Debbie Melville Beacham at Windansea, 1977. Beacham’s mother jokes that Beacham went through La Jolla High School with wet hair.
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. At Swami’s, someone would start a bonfire, tossing on tires that created clouds of black smoke. “They’d have a fit if you did that nowadays.”
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.
Jeannette Prince would beg rides to 17th Street in Huntington Beach, where surfers set their boards up against the seawall. “I would go from person to person and ask if I could borrow their board."
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.”
Margaret Wiesehan and Debbie Melville Beacham. "When Highway 52 finally went through all the way to Lakeside. All of a sudden, all those people from Lakeside and Santee had a straight shot to the Shores."
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.”
Cari McClemons Farley's longboard teacher became her boyfriend.
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.”
Izzy Tihanyi and Coco. "I was buying guys’ board shorts. I would buy them oversized and cut them down and reshape them."
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.’ ”
In the water, gender distinctions disappeared. Benson says she surfed like one of the boys. “I copied them. That was all I had.” Experiments were taking place on the waves back then, and Benson joined in. She tells, for instance, how word spread that instead of staying in one spot on the board, some surfers were moving around on it. “And so right away we started walking the nose. We didn’t get the picture about the timing — how it’s done today. We just started walking! Sometimes we’d walk right off the end, because we didn’t really know. But we learned.”
The nine- and ten-foot-long balsa boards were just beginning their evolution into shorter, more streamlined foam ones that were easier to maneuver. Benson says it also “was an era of stunt stuff.” Some riders would “do what they called a coffin,” she says. “They’d lay down on their backs and let the waves close over them. That sort of thing.”
By October 1959, another development had captured everyone’s imagination. That fall, the first surfing championships ever held in the United States were to take place in Huntington Beach. “It was a big deal,” she says, “the first contest for most of us. We all were ready for it, up and down the coast.” Back in those days, “You knew everybody. You knew what they drove. So when you passed them on 101, you knew who they were, from their car, and you’d wave and give a thumbs up. It was a real family.”
She went up on a Friday and stayed in the home of Robert August (a fine surfer, who later was immortalized in the movie Endless Summer and became a major surfboard manufacturer). The house was packed; surfers slept everywhere, and Benson remembers Robert’s father Blackie, another renowned surfer, bellowing before dawn, “Okay, all you guys! Get your asses up.” He didn’t realize that the 15-year-old girl was dozing among the bodies on the floor.
All eyes focused on Benson at the end of the weekend, however, when she captured the U.S. title in the women’s division. The victory emboldened her to set her sights on the upcoming Makaha International championships in Hawaii. The wall of her bedroom held a clipping about another Southern Californian named Marge Calhoun, who had won the women’s title there the year before. Benson asked surfboard manufacturer Dale Velzy “if there was any way that he could help me go.” Board makers were just beginning to send surfers to the world championships to gain the boards exposure in the photos and films that were becoming a staple of the subculture. Benson says Velzy responded that he would pay to send her to Hawaii if she could get herself back. “So my parents managed to get the other half of the ticket for me. Which was an effort.”
Benson’s high school teachers gave her permission to go, along with schoolwork to take along on the three-week sojourn, and a lifeguard friend arranged for her to stay with a Del Mar couple living on Kawela Bay. “It was like walking into paradise,” Benson remembers. Surfers filled the tiny beach cottages. “We were a little commune. When there was no surf, we would do everything from carving tikis to going up to the waterfalls.” Mostly, though, “I surfed my brains out.”
The youngest person ever to register in the five-year-old contest, Benson says the organizers “didn’t know whether to charge me or not — though of course they finally did.” The competition unfolded over two weekends. “They had big searchlights, and there was night surfing. No one got hurt, but when you think about it, someone could have, real easy. But it was spectacular. That water over there is such a turquoise blue, and so when the lights were on at night, it was just gorgeous.” In the women’s heats, good waves rolled Benson’s way, and she ripped into them with enough skill and assurance to be crowned the women’s world champion.
