(Originally published in Transworld Surf in 2006.)
By Michael Kew
CUSP OF TWILIGHT ushers the day’s biggest wave into a pastel Indonesian lineup. Positioned are three age-thirtysomething Basque men and Australia’s Chelsea Georgeson, current female world champ. Quickly she out-paddles the men and snags the backless beast, air-dropping sideways into the front-lit pit — backside, no less — instantly vanishing from view for the entire wave, eventually gliding into the channel, greeted by hoots and laughter and arms held high from everyone in sight.
“I’ve never seen a girl get barreled like that!” yells a red-faced, grinning Aussie, watching from the bow of an anchored yacht.
Two waves later, Hawai’i’s Melanie Bartels thrusts herself into a feathering lip and boosts several feet above it, accented by a stylish double-grab.
The Aussie cocks his head toward his two friends: “F---, mate, how was that bloody air?” Doubly impressed, they clap and smile agreeably, shaking their heads, raising cold Bintangs in deference to what they had just witnessed: the state of the art in professional women’s surfing, live and direct, fast and fresh, all captured on film for you to see, because, yes, the revolution will be televised.
I MUST CONFESS that, before alighting seaward with six of the world’s best young female surfers (Georgeson, 22; Bartels, 24; Peru’s Sofia Mulanovich, 22; Australia’s Rebecca Woods, 21; Brazil’s Silvana Lima, 21; and Kauai’s Alana Blanchard, 16), I was just as naïve as the next guy: Pro women’s surfing? You mean those dull contests we see in two-foot slop? Gidget? Cute, bikinied longboarders at Malibu? Brawling lesbians? Roxy-clad teens? The countless surf camps and ditzy Blue Crush wannabes?
Stereotypes can be horrific mistruths, especially when applied to today’s female pros, who have raised the bar in a big way. They charge Cloudbreak, lacerate Lance’s, get shacked at the Superbank and towed at Teahupo’o. Aerials are landed, fins are popping out, rails are set deeply and rigidly, poising the perfectly positioned arc of spray.
We’ve all heard the sexist expression, “She surfs well, for a girl.” Some would argue that it holds true. Others say it will never change. But applied today, it’s simple: these women surf extremely well. Period.
Better than most? Believe it. On the recent Indonesian boat trip, photographer Dustin Humphrey said he’d done several projects on the same boat with men who didn’t surf half as well.
“I’m amazed,” he said after bagging more than a week’s worth of benchmark women’s surf imagery.
The occurrence was hardly anomalous.
“At this year’s Roxy Pro at Cloudbreak, Rochelle Ballard rode what Martin Potter called the best tube he’s ever seen ridden there,” said Quiksilver’s international media manager Kirk Willcox. “She pulled in deep on her backhand, and had to pump the rail with her outside hand at critical moments to get the speed to make it. She later told me she’d learnt the technique from Andy and Bruce Irons.”
So women are influenced by the men. But are they trying to surf like men?
“No, I don’t think it’s physically possible to surf like Andy or someone like that,” Mulanovich said. “We’re just made differently.”
For some, considering physique isn’t even part of the equation.
“I don’t think about surfing like guys,” Bartels said. “We’re all progressing because it’s everyone just pushing each other, in contests and in free-surfing.”
Still, most female pros agree that the men are the sport’s most inspiring surfers.
“Most want to surf like guys, or they look up to people in the lineup,” Woods said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be a guy, but generally it is. Of course you need people to look up to, in any sport, or anything in life. Who wouldn’t want to surf like Andy or Kelly?”
“We look at guys for inspiration, sure — they’re the best surfers in the world — but we’re not necessarily trying to surf exactly like them,” Georgeson said. “Any girl would kill to be able to surf like Andy or Kelly, but we’re happy to be us — to be girls, surfing the way we do.”
From afar — on an anchored boat in Indonesia, say — an average viewer would perhaps not realize he or she was watching a woman surf, because, as popular opinion tells us, females surf nowhere near as well as men — never have, never will. Of course, this is untrue. Today it is hardly a matter of gender comparison, which has been usurped in recent times by the simplicity of natural progress, embraced by the surfers and the industry itself. Relative equality is only a matter of time.
