‘Don’t be sorry. Be better,’ said the surfer, after I apologized for my role in a collision with him.
He didn’t look back. I watched him paddle out, his head high, back arched, shoulders squared, with the tips of his toes perched on the tail of his board.
That seemed unfair.
I’ve certainly made my fair share of mistakes in the water, but which surfer hasn’t? Is there a third umpire to decide exactly who is at fault on a playground that is fluid and crowded? Does it even matter who is at fault? When is an apology not enough? Are surfers on SUPs held to a higher account than those on surfboards? Are the mistakes of women less forgivable than those of men?
It’s not the first time I’ve been told off by a surfer or scorned for riding a SUP. I used to second guess myself and feel less worthy, but it’s exhausting and I’m done.
So, I paddled after him.
‘You messed up my wave,’ he said. The ride in question was a one to two foot Muizenberg family wave, with leftover onshore lumpiness that was only borderline pleasant.
‘You paddled in front of me,’ he said.
‘I couldn’t go the other way.’ As is so often the case at Muizenberg, when paddling back out.
The surfer then unleashed the most terrible verbal attack that I have ever experienced in my life. He told me to &%*off, called me an %$ing dumb $&@* and splashed water in my face.
I assume splashing water in the face of a fellow surfer is an attempt to silence or humiliate or a show of power? TBH it’s pretty shocking. The swearing continued, to the point that other men, the real men, intervened, telling the guy to stop.
Shaken, I wanted to cry and paddle away, but I thought that would give him what he wanted.
‘*%& off,’ he’d said again ‘@#$* dumb #$%*. Go surf somewhere else.’
(I’m not sure where else I could go, if I am the kook he implies I am, besides Muizenberg?)
His eyes glittered as they reflected the colors of the water while he glared resolutely at the horizon.
I didn’t $%* off and surf somewhere else. Instead I stood my ground and carried on, although I was so afraid of getting in anyone’s way, that somehow I would blunder into making his words true, that I could barely paddle for anything at first.
When I spoke of it after my session, I felt shaky and tearful. But the worst part, and I suspect women who are victims of physical violence probably experience this, is that the next day I started thinking that perhaps I deserved it. You know, if I hadn’t paddled after him and called him out for being rude after I apologised, I wouldn’t have been subjected to his surf rage.
In my readings on the subject of verbal abuse, I have observed that insults like the ones he used are a show of power, they are used to imply that the recipient is weak. I have read that gendered slurs are hurled at women who speak up, who challenge, who express opinions that don’t fit into societal norms. Surfing has a history of male dominance, which has, in the main, changed, but perhaps not everyone is ready for a woman, let alone one on a SUP, who advocates for herself in the lineup. I’ve subsequently heard that another woman on a surfboard had a similar experience within days at Muizenberg, this time from an older man. She was sworn at, insulted and had sand thrown in her face.
‘It doesn’t matter what happened,’ said one of the men who stood up for me during the incident, who too was threatened, and also had water splashed in his face. ‘He shouldn’t talk to people like that.’
I’ve read that gendered slurs are also about control and dominance and are born out of deep-seated sexist views.
In an article on Gender Based Violence, the European Institute for Gender Equality states that GBV is not only physical, but also psychological. It says:
Psychological violence can take the form of, for example, coercion, defamation, verbal insult or harassment.
I didn’t really want to write about my experience other than to make sense of it, because it becomes so real once published. It makes me extremely uncomfortable to post this to a public platform, for fear of backlash or causing trouble. I would prefer the whole incident to go away so I can just get on with surfing.
But it seems other women are also experiencing this kind of treatment in the water. If no one speaks up, then what? The anger and frustration boiling under the surface, evidenced by verbal abuse, might eventually bubble over again, perhaps in another form. No matter what mistakes we make or don’t make, what level of skill we are at, or what board we ride, this type of treatment is uncalled for.
I’m stoked to surf among real men at Muizenberg, men who called the guy out, and who continue to call out abusive behavior. It puts the abusive men on notice, that their behaviour is seen and not acceptable.
It is disturbing to me that the surfer who swore at me was a young man. I have, on occasion, been scorned by boys when I’m surfing my SUP. Where do they learn these attitudes? Who is teaching them that it’s okay to mock women in the surf, especially if they ride a different board? Is it at home, or in popular culture? Can mocking grow up to be abuse?
I’ve seen the surfer in question since, living his best life, toes on the nose, soul arching, doing his longboard thing. Isn’t it funny though, that when you have resentment, and you see the person who is the source of it, they’re having the best time and it’s you who’s torn up inside?
So, I know I have to let go of the negative energy, and let it fly. I need to counter it with kindness. I don’t believe in violence and revenge. I will let it ebb out with the tide. But we all know that one day the tide will turn. The universe brings justice in her own way.