No money came with the title. But Benson did enjoy a taste of glory when she landed at Lindbergh Field, where a San Diego newspaper reporter joined her parents and friends in greeting her. When she had left for Hawaii, the front page of the sports section had featured a photograph of her performing a reverse kick-out, “And it said, ‘San Diego’s Gidget Eyes World Surfing Crown.’ They were very good to me,” Benson says.
More renown came in the following years, as she entered and won the next two U.S. championships. “And then I thought, ‘Well, I couldn’t possibly win it again,’ so I judged instead. But I wished that I was out there, so the next year I entered again.” She didn’t win in 1963 but took the title in 1964 and 1968. Her surfing prowess was also finding a much larger audience in movie theaters across America. This began when she was asked to surf for Deborah Walley, star of the 1961 film Gidget Goes Hawaiian. “They took me into the Royal Hawaiian beauty shop and dyed my hair so that it was the same color as hers,” Benson reminisces. A surfer named Mickey Munoz had doubled for Sandra Dee in the first Gidget movie. “He’s one of the smaller guys,” Benson explains. “They put a bra on him. We always kid about it. He’s older than I am, but he always says, ‘We’re the two Gidgets.’ ”
Benson also performed in three of the early-’60s “beach party” movies, including Muscle Beach Party and Beach Blanket Bingo. For this work, she earned $350 a week, plus an extra hundred dollars every time she got into the water — up to three or four times a day. “We were rich,” she exclaims. But the days were long, and the L.A.-area filming took place in the winter. “They used to put pancake makeup all over our bodies so that our tans would look the same” in the beach scenes. “That went on at six in the morning — with a cold sponge!” She confesses that the surfers “kind of made fun of the Hollywood set. They didn’t have a clue how to do a surfing movie.… It was our life, and we all thought it was kind of corny.” But the actors were friendly. Benson felt sad years later when she heard about Annette Funicello’s multiple sclerosis. “Annette was always nice,” she attests. Frankie Avalon was nice too. When Benson ran into him while serving as a United Airlines flight attendant, “He remembered me.”
She’d gone to work for the airline in 1965 at 21. “I wanted to travel. I wanted to surf all these big wide places and be a beachcomber and have the time off.” And despite the occasional lucrative movie work, surfing offered no way to make a living in the mid-1960s.
A handful of girls continued to find the sport, though, subordinating everything to it. Cardiff resident Jeannette Prince was 14 when a boyfriend took her out to try to catch a wave. She lived in Garden Grove, a dozen miles from the ocean, but after that first exposure to surfing in 1968, she would beg rides to 17th Street in Huntington Beach, where resting surfers often set their boards up against the seawall. “I would go from person to person and ask if I could borrow their board till I could get my own.” Many obliged the blue-eyed blond nymph. “And sometimes I would forget how long I would be out on the water, and they’d be on the beach going, ‘Hey! Give me back my board!’ ”
For Christmas, another boyfriend presented Prince with the first board of her own: a used 8'6"-long creation of a legendary board shaper named Bing Copeland. The boyfriend “bought it in someone’s garage for $15. It was in incredible condition. There was nothing wrong with it.” Nowadays it would command more than $2000, Prince sighs. (She lost track of it years ago.)
But she still has a powerful memory of how she felt learning to ride it. “Back then there were no leashes. You’d go out and try to catch a wave, and you’d fall.” Then you would retrieve your board and go back out and “you’d keep this up until finally you learned how to hold on to it and not lose it so much. But you would get in good shape from all the swimming and paddling.”
Surfing provided more than an athletic challenge. Prince felt entranced “by the way the water feels and the excitement of the waves and paddling over them.… It’s the smells. The saltwater. It’s the feel of the water. I think a lot of times surfers who don’t get in the water after a few days get a little edgy, not only because of missing the exercise but because of that feeling — getting wet. It’s like that cup of coffee in the morning. It starts the day.”
While in high school, Prince depended on friends and family to transport her to the beach. But after graduation, that dependence vanished. She got a car and a night job working for Radio Shack in Garden Grove. “I was running an office. I’d work from four in the afternoon till one in the morning. And I would wake up at 5:00 a.m. Out of excitement. Bing! I’d go down there and be out in the water, and the sun was coming up. But it was a sheet of glass, and it was uncrowded. It was a magical time. That would get me out of bed every day.”