“When as much support and passion put into men’s surfing is put into women’s, it will be at the same level,” said Ballard, 35, a nine-year WCT veteran who finished second in the world in 2004. “Men will always be the leaders of our sport, but the gap will definitely continue to grow smaller and closer together.”
Keen surf-industry players and pros alike echo Ballard’s sentiment.
“Every year, there are clear notches that women’s professional surfing ascends,” Willcox said. “There is a definite lineage from the early days of pro surfing, and people take the best of certain things and develop their own styles and approach.”
“Women today have a lot more opportunities than generations past because the sport is continuing to grow,” said Roxy’s Monica Paull. “Women now have stand-alone contests with bigger prize purses, and it is because the industry is supporting and recognizing their amazing talent.”
“It’s easier for our generation,” Georgeson said. “Women’s surfing is more accepted and it’s being pushed — it’s actually a good sport for women to do now. There is a lot of money involved in it now. People actually respect girl surfers.
“From an economic standpoint, the big surf companies have realized our marketability,” Woods said. “Surfing is a fun, fit, athletic lifestyle, and there’s a market for it, so they just clued into it — maybe a little bit later than they should have, but they did. And instead of comparing us so much to guys, it’s more that we can be accepted for being females and for being good as females.”
WITH EACH GENERATION there is a narrowing chasm between the abilities of men and women. They are not surfing for their gender. They are surfing for the sake of performance and progression, studying history and realizing their gifts, ultimately grabbing the ball and running with it.
“It’s the same with all generation changes,” Georgeson said. “It starts off being the older girls who first started progressing our sport, and then you surf with people, and they inspire you even more. When the girls before us were trying to beat Pam Burridge and Margo Oberg, they were so fired up — they were the next generation, and they’d already seen what the previous generation could do, and they wanted to progress and get better than them. And now we’re younger than those girls, and we want to get better than them.”
Watching Georgeson and her peers surf shallow, tropical reef-pass barrels, one after another, with each girl watching, later hooting and congratulating for big moves and deep tubes, it’s obvious that their primary influences come from within their peer circle.
“After a trip like this,” Woods said, “I want to go home and learn new things, because these girls are pushing the bar so high. Sometimes I just sit out there and think, ‘I don’t really want to take off because they surf so well.’” (laughs)
Witnessing the futuristic surfing of Bartels and Lima, young Blanchard was inspired to perhaps surf even more radically then she already does.
“At home I try (airs) sometimes,” Blanchard said, “but now, after seeing Silvana and Mel doing huge airs and landing them, I want to try more.”
Woods, quite solid on rail, also credited a few of the crew as primary influences growing up.
“I saw Silvana and Mel and Sof and Chels when I was younger, watching Peaches and stuff like that, and I’d think, ‘Oh my gosh, they surf so well,’” Woods said. “I didn’t see any girls surfing at my local break when I was growing up, so, coming from that, and watching a girl’s surf movie was funny, because you could actually see people trying to do what you were trying to do.
“You’d never really seen a girl do a certain maneuver, and you didn’t really know if it was possible. Seeing the girls blowing up now gives you a bit more confidence, then, say, if I was coming in now and hadn’t seen half the stuff that I’ve seen some of the girls do. It makes you want to rise to the challenge a bit more.”
IN YEARS PAST, the picture of women drawing motivation from other women was a bit bleak, due namely to the absence of visibility and insight from the professional ranks, essentially ignored by most of the world, viewed as a bit of a novelty genre, not really something Joe Six-Pack would stake an interest in.
Still, in the name of publicity, there remains a void: a successful all-female surf magazine. Besides high-profile, big-money surf contests, what could be the most effective conduit for showcasing today’s women has repeatedly perished at the heels of commerce.
“You really should ask why the industry has failed to support women’s magazines,” said Sunshine Makarow, publisher of recently defunct Surf Life For Women. “I don’t think there will be a successful magazine unless priorities change drastically.”
