This article first appeared in the print edition of Zigzag 2 years ago. So much has happened in women’s surfing since I wrote this, equal pay from the WSL for example, Emma Smith on the cover of the Zag, the women’s championship tour invited to JBay and a women’s event scheduled at Mavericks. In some places it is still a bit of a hustle for a wave, but we are stoked that the tide is turning.
“If you don’t just go, you’ll never get a wave,” says a woman on a longboard at Huletts, while she scratches around looking for scraps between sets. She paddles hard and takes-off on a little runner. Since my days of one-for-me-one-for-you around a Smartie box, I’ve been a fan of equal share. But either I am losing my ability to count, or I suspect some of us might not be playing nice. Is it really harder for women to get an equal share of waves than it is for men?
For context, have a dig around in the history books. You’ll find that once surfing was adopted from Hawaii by Western culture, it became primarily a male-dominated space.
Seven-times women’s world champion, Layne Beachley, believes the place of women in competitive surfing remained secondary right up until the mid 2000s. She said that there was a common perception on the tour that “if the waves turn [bad]… send the girls out.”
However, Beachley says that she learned to stand up for “equality and the opportunity to do what you love regardless of gender or ability.” She fought for women to compete in the same quality waves as men and, along with wave quality, pay has improved. In 2016 Stephanie Gilmore and Carissa Moore were among the top ten earners overall on the WSL World Tour.
But has this epic journey reached South Africa? Have the achievements of professional female surfers filtered down through the competitive strata to women who surf recreationally? Or are women still struggling to find a place in our waves?
Kai Linder, a Cape Town-based surfer and contest commentator says, “I think it used to be very difficult, especially with old-school gender roles, but today those roles are changing and ladies are starting to surf in numbers too. This is slowly changing the scene in our line-ups, but I emphasise slowly.” He reckons the reason is “very competitive male line-ups. The talented girls will be more competitive, but your average female surfer won’t get into the hustle for waves.”
Big wave surfer Pieter de Wit has another view. “I don’t think gender makes a difference, unless perceived so by the affected party. I’ve met some chicks who rip and totally own the line-ups.”
But Caitlin Moir, also a big wave surfer, thinks that gender does make a difference. “Women get more intimidated the more hustling there is. Men also tend to only include their pals in rotations and turns, if they set this up.”
Andrew Carter disagrees. “I thought chicks got all the waves. If they are capable, I think men give them waves before giving to another man.”
Caitlin feels, however, that “novice females will struggle more than novice males. Once a female and a male are surfing at the same level, and the people in the water recognise this, then it becomes a more equal playing field. This is one reason we progress a lot slower, which sucks.”
Recreational surfer, Martinique Stillwell, says that “at the more challenging breaks, particularly those in which I’m the only woman in the water, male surfers are usually very polite and considerate. They often offer me waves and sometimes even encourage me to drop-in.”
But what do references to “giving” or “offering” waves imply?
I ask surfer and academic historian, Glen Thompson about the perception that waves might be viewed as an owned resource.
He says, “Surfing has a long history of men dominating the waves due to there being more men in the water than women. It has become common practice to assume that male surfers have a greater claim on a surf break simply due to presence. The surf media and surf films have added to this view by consistently putting male surfers in frame.”
He refers me to a study conducted in Southern California by Cassie Comely of the University of Oregon. She found that “some men are engaging in exclusionary practices that marginalize women” in the surf. One female participant said of male surfers, “They just come over and burn us.”
Are they doing it here in South Africa? Not everywhere.
Pam Sutton from Kommetjie surfs Long Beach with her two daughters almost daily. She says they are treated as equals. While they are not given any leeway, they do not feel disadvantaged. She thinks that being a local helps, but concedes that girls do need to become more aggressive in order to get waves.
Free surfer, Ricky Basnett says, “I think it all depends on the surfer’s skill level, not really their gender. If Stephanie Gilmore paddled out at J-Bay during a swell, she would no doubt get her fair share of waves.”
But Cape Town recreational surfer, James Landridge, shares a different experience.
“I have seen many dudes casually drop-in on a woman who had the inside and not apologise. It happens at the slightly more technical spots and where geographical factors come into play. The take-off zone at Kalk Bay reef is about the size of a manhole cover, and there are a bunch of hard-core dedicated locals. Anyone will get grief there, regardless of gender. But if a woman charges and shows her ability and skill, no one should think they are better.”