She’d surf for five or six hours. “Then I would go home about one o’clock in the afternoon and sleep for a few hours and go to work again. Every day. That shows you how exciting it feels. You just fall in love with it. You hunger for it, and it’s exciting when you do catch those waves. And you never feel satisfied with just one wave. You get one that’s really good, and you go back out and say, ‘Okay! I want another one!’ Because maybe the one you got was too short.” They’re all too short. “You’re trying always to get another one to fill that hunger.”
Debbie Melville Beacham felt the wave hunger before she ever got on a board. Born in 1953, the daughter of a career Navy officer, Beacham says, “We traveled around a lot.” She learned to swim when the family lived in Monterey. “My dad was real big on swimming.” She remembers seeing surfers then. “I could remotely imagine being one. But I was a ten-year-old little girl, and it was difficult then to break out of those stereotypes — that only guys surfed.” Two years later, in the fall of 1965, when the Gidget television series starring Sally Field premiered, “It showed girls surfing,” Beacham recalls in a tone of wonder. It reinforced her sense that girls could do this. So when the family settled in San Diego in 1966, Beacham begged for her own surfboard. Her parents found one at a garage sale, and although they lived in La Jolla, “My dad took me down to Coronado, because we were in the Navy. We went down to the Coronado naval base. There’s where I first surfed. We didn’t know where to go, so for the very first try, we went there.”
Beacham shies from assessing how good she was in the beginning. “I just know there was nothing stopping me after I started. It was instant passion.” Something in her had recognized: This is me. I’m going to do this. “And that was the end of it. That was all I did.”
After she got “good enough to know what I was doing,” she acquired a Corky Carroll Mini Model, considered by some to be the first production shortboard in America. At about 8'6" in length, it was more than a yard taller than Beacham’s 5'2" frame, and she marvels at the memory of lugging it on her head, down to the beach from her family’s home near the top of Mt. Soledad. “It was actually easiest to walk to Law Street in Pacific Beach. It would take me a half hour at least! I can remember being maybe 14 or 15 and thinking, ‘This is ridiculous! It’s so far to walk home with this surfboard on my head.’ No little girl would do that these days.”
She says she surfed Pacific Beach and La Jolla Shores for a long time, before venturing off the coast at Windansea. The beach breaks are the best places for beginners to practice, she explains. “That crowd that surfed at Windansea was intense” — renowned for telling unskilled newcomers to get lost, according to Beacham. “You had to sort of earn their respect.” When she finally began showing up at Windansea and being accepted there, “It was a big, big deal,” her mother recalls.
Beacham’s mother today jokes that Beacham went through all of La Jolla High School with wet hair. She would surf until just before class began in the morning. At lunchtime, she would jump in her van, zoom over the two blocks to the water, and spend 40 minutes surfing, before returning to classes in the afternoon. “You could wear flip-flops to school in those days,” she says, laughing at the memory of Santa Anas that caused salt from the ocean to cake on her eyelids. She’d go back to the beach in the late afternoon. The only girl on the school’s surf team, Beacham says, “I think I was the only girl surfer in my whole high school.” (Margo Oberg, another La Jollan who became a legendary surfing champion, was in Beacham’s class in middle school but then moved to Santa Barbara.) Before Beacham graduated, she won the Western Surfing Association’s women’s championship for the West Coast. “That was the very first level of competition.… It was amateur surfing, entry-level, and that’s all we had. That was it.”
In 1972, the year after she graduated from high school, something bigger came along: a world championship competition to be held in Ocean Beach. In those days, all surfing competitions had major limitations. “They didn’t really have a fair judging system in place,” Beacham says. In most events, contestants would surf all week, accruing points in a series of heats. But then the finalists would face off with a clean slate. In the Ocean Beach contest, “I remember being in first place, first place, first place all week long,” Beacham says. Then in the finals, “I choked.” She came in third overall. Beacham says she deserved third place in that last round, “But it’s too bad it wasn’t representative of the whole series. But that was part of being in the sport then. Nothing was the same anywhere. There was no set of rules. It was so subjective.”