Yet pros like Georgeson feel the genre is quite possibly best represented by being featured in the prominent long-standing “men’s” magazines like the one you are holding.
“I think it’s better to be in a men’s magazine, anyway,” Georgeson said. “Girls’ magazines hardly ever have surfing shots — it’s always fashion stuff, music reviews, stuff like that.”
“When I became editor-in-chief of a surf mag seven years ago, we got few, if any, decent photos of women,” said TransWorld Surf’s Joel Patterson. “I’m not sure if that meant they weren’t surfing well, or what, but in the past three or four years, we’ve made concerted efforts to reach out to female professional surfers and say, ‘Hey, let’s go shoot some photos!’ The results have been incredible.
“Another interesting aspect of women’s surfing is the sheer amount of sponsor support they get. It’s really interesting to see what’s happening on the female side of the sport. It’s where surfing is making leaps and strides right now.”
“Being in the men’s magazines is best,” Mulanovich said, “because more people see them.”
Some veteran surf journalists believe it is just as well.
“Women would prefer to just be included as part of the surf community at large — more stuff in Surfer, Surfing, Surfer’s Journal, TransWorld, etc. — then be separated and cordoned off into their own area,” said Matt Warshaw, author of six surfing books. “None of the women’s mags were really all that great. You kind of want to root for them as plucky and brave pioneers, but none really had a distinctive or interesting voice.”
But why, with today’s ever-increasing female surf-population factor and resultant economy (Roxy is currently selling more product than Quiksilver, for example), has there yet to be a successful all-women surf mag? What does this mean?
“Women’s surf magazines have struggled because they occupy a micro-niche,” Surfer’s Journal editor Scott Hulet said. “Also, I suspect that more than one publisher discovered you can’t gauge viability purely on the strength of the ad base. The overwhelming bulk of the girls buying Roxy and Hurley don’t surf, and thus could care less about surf magazines.”
Yet a glimmer of hope exists. Last month, longtime surf writer Ben Marcus launched Wet, a glossy, quarterly Surfer’s Journal-esque magazine for females, something he feels could change the stigma attached to women’s surf mags.
“I started Wet because I knew there was a lot of great material out there, both contemporary and historical,” Marcus said. “I thought I would try to do a women’s surf magazine that had traditional surf magazine values, and serialized that history of women’s surfing as part of the magazine.”
A venture in vain? Unlikely, Marcus hopes. After all, he’s seen the state of the art in his backyard.
“Last year I watched the Rip Curl Malibu Pro, held in absolutely perfect surf, and had my eyes opened as to how fast and stylish the women had become,” he said. “I remember a time where, when the women’s heats started, everyone would get up and walk away, because, to be blunt, the women were slow and had no style — who wanted to watch that? But that’s no longer the case.”
ROCHELLE BALLARD KNOWS this to be true, too. A standout from the previous generation who competes against the aforementioned young stars, Ballard has witnessed and participated in the transition first-hand, since launching her WCT career in 1997, when the professional female surf world was a different place.
“My generation broke down a lot of barriers,” she said, “and we were fortunate enough to enjoy so many turning points in women’s surfing. The industry, the media, and the ASP really got behind our surfing, and a big change in the imagery and perception of women surfing changed.
“This new generation has amazing resources: insane boards, coaching, great endorsements and support. They’ve learned from our mistakes and were inspired by our success to take it to the next level even sooner than we did.”
Fifteen years ago, Ballard wanted to become world champion early, then attend college, get a job, and build a family. She never dreamt she where she would be today, owning a nice house on the North Shore, living well off of surfing into her mid-30s.
“The generation before mine didn’t really have that opportunity,” Ballard said. “But now, Sofia and Chelsea have both each their first home, their first world title, and a very healthy income at the age of 22. Stephanie Gilmore won her fist WCT event as a senior in high school, instantly becoming an icon in Australia. It will be amazing to see what girls like Carissa Moore and Coco Ho do in the next few years.”
Indeed it will. Today’s generation is a portal to the future, and with the proverbial snowball gaining girth with each new face, the fundamental shift of paradigm within professional women’s surfing can only perpetuate the brightness which abounds today.