Some women have always surfed. Three hundred years ago, Hawaiians of both sexes rode the waves, and when the sport moved beyond the islands, when the Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku in 1915 traveled to Australia to promote surfing, historians say his first pupil there was a 15-year-old girl, who passed on what she learned to others. Decades later, when surfing began to shape a Southern California subculture, most of the participants were men. But not all. Even in the 1950s, there were women in San Diego County who loved surfing so much it consumed them.
Linda Benson was one. Thinking about how her sport at last appears to be captivating larger numbers of women, Benson struggles to explain why it took so long. Maybe the time just wasn’t right before, she offers. For her, though, it was always right.
The place was right. Her parents brought her home from the hospital to a little house on Dewitt Avenue in Encinitas, a few blocks from the ocean, and Moonlight Beach became the most important setting of her childhood. “I loved everything about it,” Benson recalls. She turned 59 in April, but it’s still easy to see the girl in her. She’s tiny, 5’1” and slim, with a pixie haircut and a wide smile. By the time she was 9 or 10, she’d mastered the surf mat — a blue canvas inflatable cushion that could be rented for 50 cents a day. Sometimes she helped out at the rental stall; in exchange she could use a mat for free.
On those mats, Benson says, “we were thrill-crazed. I mean, we would go out when it was big and take off on our knees. We were so comfortable in the water. It was our world.”
Within the intimate beach community, “everybody knew everybody. The older girls from high school knew all of us gremlins.” Some of the boys surfed, and when Benson was about 11, her 17-year-old brother acquired a board and joined their ranks. The sight of him and the other wave riders transfixed the girl. “I thought it was just absolutely fabulous. I knew I had to do that.”
Like a naturalist taming a pod of wild dolphins, she ingratiated herself with the surfers. At first “I would wait on the shore for them to lose their boards,” she recalls. She captured and returned the errant equipment, over time waiting closer and closer to where the boys bobbed and launched themselves on their arcing rides. Just touching the surfboards filled her with pleasure, and one day she persuaded one of the regulars to let her try to ride. “He pushed me off on a wave, and I did stand up the first time. I remember standing up.… Those boards were huge,” she adds, downplaying the accomplishment. From then on, “I was a pest, I’m sure. I was just like a dog with a bone, always there, and the guys were really good to me.”
When she was 12, she found a weather-beaten used board for sale for $20, and she begged her father to buy it. Twenty dollars was a lot then, and Benson says her parents also worried about her safety. But her dad questioned one of the lifeguards and was reassured, “Go ahead and let her get the board. She already surfs better than most of the guys.”
Benson says her parents permitted her to surf between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m., when the lifeguards were on duty. “And that was exactly when I was there, in the summer.” Every morning, before walking over to the beach, “I would get a churning in my stomach from excitement.” It was hard to eat sometimes, in the anticipation of being able to go. The lifeguards let her and the other surfers stow their boards at night in the recreation center, and Benson says she learned to flip her 8'6" slab of balsa wood up on her shoulder. “I knew I couldn’t ask the guys to carry my board down to the water for the rest of my life.”
She wasn’t the only girl, even then. “Some of the high school girls surfed,” she says, and a friend from junior high started about the same time Benson did. “So I did have a surfing buddy, and we absolutely dreamed about it. We talked about it constantly. We got every clipping.” When Gidget, an account by a Brentwood screenwriter of his daughter’s adventures learning to surf at Malibu, was published in 1957, “We couldn’t wait to get ahold of it, of course.”
By then Benson and her pal were surfing not only every day in the summers but at Swami’s in the winter. At first her parents “worried about me ruining my female insides in that cold water,” Benson says. “But they let me do it after a bit.” No one wore wet suits. “Today I wear a shorty in the summer!” she exclaims. “But we would go out there midwinter. January. February. Fog!” They went on weekends, “until we learned the word ‘ditch.’ ”
“The guys were so good to us,” Benson says. “I think some women and girls didn’t have that good an experience. In fact, La Jolla always had a reputation for having kind of radical guys,” wild ones who would strip off their trunks without giving a thought to any females in the vicinity. At Swami’s, someone would usually start a bonfire, tossing on tires that created clouds of black smoke. Benson chuckles when she recalls the fire department’s mild cautions to be careful. “They’d have a fit if you did that nowadays.” She continues, “People would come in and stand by the fire to warm up. And I remember this one time when some La Jolla guys started to drop their drawers, to change.” The local guys called them on it, “And I don’t remember it ever happening again. Or they’d say, ‘Could you turn your head?’ We were in their world, so we said, ‘Hey, sure.’ ”