Frustrating though this was, it didn’t sour her on surfing. She and her future husband, Louis Beacham (another ardent surfer), kicked around Europe for a while. “Then we went to college in Durango, Colorado, in ’74.” She says their attitude was “ ‘Hey, we’re kids. We appreciate college, but we also enjoy life.’ ” When not in school, “We were either skiing or surfing.”
By this point men were earning serious money for their competitive surfing victories, but women weren’t, Beacham says. “Every now and then, they’d give a token few dollars to the women. But it was like this sidebar event. They’d go, ‘Oh [she adopts a tone of patronizing magnanimity] — give the girls 25 bucks.’
“We were really just dragged around by [the men’s] coattails. We didn’t have anyone representing us. We didn’t have a marketing strategy. We didn’t have anything! We were just going around the world surfing. People would sell their cars to fly to Brazil. Just for the glory of it. Just for the fun of it.”
To finance the travel, everyone worked menial jobs. Beacham remembers “working in a deli and thinking, ‘Oh good, I only have to work two more months, and then I can get out of here. I’m going to this Florida contest.’ You know. You’re in your teens and 20s. It’s fun.” Nothing is serious. “It’s just about exploring and adventure. That’s really what we were doing. We were surfing places that hadn’t really ever been surfed, sometimes. And seeing all these great places and different cultures.”
Beacham says in 1976 “an opportunity to go surfing for profit” seemed to materialize at last. A brand-new group, International Professional Surfing, came into being and sanctioned “all the events that we’d been going to in Australia and Japan and Brazil and Hawaii and California.” For the first time, women were supposed to receive a minimum amount of money. That was the promise.
The reality proved different, according to Beacham. “Not everybody wanted the women. We sometimes weren’t invited to the men’s events.” A separate group, Women’s Pro Surfing, began in 1979, but it limped along, unable to capture and sustain the kind of financial sponsorship the men by then were getting.
Beacham finally won the title of world champion in 1982 and competed on the women’s pro surfing circuit for another year or two before retiring. She’d achieved her goal, she says, and had reached a point in her life where she wanted to surf more for herself, as well as to make more money. Around 1986, she went to work for Surfer magazine, selling advertising and taking to the waves only for her personal pleasure. Throughout the 1980s, she also struggled to help broaden the interest in women’s professional surfing. She recalls, for instance, how the Limited clothing-store chain tried early in the decade to promote women’s surf clothes. “They came out to Hawaii with a whole ad campaign. They took pictures of all the cool girls in the water in their clothing,” then advertised in every women’s magazine. Beacham thought it was all on the right track, “But it didn’t catch.” Girls in Ohio and Arizona and Vermont weren’t ready to buy shirts or shorts or jackets just because those clothes were associated with surfing.
Certain forces were working to keep women out of the sport during that period. One current was sexual. “A lot of women turned gay” in the 1980s, asserts one longtime woman surfer, who spoke about this period only on condition that she not be identified. She says when awareness of the predominance of lesbians on the pro circuit spread, a backlash developed. Editors “stopped putting pictures of the women in the magazines. And the women were having a hard time finding sponsors. Women’s surfing went downhill at that time.”
The backlash spread beyond the industry’s institutions, discouraging some heterosexual women from competing, this source says. “You had to be careful who you talked to. We didn’t want them to think that we were that way.… So there were a lot of women who ended up making sure their boards were pink, and they’d wear lipstick out of the water, to let people know they weren’t that way. It was a really difficult time. People don’t like to talk about it.”
Eric Huffman, a partner in South Coast Surf Shops, one of San Diego’s largest surf-gear chains, concurs that in the 1980s, a lot of his peers assumed that many women surfers were lesbians. “It was a sad thing,” he says. The lack of money on the women’s pro surfing circuit forced many women to room together in tight quarters. He suggests it’s unclear “whether relationships evolved out of that close association or whether it was part of their makeup or whatnot.”
