by Jennifer Savage




The sun lingers somewhere below the horizon and behind the clouds, casting only the faintest hint of daylight.

She wakes up in the throes of anticipation, like a child on Christmas morning, before the alarm. She pulls on sweats and a T-shirt and begins to gather her things.

Surfing. Guys on boards and babes in bikinis, right? Check out your average surf video. Killer waves, breathtaking surfing, and lots of breast and butt shots. Think “Baywatch.”

Or don’t. In fact, please don’t. Because women have been involved in surfing — as participants — for as long as surfing has been around. From ancient Hawaii to the present world all over, women have been making names for themselves in the water.

In California, women surfers have been around since Mary Ann Hawkins came on the scene in the early 1920's. Linda Benson, who performed the surfing sequences in “Gidget goes Hawaiian” reigned as Pacific Coast Women's Champion from 1959 to 1961; by the time she turned 18 in 1963, Linda was one of the most well-known women surfers in the world. World Champion Joyce Hoffman dominated the women's surfing scene from the mid-to-late-60's and was one of the original eight inductees into the International Surfing Hall of Fame. In 1995, Lisa Andersen helped propel the women’s side of pro surfing to the level of men’s, landing endorsement deals and gaining ever more respect for the power of women in the water. World champions Layne Beachley and Cori Schumacher garner respect from surf fans, regardless of gender.

She loads up: wetsuit, booties, gloves, rash guard, towel, and wax. The gray sky has lightened enough that she can see without turning on the porch light. Last, but most important, she straps her board to the roof of her car, pulling the straps taut and tying the ends off in a half-hitch.

From Tahiti and Hawaii to San Diego and Santa Cruz, women are paddling out in record numbers. In Humboldt County, 300 miles north of San Francisco, isolated behind the “Redwood Curtain,” an ever-increasing group of women are braving the icy waters, scattered rocks, and violent swells of the Northern California Coast. Credit Kristin Pennell for helping bring more women to the line-up.

When Kristin first began surfing four years ago at age 21, she was one of only a few women in the water. She decided to change that. In 1998, Kristin, an instructor at Humboldt State University’s Center Activities, started a “women only” surf class. “Women would come in asking if we had a women’s surf class and when we said ‘no,’ they’d walk off and we’d never see them again,” Kristin explained. “Someone I was working with suggested that we do a class just for women, we made a proposal, and the class filled up.” The class succeeded: the women’s surf classes became a regular listing in the Activities guide and Kristin sees alumni from that first class in the water today.

One of Kristin’s graduates, 30-year old Sharilyn Clark, segued into surfing from the drier sport of rock climbing. She was looking for “another sport that was a combination of meditation, physical challenge, and social interaction; something that had the same intensity as rock climbing. When I tried surfing it was even better, such an extreme high.”

Sharilyn took the women’s class because she figured she wouldn’t feel as pressured to prove herself as she would in a coed class. But a (male) onlooker’s remark brought out her competitive side. “I remember at the HSU class, some guy who was watching commented, ‘Nobody after age 25 should bother trying to learn to surf.’ That really got me,” Sharilyn grins, “and gave me a lot of motivation that wasn’t purely spiritual.”

That particular onlooker was an exception, though; little ageism exists in this part of the Pacific. Ask Paula Coy, who began surfing as a child — which explains why she walks up and down her board with more grace than most people walk down a sidewalk.

“I started surfing when I was 8 or 9,” Paula reminisced, “I’m 47 now. I’ve been surfing on and off my whole life. When I was a kid, my friend and I had this huge board, over 10 feet, and I remember putting towels on our heads and the board on top of the towels and then carrying the board down to the beach that way. We rode tandem: two girls, one board. I can’t remember ever not standing up.”

Paula shares her take on age differences: “The younger surfers look up to the older surfers and the older ones want to share what they know. I can have a 16-year-old on one side and an 80-year-old on the other and everybody is so happy and joyful.”

The smell of coffee warms the car as she drives north, joining the caravan of surfboard-carrying trucks and cars dotting the 101. She glances at her tidebook, trying to steer and read. One hour until low tide, a minus tide today, meaning Camel Rock is the place to check first, meaning most of the rocks will be visible and the distance to paddle out will be shorter. Every break differs, has its own secrets; learning what to surf and when is part of the quest.

The number one thing about learning to surf is understanding how the ocean works: the swells, the tides, knowing what’s on the ocean bottom, knowing how a wave breaks. Kristin tells her classes, “There’s nothing worse than someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing because they get hurt and hurt others. Understanding the nature of the ocean is what keeps you safe.”

She exits the freeway. At the foot of the off-ramp is a garden, tended by a local resident who decided to make her corner of the world a more beautiful place. This is the point at which the daze of driving is replaced by the excitement of Almost There.

