hey try the Philippines! I’ll be going to Siargao Island at the end of August you might want to go there too 🙂

  • Elizabeth Montalbano

    My name is Elizabeth, too, and I also am a solo woman surfer! You’re right, it’s hard to find girls flying solo on surf trips around the world; many times they were in pairs or with guys. I am lucky in sometimes I find gal pals to surf with among locals in spots (sometimes guy pals, but that’s usually something different, isn’t i?). That said, I live in southwest Portugal and quite a few girls come here solo, though, but I wouldn’t call us “off the radar” by any stretch of the imagination. More like “saturated” with people! Keep up the soul surfer vibe and see you in the water somewhere exotic!

  • Liz Thottan

    I just got back to India after an awesome solo surf trip in bali…

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