But girls who “didn’t want to be associated with that…had nowhere to go,” Huffman says. Many shunned the sport. And another crucial factor discouraged women from surfing in the 1980s, Huffman points out. From the mid-’60s onward, surfboards got shorter and shorter. The shorter the boards, the more their riders could shift their weight and muscle them across wave faces. By the 1980s, this trend had reached its zenith, with the equipment engendering a slashing, ripping, testosterone-driven style emblematic of teenage masculinity. “It was all about angst and anger,” one woman surfer says. Even some brilliant veterans like Linda Benson backed away in those years. “People weren’t having fun,” Huffman says. “There were guys quitting! I mean, surfing was dropping off. Which is a good thing, if you’re a surfer — because areas were getting less crowded. But we totally, totally alienated most women. They either had to be very good — a Debbie Beacham type of person who grew up riding for Gordon & Smith and other companies in town — or they couldn’t get into it.”
Huffman says things began to change in the early ’90s. “An older generation was wanting to start to surf with their children,” he says. Furthermore, even at their nadir, longboards had never disappeared altogether. Huffman thinks San Diego may have had a higher percentage of holdouts because “some of the best shapers of longer surfboards in Southern California are out of the San Diego area. So they were still pretty popular around here at places such as Tourmaline, which was recognized as the first official surfing park. It was always frequented by older guys who had been surfing all their lives, and they naturally rode longer boards.” By the early ’90s, also, longboard shapers had started working to develop higher-performance boards, and that won more longboard fans, according to Huffman. The longboard renaissance “was ready to happen.”
“All of a sudden, learning to surf wasn’t out of reach,” comments Margaret Wiesehan. Now 43, Wiesehan learned to surf in the summer of 1974 on a hand-me-down longboard in which an older sister had never taken much interest. Margaret and one of her younger sisters would carpool with a couple of other girls from Clairemont over to La Jolla Shores. “We’d get dropped off at six o’clock in the morning. We’d bring peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and we’d be there all day. So you’d surf five times a day. You’d walk around and play in the park and just hang out. And of course get terribly sunburned.… I had what we called perma-pinks — where I had peeled so many times here [under her eyes] and on the end of my nose that it was raw and scabby.”
But the addiction had taken hold of her. Wiesehan is a natural athlete, strong and graceful, and within a year or so, she made the transition to riding shortboards. She rode them day in and day out, summers when “you always get a whole bunch of people. You know, guys teaching their girlfriends and stuff like that. There’s a lot more people because the water’s warm.” And winters, when “it seemed like for a lot of years, it was just me,” the only woman in the water at Tourmaline or La Jolla Shores, her main surfing spots.
Only as the ’90s got under way did Wiesehan notice more women newcomers, a consequence of the longboard renaissance, she believes. “It’s amazing how much easier the longboard is to learn on.” She explains, “When you’re trying to learn to surf, you want nobody around. And there’s never nobody around. There’s always someone.” You can try to pick a stretch of beach where the surf is small and uncrowded. But “trying to ride tiny whitewater on a shortboard is impossible,” Wiesehan asserts. “With shortboards, you have to have momentum. Otherwise they just sink. Longboards glide better. It’s like night and day, learning to surf on a longboard versus a shortboard.”
“The smaller the board is, the more difficult it is to get momentum on,” echoes Cari McClemons Farley. “It’s more difficult to paddle. It’s more difficult to sit on.” McClemons Farley learned this the hard way, ten years ago. She’d grown up about as far from surf as it is possible to get in the United States, in a suburb of Omaha, Nebraska, but after earning a master’s degree in physical therapy from Emory University in Georgia, she was lured to San Diego by the weather and a job offer. Once here, “I wanted to live by the ocean,” she says. “I told myself I had to live within two blocks of it, ’cause otherwise, I should have just stayed in Nebraska.” She moved into an apartment one block from the water in Pacific Beach. Every morning she took a cup of coffee and watched the water and the surfers. “I was fascinated.”