The sky hangs gray and low, resting on the humps of Camel Rock. This stretch is one of the most breathtaking places on the California coast, all cliffs and trees and sand and ocean. Trinidad juts out to the right, curling protectively around the fishing fleet lodged in its harbor. A series of rocky beaches provide extra drama for the waves relentlessly pitching forward, exploding into whitewater.

A dozen surfers bob in the ocean below. The smell of salt permeates her brain, triggers excitement in her veins. She needs to be in the water. A nice set rolls through; she sees herself on that wave, the one breaking to the right, yes...what is she doing up here? She belongs down there.

People surf for many reasons. Like, it’s cool. Or they dream of the money and fame of pro-surfing. Or maybe, simply, they love surfing the way they love to breathe; surfing keeps them alive. A paradox, considering the North’s wet, cold, rocky coast. And, by the way, the sharks. As Kristin says, “There are the people who want the surfing lifestyle, the clothes. But people in Humboldt, in our wetsuits, we all basically look like a bunch of seals out there.”

She struggles into her wetsuit, still damp from yesterday, wrinkles her nose and pulls on her booties. This particular ocean smell is not the one that she loves; no matter how often booties get washed, they retain that sour-feet-barnacle stench. She grabs her gloves, then tosses them back in her car, thinking, no gloves today. I want to feel my board, the ocean. She thinks this every time, but someday, she is sure, the 49-degree water will be too much and she will want those gloves. Maybe next time.

She unstraps her board, carefully lays it down, watching for rocks, dog poop, broken glass. A little wax, rubbed in long, quick strokes, and she’s good to go. Tucking her board under her arm, she walks down the hundred-and-four stairs to the sand, edging carefully through the narrow passageway at the bottom, ever so carefully around the twenty-foot high rocks on either side. Many a board nose and tail have been dinged against those rocks, the dull thunk! that makes surfers cringe.

Paula agrees with Kristin: “I really admire people who learn to surf in Humboldt. It’s foggy, drippy, cold, and the waves are humongous. That people learn here is really amazing.”  

Foggy. Drippy. Cold. Why do women do this, again?

She reaches the sand, stopping just beyond the last trickle of wave on shore. The dawn patrol surfers are spread across the water, some waiting silently, some chatting, two up-and-riding. She stretches her arms overhead, continuing to inspect the scene as she works some of the morning stiffness out of her back.

Leash attached, she walks into the ocean. The sun shines through a crack in the fog, throwing the rocks and sky into a sharp, bright focus. Three pelicans soar overhead. Water seeps into her booties, splashes up on her face as she trudges through the whitewater, pushing her board ahead of her. The pelicans angle downward, falling to gracefully skim just above the ocean’s surface. Once she’s waist-deep, she stops, waits for a lull in the sets.

When the lull comes, she hops on her board and paddles like hell for the outside. Since she started surfing, her arms and shoulders have grown stronger. She feels powerful slicing through the water, racing the swell that is rising toward her. A burst of speed, she’s paddling uphill, upwater, thinks please let me make it over the top of this swell, and she does, slapping down on the other side of the wave as it breaks behind her. She’s on the outside now, in the surf line-up, nothing to do but wait for her shot at a wave. Sitting up, she breathes deeply, smiles at the woman closest to her, at a guy she recognizes from her last time out. Calmness settles within her; for a while she forgets life’s complications: family, school, money, work. As she focuses on the physical reality of the ocean, the waves, her board...the mental burdens recede.

“Beautiful day!” the guy hollers.

She nods. “Always is.”

Stress, depression, confusion; the ocean washes them all away. “I can paddle out after a terrible fight with my husband, I can be crying, and the minute I paddle out, I’m like a kid, no awareness of my problems,” says Paula.

Kristin smiles. “Everything lets go. Life is so much more clear. Nothing is that bad out on the ocean.” 

A swell peaks up, nice and steep like a capital “A.” She takes a breath and begins to paddle, glancing behind her as the wave catches up. It rolls underneath her, lifts her board; she feels the slide downhill, the dropping of her board down the wave corresponding with the rush of adrenaline shooting through her body — this is it. Pushing up, she pops her feet underneath her in one fluid motion, straight into a surfer’s crouch. Her board veers right as she leans forward, staying on the face of the wave, riding, grinning, flowing with the rhythm of the ocean, aware of nothing but the exquisite sense of being totally there.

Learning to surf typically happens in stages. A woman starts in the whitewater, riding on her belly, getting a sense of the wave, and trying to pop from prone to standing without ending up on her knees or falling off the board. This initial step can take a while, but the payoff is magic. The first time Kristin stood up on her board she says, “It was like dancing on water. I was addicted. Gone.”

