Sea Notes

A short history of women’s surfing

The oldest known story of surfing concerns the mythical Kelea. Born of royalty in Maui, it is said she out-surfed riders of both genders. A few hundred years pass until the mid-late 1800s, when Thrum’s Hawaiian Annual reports that women in ancient Hawaii surfed in equal numbers and often better than the men. When surfing returned at the turn of the last century, it did so with Western hang-ups about separation of the sexes. While it seems Hawaiians practiced sexism, it apparently did not carry over to spots.
I began surfing nearly a century later and there were few female surfers around. The Calhoun family, Linda Benson, Martha Sunn and Joyce Hoffman stood out among them. The only girls I knew who surfed were Lenny Fox and Crazy Kate, both of whom bring up stories best left for fireside chats with a few close friends.
By the early 1960s, surfing was dominated almost exclusively by young men. Older men and women surfed, mostly at San Onofre or Waikiki. Girls, especially young ones, were rare in the lineup. Surfer girls, as the Beach Boys sang in their hit of that name, never even had to get wet. “I have watched you on the shore” makes the point.
In the late 1960s we began hearing about this girl Margo Godfrey. I believe she was 14 when she won the World Titles in Puerto Rico. By the time I met her, her mother had moved to Santa Barbara and she moved into a little pup tent in a friend’s front yard in Cardiff. We surfed together a lot in the summer of 1970. Then she met and married my friend, local surfer Steve Oberg and moved to Kauai, where she continued to dominate women’s surfing for the next 20 years or so.
From there names like Debbie Melville, Frieda Zamba and Lisa Anderson took over. Then came a flurry of international women in the top ranks. Then came the movie, “Blue Crush” and female longboarders took a cue, found their groove and hit the water in numbers not seen for decades. Some took advantage of big boards and femininity to get more than their share, while others integrated the lineup more graciously while softly diluting all that testosterone.
Writing about women’s surfing is kind of weird, really. I mean, we’re just talking about surfers, right? So why the differentiation? Why the competition rather than the harmony? In my opinion there should be no separation at all. Every surfer has a common enemy in pollution and we need to unite against that, rather than fight each other.
A while back I was invited to a screening of “Soul Surfer,” a feature film about Bethany Hamilton and the shark attack that took her arm and the faith that kept her moving forward. The film was somewhat predictable, since we all know the story by now. It focuses well on the courage of someone to keep going even when the odds are against them. I ignored the usual Hollywood corn and the blue screen tube rides and enjoyed the show. Your sons and especially your daughters will love it.
My favorite part of “Soul Surfer” is the spiritual message and the end where Bethany herself is seen surfing deep in the heart of Tahiti, beneath the shadow of a wave that could kill the average person. If she paddled in, that’s amazing. Even if she was towed in, her surfing was of a high caliber for anyone, one arm or two, male or female. “Soul Surfer” is expected to be quite a hit among the mainstream. If so, the next wave of young women will hit the water by summer 2011. Keep in mind that they want what we all want, a few good waves. These new surfers will follow your example of how to behave in the water.