She didn’t see many girls riding the waves. (This was 1993.) But her (male) neighbor surfed, and she soon met other men who did. When the grandson of one of her patients invited her to surf Pacific Beach with him, McClemons Farley accepted with alacrity. The board he brought for her to use “was, like, 5'10". It was tiny.” McClemons Farley says like most guys who offer to take a girl surfing, he abandoned her at the water’s edge. Somehow she got beyond the wave break, but then the scene turned comical. “It was like getting on a bar of soap! I would sit, and I would totter and fall over. And then I’d come back and sit. And I’d fall over. I was hanging on with every single muscle that I had.” She’d never body-surfed before. She’d never touched a Boogie board. “It was the first time I had ever felt the power of the ocean.” She liked the feeling but never caught one wave that day and says she “walked away feeling scared, intimidated, and frustrated.” She was 25 years old.
“But I also knew, seeing people on longer boards and talking to the people I knew, that it was easier to learn on longer boards,” she says. “So I was determined to do that, and one of the lifeguards who was working in P.B. gave me an old board.” Lime green and about nine feet long, “It was an Electric Duck,” McClemons Farley says. “It was actually a good board to learn on.”
Not long afterward, another man volunteered to take her out. “He was probably one of the best people I could have had teach me, because he was really patient. He didn’t even take a board out. When he realized I didn’t know what I was doing, he pushed me into waves and had me stand up. That’s when I first stood up, and we went further out and further out and further out. That kind of got me started.”
McClemons Farley says she went out every day after that, on her own. “It didn’t matter if [conditions were] horrible or what. I just would go out and try it. I was paddling and standing up. Not consistently, but I was standing up.”
Eric Huffman, the South Coast Surf Shops co-owner, says he can remember the first time he saw McClemons Farley in the water, can remember thinking, “Oh, my God. One more person who’s kind of in the way.” Within a few months, however, “She was already, like, on a whole other level.… And then she just morphed right into this excellent surfer.”
McClemons Farley recalls her transformation a bit differently. Her longboard teacher became her boyfriend, and she says a few months after she first experienced the waves, they made a trip down to Mexico. “That really, really helped. It was less crowded. The waves were better.… So you didn’t really have to worry about what the wave was doing; you just had to figure out what you were doing. Plus I had more time in the water. I was down there for three and a half weeks, and I got to surf every day. A couple of hours here; a couple of hours there. Part of it is just getting the muscles to do what they need to do. It takes a completely different set of muscles.
“I made a huge change on that trip,” she recalls. By the time she returned, “I could start seeing waves. I felt like I was actually surfing…beginning to turn the board and doing different things.” Not that she was great. Today McClemons Farley looks back and judges surfing to be “by far the hardest thing I’ve ever learned to do. I’ve done so many sports, but it’s harder than being a gymnast. It’s harder than snowboarding or skateboarding. There’s so many factors involved. First, you have to have some strength. Second, you have to figure out the mechanics of what you’re doing.” Unlike in other sports, where “you can say, ‘Okay, I’m gonna practice a layup’ or ‘I’m going to practice a back flip,’ ” surfing is too dynamic to allow for deconstruction. “You don’t know what the wave’s going to do. You’ve got this dynamic surface underneath you. You’ve got all these different factors that are never the same.” Falling off a surfboard has different consequences from falling down on, say, a ski slope. “A mountain is a solid surface, and it doesn’t change,” McClemons Farley points out. “If you fall down when you’re skiing, you can stand up and start to ski again.” Whereas in the water, “you’ve got to paddle back out, fight the crowd, catch the wave, and then stand up.”
McClemons Farley thinks all this complexity explains “why surfers don’t get bored with surfing. That’s why you can stay out there if the waves are good for four hours: because it’s constantly changing.” Just sitting in the ocean can be inspiring. “I mean, you’ve got the beautiful water, and it’s pretty out there, and you’ve got these waves. You’re looking back at the shore. There’s a connecting with nature. There’s a connecting with yourself.”
McClemons Farley also made interpersonal connections in the local surfing world. She met another girl who became a surfing buddy. “Two blond girls, getting in their cars, putting boards on top, and going someplace to surf,” McClemons Farley recollects. “It’s not so uncommon anymore, but at that point in time, seven or eight years ago, there just weren’t that many girls. So it became a friendship and a bond.”