The next step is real waves, on which a surfer wants to ride the face, the smooth part of the wave, staying ahead of the breaking whitewater. Being able to catch and turn on a wave is key at this stage.

“Originally, I was afraid of going where the waves were big and not being able to handle it,” Sharilyn says. “My biggest fear was that I would never get past the intimidation. Well, it is a little scary when a huge wall of water is about to come down on you! And some fear is healthy; I’m still worried about not knowing what to do with a big wave when I’m about to drop down on it.

“But I go out feeling immortal: I’m going to catch that wave. And partly I do and partly I just get slammed. The time — finally — that I went out, caught a wave, stood up, and turned just like it was all natural, that’s how I’d imagined it would be.

“A good day surfing is more satisfying than anything. The whole surfing package is the best. It’s all encompassing. I’m so busy with school and life and surfing is such a holistic activity. It takes care of me in every way I can imagine.” 

The wave fades to whitewater; her board ceases to move forward. For a moment she stands on her floating board, feeling Queen-of-the-Beach. Then she splashes into the water, hauls herself on her board, and tries to get back out. Only, another set has rolled in and she gets swept off her board by a wave that crashes heavier than it looked. She tumbles, hangs on to her board with one desperate hand, comes up for air. The next wave is about to break on top of her. It curls over, a letter “C” this time, and she has no choice. She clings to her board and pinches her nose with her other hand, plunging below the wave as it crashes over her head. For a moment she is unable to register anything but the sudden stinging brain freeze — an ice cream headache rocketing inward. Blinded by the needles in her skull she bursts into the air, gasping for breath. Okay, she tells herself, breathe, get on your board, breathe, paddle.

Back in the line-up, she sits on her board, relieved, happy to let the next few waves roll by while she gathers her strength.

Then she’s ready. She paddles hard, her arms straining with fatigue against the restrictiveness of the wetsuit. The wave swells underneath her. She scoots forward an inch on her board, determined not to miss this one. Too far forward. The wave picks her up alright, but the nose of her surfboard dips under the water — “pearls” — and she goes face first into the ocean as her board flips up behind her. Salt water jams up her nose, she thrashes blindly for air as she somersaults with the wave.

The ocean’s power can be easy to underestimate. Sharilyn recalls the difference between her visions and the reality of beginning surfing: “I didn’t expect to plow face first into the water. I hadn’t planned on pearling. The scariest time was when I got on a wave that just closed out. I was swept under and held there. I could see the sun but couldn’t come up to breathe; I just had to wait until the wave had passed on. That sense of powerlessness was humbling.”

Kristin broke her nose once, smacked right into the ocean floor.

The wave releases her from its grasp at last. Stumbling to the surface, able to stand, she clutches her board. She can taste salt in the back of her throat and spits in an attempt to clear it.

As her head clears, she notices the patches of blue visible through the clearing fog. The sun shines stronger now, almost warm on the back of her neck. She points her board out to sea and climbs on, a second wind blossoming within her.

“Hey look, there’s Paula,” someone in the line-up begins to point at the woman carrying her board down the beach, but by the word “look,” Paula’s already on a wave. She’s a source of inspiration for beginners and a joy to watch for everyone. Even after nearly 40 years of surfing she still says, “Every session is so fun to me. I always come out thinking, ‘Today I rode one of my best waves ever.’ ”

On the outside again. For a while she just hangs out, watches the others. Notices a black triangle fifty feet away, lets her breath out when the triangle flaps into the air, just a cormorant wing. Laughs and shares comments about the sunshine, the swell, the seals who pop their heads up between waves.

Ready for another wave. That one? No...Maybe that one? No, too mushy...Okay, this one, this one looks nice, what a pretty wave. Paddle, paddle, glance, here it comes, paddle hard, do I have it? Yes! And UP!

“My best ride,” Kristin tells the story, “was on one of those weird 70 degree January days. The waves were breaking off Camel Rock, just peeling. 12 to 15 foot swell. The sun was setting on one side and the full moon was coming up on the other...the ocean reflected it all like a mirror. I was thinking ‘one last wave’ as the light dwindled, the sky blending into the ocean. It was so beautiful, the moon was shining. I caught a wave and the moon was reflected in the wave, lots of moons, like in a broken mirror, all curling up in the wave. Dancing with the moon. Rides like that make it all worth it.”

She shifts her weight, slicing left, leaning into the face, right down the line, controlling her board, grooving on the wave, on the board, on life

Back at the top, clothes on, she packs up her gear, loads her board, nods goodbye to the other surfers as she drives away, not yet thinking of her life outside surfing, but replaying the morning’s rides in her mind, daydreaming of tomorrow’s perfect wave....

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