Wouldn’t it be nice if entering the ocean meant leaving all of the messy power imbalances, crooked hierarchies, and unjust inequities on land? Unfortunately, as many surfers can attest, riding waves strings along (and potentially amplifies) the same twisted dynamics that we experience onshore. For women in the water, it can feel isolating to surf amongst a sea of agro men, even if most of us have grown accustomed to this scenario. Although competing against a bunch of hawklike dudes scratching for every bump and lump in the water will make anyone a scrappier, more skillful surfer, surfing with other women has a different, more unique impact that has the power to permanently alter the sport for me – and other female surfers.
This summer, I’ve primarily been surfing with a couple of my girl friends. We’ve been stuck with mushy one to two-foot closeouts interrupted by a couple of miraculous days that provided glassy three-foot peelers and a majestic pod of dolphins surging through the lineup. Ironically, I often surf better or enjoy myself more (what’s the difference?) in those crummy, barely-breaking conditions when simply being able to stand up on a wave makes one of us hoot and holler for the other’s three-second ride. Even during those anticlimactic sessions, when it’s challenging to muster up enough motivation to paddle out, we’re often still surrounded by hyper middle-aged guys huffing and puffing over the wave they did or didn’t catch.
Even though I am eons behind where my friends are in terms of skill and experience, they’re always encouraging me, hyping me up after my short lived one-turn-wonder, and inspiring me to paddle back out after I’ve fumbled a take off. This unconditional support and the positivity it fosters greatly differs from the experience of being the sole woman amongst an all male lineup.
Holly Beck, ex-pro surfer and founder of Surf with Amigas, a surf and yoga retreat for women, describes all male lineups as much more “grumpy and serious” than surfing with other women where the vibe is more friendly, supportive, and chatty. Beck started surfing in San Diego, but has since surfed (and taught others to surf) all over the world, from Costa Rica and Nicaragua to Morocco and Indonesia.
When she first started as a teenager, she often felt threatened when other girls were around and pressure to fit in with the boys. After leaving competitive surfing behind and founding a company that leads all-women surf retreats, her feelings when another woman paddles out have totally changed. She’s always friendly and encouraging toward other female surfers, and has since realized it “actually feels really good to share waves.”
Similar to Beck, Leah Dawson, freesurfer, creator, and co-founder of Changing Tides Foundation (and author of The Guide to Alternative Surf Craft), feels that surfing with other women greatly impacts the lineup. Dawson notices that there is “an air of familiarity” when women enter the water and how the lineup’s “energy changes dramatically when women and girls start communicating with each other.” She feels that, “being out in a lineup with multiple women creates a reminder for everyone that we surf for fun, for zen, for healing, not necessarily aggression or competition. Then, when we see another woman smash a section or zoom by in her feminine ways, it inspires us to push our own limits and discover new possibilities to be ourselves, free in the ocean!”
I instantly connected with Beck and Dawson’s observations, though I have decades less experience. But, maybe that’s the point. I compliment my friend’s sick layback that sprayed me in the face and she compliments me riding straight on a little push of whitewater. Not only does this constant uplifting make me more confident as I paddle for my next wave, but watching my friends do huge turns and survive steep take-offs shows me what I’m capable of.
One specific world champ named Stephanie Gilmore who I’ve looked up to for years continually paves the way for female surfing, not only by fighting for equal prize money and winning more titles than any other female surfer on Earth, but also by showing how exceptional and limitless women in the water can be. Her distinctly powerful yet graceful style sets her apart from most male surfers, who she described as having a more “abrasive approach where they’re fighting against the wave,” in a 2019 interview with ELLE. More importantly, she recognizes that “if there are young girls out there that want to choose that path of being an official surfer, now they look at [her] and go, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s a legitimate career.’” It’s obvious that Gilmore’s true power exists in and out of the water.
Her unprecedented success, relentless competitive drive, and lifelong commitment to the sport continues to progress surfing toward a more equitable and just entity, not to mention watching Gilmore glide along on her board is pretty easy on the eyes. But on top of her fierceness and astounding athletic ability, she maintains a genuinely positive, supportive attitude toward her female competitors and feels they “really respect each other.” Once an event is over, they “can come back and all party and celebrate together and it’s not an issue.” Surfers like Gilmore demonstrate that there are plenty of waves to go around for all women who want to give surfing a shot; women don’t need to view each other as threats in a historically male-dominated sport. And, as Beck states, “If you wipe out, someone’s watching out for you and they’re gonna be cheering for you no matter what.”
When speaking with my friends about what surfing with other women means to them I feel as though I’m talking to myself. One friend recently shared that surfing with other women makes her feel not only connected but also like she can be her whole self. In her words, “not just my feminist-environmental-justice-scholar self or my poet self or my surfer self, but all of me at the same time.” Another expressed that surfing with other women inspires her to be more confident and have fun in the ocean, a feeling I can definitely relate to.
Reading, watching, and talking to other women who surf at all levels and ages repeatedly shows me what I can achieve – in and out of the water. Paddling by a woman with long, gray hair elegantly maneuvering a nine-foot board also reminds me that I can surf as long as I so desire, which is a great feeling when you get down to it. Watching world champions shoot through 10-foot barrels proves to me that women are just as gnarly and courageous as men. Surfing with my friends teaches me how much power lies in community, that surfing isn’t just about getting the best wave of the day or learning new tricks, but rather finding joy in rooting for others and becoming present in an ever-changing environment. Most importantly, surfing with other women continually reminds me how incredible women on waves truly are, whether they’re progressing the sport, searching for self-improvement, or simply out for the ride of their lives.