McClemons Farley says this friend persuaded her to enter her first surfing contest. It was a surf-club-sponsored event taking place in Malibu. “I’d been up there a couple times to surf. It’s the most perfect longboard wave,” McClemons Farley says. She agreed to try, and at the contest she learned that the men “were divided into age groups: like 18 and under, 19 to 29, 30 to 39, and so on. But all the girls were lumped into one division.” She remembers advancing through one or two heats, but she didn’t make the finals. Still, “It was a great event, socially,” she says. “I met people from all over. I still have friends from that first experience.”
A year passed before she competed (at Malibu) again, but McClemons Farley says soon after that she entered a pro-am event at Steamer Lane in Santa Cruz. She got knocked out of the amateur event but took fourth in the pro contest and won $400. This happened around 1997, she says. About the same time, the Point Conception bathing suit company offered to be her first professional sponsor, giving her bathing suits, and Gordon & Smith asked her to represent the company’s new line of women’s surf clothing. She did that for a short time, then switched to representing O’Neill (the company that invented the wet suit in 1952). “They were just launching a girls’ line, and they wanted a longboarder.
“There’s all different levels of sponsorship,” McClemons Farley explains. “People can give you product. They can give you photo incentives. They can put you on a salary. It really depends.” Within a year or so, she was receiving all the above, plus some travel expenses. “Like, O’Neill paid for me to go to Hawaii.” There she participated in a film called The Art of Longboarding. The Robert August surfboard company paid for her to go to Japan, where she competed in a contest and made promotional appearances. “O’Neill and Point Conception helped me go to Australia. They helped me do photo shoots in Cabo.” Her job, like that of all sponsored surfers, was “to get their stuff out there. Promote their products. You wear their stuff, and you usually have stickers on your board. You get their products in photos that can get in magazines or in films.”
McClemons Farley says for a while it felt “like living in La-La Land.” She scaled back her physical therapy work to a part-time private practice, treating only athletes. “So if the waves were really good one day, and a photographer called me and said, ‘I want to go shoot,’ I was, like, ‘Okay!’ I could do it.” But professional surfing also had its drawbacks, she discovered. The competition at times felt like a job. “And then you start worrying about it and worrying about how you’re doing. You lose some of the freedom of just surfing,” she says. Also, “Some people feel you’re selling the sport out, marketing to people that will be coming into the sport and making it more crowded.” Finally, she wasn’t making that much money; she wanted to get married and buy a home. So in the fall of 2001, she took a full-time job and cut back her professional-surfing commitments.
McClemons Farley worked full-time at La Jolla Physical Therapy through early June 2003, when she went on maternity leave. But she surfed well into the seventh month of her pregnancy and was still bodysurfing a few weeks ago, as she approached her due date. A friend had already given her a tiny pink wet suit for the baby, a girl. “Hopefully, she’ll get into surfing,” McClemons Farley laughed.
Throughout the pregnancy she also continued serving as the Windansea Surfing Club’s women’s copresident, a position she has held for more than two years. Only about 20 of the club’s 200 or so members are female, “But it’s a tight-knit group,” McClemons Farley says. “All of them are really good surfers.” And in the larger surfing community, the last three to five years have witnessed “a monstrous breakthrough” for women, according to McClemons Farley.
Numbers gathered by Board-Trac, a Trabuco Canyon research firm that specializes in the action-sports industry, confirm this observation. Marie Case, the managing director of the firm, says in 2001, Board-Trac estimated there were 2.42 million Americans involved with either surfing or body-boarding and that some 19 percent of them were women. By September 2002, the firm counted 2.26 million surfers and body-boarders — but found that the number of women had risen to 25 percent. Case says when the firm studied individuals who say they surf daily, it found that the number of females increased by 280 percent between 1999 and 2002.
Magazines aimed at surfing females have appeared, and the editor of one of them, Surf Life for Women, Anne Beasley, says all-girl surfing competitions have proliferated. Beasley in 1997 was a cofounder of the first all-women’s contest organized in recent surfing history, the East Coast Wahine Championships. She says it drew 76 competitors the first year but by 2001 attracted almost 250 (so many that the organizers restricted the number last year). “At least a dozen” other all-female contests have also come into being, according to Beasley. “They’re popping up everywhere.”