On the subject of ability however, Glen, says that “it has been men’s surfing that determined what is ‘good’ surfing. Representation seemingly reinforces reality and visa versa.”
Is it fair to require masculine skill or ability in order for women to get an equal share of waves, when women have not had the historical advantage?
Tasha Mentasti, who has been surfing for twenty-five years, is one of South Africa’s most successful female surfers and a contest organiser. She says that “starting surfing as a little grom around eleven-years-old, I felt gender inequality from the outset.” She found herself “having to make a really big effort to show that you deserve to be sitting on the inside of a crowded line-up, patiently waiting your turn for the next good set wave.”
And how did Tasha respond to surfing in this environment? “Luckily I am a competitive person, and this inequality in the water only fuelled the fire to surf as good as the boys. Not all women are like that and probably feel the aggressive energy in the water a lot more than me.”
At family spots like Muizenberg, there is little disparity. But, as breaks become more technical and crowded, the stakes get higher. Are male surfers showing women the same etiquette they expect from each other? Or are they more inclined to take waves out of turn?
Caitlin suggests the latter. “They (the men) are more self-assured in the water than most women surfers, so they may feel entitled to more waves. I think male surfers may also feel a stronger sense of localism than female surfers, who may have spent just as long at the same break. I don’t see many women taking waves before their turn because ‘it’s their local’, whereas you do find some men doing that.”
Ricky says that in his experience “most guys are supportive when chicks are out in the water. Obviously it doesn’t apply to all breaks, though. I find when there is a small pack on a peak all is good, but add in one too many frothers and things can get nasty.”
Tasha thinks men’s natural aggression makes it easier for them. “I think that aggression is more prominent in men while grace is evident in women. What this means in a crowded line-up is that you need to fight for your right to surf a good wave.”
Philippa Caddow, who’s has been surfing in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and India for the past year, agrees. “Men are a lot more aggressive in the line-up, so women get a lot less waves. It also depends on surf ability. I used to be a lot more polite. Now that I’m more intermediate than beginner, I’m starting to be a lot more aggressive. I don’t enjoy being that way though, it feels very masculine and competitive.”
But when they become aggressive in order to get waves, aren’t women surfing like men when really, surfing like women, with their own style and grace, should not disadvantage them? Does the adoption of an aggressive style legitimise the perception of male authority in the water? Some women find an alternate solution to aggression is joining a women’s surf club, where they compete only with each other for waves.
What about showing a bit of flesh? Is that a feasible alternative? Philippa has “seen a woman drop-in constantly and use her sexuality to get waves. And yes. It worked.”
Caitlin is not so sure.“Up until a point,” she says. “But if you keep kooking it, no amount of skin will save ya.”
Stephen Symons, author of the sublime Questions for the Sea, has surfed for over four decades and “seen it all”. He says, “I believe that attitude and common decency underwrites one’s perception or manipulation of gender.”
While the Aloha spirit goes a long way, if waves continue to be considered a resource that men can choose to “give” to women or not, the line-up will be a tricky place. And as long as the perception of “good” surfing is a masculine version, women will likely not get an equal share of waves, unless they adapt their style to fit the masculine criteria.
But times are changing. Tasha says, “I have seen women’s surfing grow in South Africa and on some days there are more women in the water than men. It’s a beautiful sight!”
The media is slowly changing perceptions by not placing only men in the central frame. Bianca Buitendag has appeared on the cover of Zigzag. She is described in the WSL feature, Grace Under Pressure, as “a strong, powerful surfer with a beautiful style.” The resurgence of single fin logging has also brought back recognition to style and grace.
Female surfers do not need to be given waves, but do need equal opportunity to catch them. Women should be able to surf, without being marginalized, in a style that is their own, not one prescribed by male-centric criteria.
In the film It Ain’t Pretty, women surfers from Ocean Beach in California say, “There’s a movement going on. It feels like a turning point in surf history and how we see ourselves in it. We can accomplish great things, like creating more opportunities for young girls and showing that women can be strong and go get it.”
Let’s hope that it includes an equal share.