I can tell you countless stories of being one of the only women out in the water. It happens all too frequently. Surfing is a male-dominated sport and, more often than not when I paddle out, I’m reminded of that outdated stereotype.
One time at Sunset Point in Pacific Palisades in California, I had the right of way for the next wave, but that didn’t matter to this local, 6’2” tall, blonde man about 3 yards away from me. He dropped in on the wave and cut me off, leaving me to have to quickly adjust and hop off the wave.
There is surf code, and he broke it.
When I asked right after, “Hey, I had the wave and had priority on it; why did you hop on it?” His response was a simple, nonverbal, smug shrug as he paddled away.
If I had done that to a guy, I would have been met with jeers. “Get off my wave!” or “You don’t belong here” or, worse, “Stay inside” (inside is code for where beginners are supposed to surf, far away from the ones who supposedly know better). I have put in my time as a beginner and, trust me, the ocean doesn’t care what gender I am.
Creating a Space for Women Who Surf
Moments like the one at Sunset Point are the reason why Yoniswell exists. An all-female surf collective that was formed in 2019, Yoniswell has helped me find my footing in more ways than one. It changed my life and my surfing abilities for the better.
The women of Yoniswell motivated me to get out in the water more frequently. We share elbow bumps (the Corona-safe high five) and motivate each other to dig deeper and show up for one another. I’ve found myself catching more waves, riding shorter — and therefore harder — boards, and going down the line all the way into shore way more often.
Yoniswell started out as an effort to create a safe space for women to learn and enjoy the sport. According to the International Surfing Association, there are about 35 million people in the world who surf. Of those, 81% are male and only 19% are female. Although female participation is growing, the sport has stubbornly remained one for men.
But Yoniswell’s founder, Jordan Auten, has dedicated herself to changing that. Yoniswell commits to getting women together for empowering events (in person or virtually) and for that reason all events can be found on SameSide. SameSide is a platform that connects any gathering with a cause.
It has been part of Jordan’s mission from the beginning to give back to the ocean, the community, and to ourselves.
When I am with even one of the Yoniswell women, it’s a whole different vibe in the water. My mind is relaxed. I don’t even notice all the guys around.
We protect each other, watch out if someone is coming too close or give each other the go-ahead when the wave is free. Sometimes we all get on the wave together, initiated by a yell of “PARTY!” indicating it’s a wave for the crew.
Get at least three of us together and we’re a force.
We’re not only a force for each other, cheering each other on in the water and providing a larger area for our positive female energy, but we are also a force for female representation in surfing. When you’re just starting out and have between 1- 5 years of surfing experience, being a part of this community is game-changing.
Pushing for Equity at All Levels
The fight for equality and respect on the waves is certainly not new, and there are many organizations that exist to fight for better representation.
At the forefront of that fight has been the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing, an organization working not only for gender equity in the sport but also to combat the hypersexualization of female surfers.
The committee was a key factor in getting the World Surf League, the main governing body for professional competitions, to hold contests for women at the most prestigious big-wave events like Mavericks and Jaws.
As of January 1st, 2019, the W.S.L is ensuring that all contests offer equal amounts of prize money for both men’s and women’s competitors.
The Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing is one of the largest such organizations and operates on a national level in the United States.
Most of the action for change, however, is happening via hyper-local organizations like Black Girls Surf, Textured Waves, Surf Diva Official, and others around the world.
These groups activate within their communities to change the outdated thinking of women not being able to surf on the same level as men. It takes a village, as they say, and each of these smaller collectives is able to create safe places for girls and women to participate in the sport.
Noticing Differences at Home and Abroad
I have to wonder, is the male domination so frequently experienced by myself and other women in our domestic waters unique to the USA? Or even more so, unique to California?
Surfing is the official state sport so we certainly have more surfers per capita than any other state — and potentially more than most other countries.
California is an overwhelmingly blue state and counts itself as one of the most progressive in the United States, but this odd holdout of machismo male intimidation is still present in its waters.
According to Forbes:
Male patriarchy in sports is a centuries-old battle where women have challenged sexist barriers and restrictive notions about their physical appearance and athletic ability. Overcoming gender stereotypes in surfing, a strong masculine sport, has been especially challenging for women.”
Since the WSL initiated its change to equal pay for both male and female prize winnings, not much has changed on the local level to allow more female beginners the space to surf. It’s a shame to think we are waiting on the trickle-down effect and the old-time attitudes to die off with the old-timers.
When I first learned to surf, I was in Hawaii. Granted, I was in a designated beginner bay of Kihei and not the North Shore, but I certainly don’t remember anyone being anything other than happy for me when standing up on my first waves.
When I traveled to Sayulita, Mexico (which I highly recommend), there was nothing but good vibes in the water. You could be an excellent surfer or a beginner and everyone surfed copacetically together. No yelling, no territorial grunting, back-paddling, or blocking.
In Costa Rica, at Playa Grande: same thing! Everyone is simply happy to be in the water and all are friendly.
What is it about the California waters that inspires such bad behaviour?! It’s hard to imagine that we have to fly across oceans and to other destinations simply to be treated fairly in the water.
Navigating Challenges with a Supportive Community
Like millions of other Americans in 2020, I found myself with a lot more free time than I had anticipated. I work in fashion, and I lost my job when the pandemic happened. The retail sector’s downfall was massive; job prospects were nonexistent.
My feelings of uncertainty about when I would work again took on a life of their own. There was no amount of meditation, yoga, or journaling that could shake them off.
The sudden influx of time meant too much freedom for my wayward thoughts about all my personal, financial, and societal worries. It was simply too much to hear the phrase “unprecedented time” over and over again.
I believe everything happens for a reason and, looking back, the additional time to surf (and get better at it) gave me a renewed purpose and confidence as I navigated the waves and the transitions in my life.
In 2021, I look forward to traveling with Yoniswell women to local California spots like Palos Verdes Cove and San Onofre beach; and I hope to travel farther to places like Maui, Hawaii, and Sayulita, Mexico.
As a surfer, it’s wonderful to discover other waves, other oceans, and other experiences outside of our homebases. Not only that, but to know that the bad attitudes of our SoCal bros will be left behind is wonderful motivation to push me out of my surf comfort zone.
Feature image credit Sarah Williams
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