Nowhere has the boom been more apparent than in the clothing industry. Indeed, many observers such as McClemons Farley assert that the clothing boom has caused the women’s surfing boom. By most accounts this symbiosis began in 1993. In that year, Quiksilver, one of the biggest players in the men’s surfwear industry, introduced a line of women’s surf trunks under the “Roxy” label.
Surf trunks for men, of course, were nothing new. Quiksilver had come into being in 1970, when its Australian founders had streamlined the predominant men’s surfing costume of the ’60s (lace-up canvas trunks with long stove-pipe legs), making it simpler, tougher, and more functional. To distinguish their new trunks from the older apparel, the Australians began calling them “board shorts.”
For some years, they couldn’t be found in American surf shops. In 1970, San Diego had only a handful of such shops, and none of them offered much to buy, according to Eric Huffman. That was the year Huffman, 13 at the time, went to work at the Select Surf Shop in Pacific Beach. His position at the shop “wasn’t paid, per se,” he explains. “I basically did it because I wanted to get better equipment.” His parents had nine children; they couldn’t afford to keep them all in the latest sports gear. “So the best way I could get decent stuff was to have an in,” Huffman says. “And the best way to get an in was to be, like, the little grommet at the store, cleaning up or scraping wax off the boards or doing whatever needed to be done.”
When he started working at the store, “You basically had surfboards,” Huffman recalls. “There weren’t really wet suits, hardly. There weren’t leashes. There weren’t any kind of real accessories. If you had $10,000, you could have yourself a pretty well-stocked surf shop.” By the late ’70s, however, when Huffman had become the store’s manager, a profound change had occurred. “Clothing had gotten to be the main thing in surf shops. That’s what you made your profit on.”
Quiksilver’s board shorts for men were one of the things that drove the change. By 1976, Bob McKnight, an American surfer and usc graduate, had gotten the rights to sell the Quiksilver board shorts in the United States, explains Randy Hild, senior vice president of marketing for Quiksilver Inc., the American enterprise into which the business evolved. “For a few years, he would just bring boxes of them on a plane and sell them to a few surf shops. Well, they would blow out.” As pro surfers began wearing them, and the shorts began showing up in the surf magazines, a mystique developed. “The cool guys were wearing them,” Hild says, and Quiksilver started learning how to pique and feed the growing appetite. (Last year the company boasted $700 million in sales.)
But Hild says the company for many years eschewed making clothing for women, and most stores wouldn’t deal with women’s clothing, Huffman attests. “You didn’t have a budget for it. It was too tricky. Nobody knew how to buy for it. Women are picky.”
And yet a need existed. Izzy Tihanyi, a La Jolla resident who started surfing in the mid-’70s, explains, “Surfing in bikini bottoms can be a little treacherous. You can lose them. You have to make sure you’ve shaved. Also the board can give you a rash.” Besides protecting their wearers, most men’s board shorts incorporated a little pocket for keys and surf wax. “When you’re in a bikini, there’s nowhere to hide your keys,” Tihanyi says. You get sunburned more easily. You spend a lot of time tugging your suit down.
Tihanyi says by 1990, she was so frustrated by these limitations that she took a sewing class “because I was buying guys’ board shorts. I would buy them oversized and cut them down and reshape them and sew them back up to fit me. If you bought them to fit in the waist, they’d be too big in the hips or vice versa. You could not find girls’ shorts.”
She wasn’t the only one doing this. Quiksilver’s Hild says one day in 1993, one of the company’s clothing designers, sitting on a beach in Hawaii, noticed that a number of girls were wearing men’s board shorts. “They were wearing boy-sized board shorts…wearing them low on their hips,” Hild says. “That’s when grunge was happening, and men’s clothing and oversized clothing was kind of happening for women. And our designer looked at it and said, ‘We should do that. We could design a board short for a woman.’ This lightbulb went off.”
Hild says coincidentally 1993 was also the year Lisa Anderson won her first world title. “She’s an American, a Floridian surfer.” Anderson had run away from home at 16 and had had a baby, but “she was just driven to be a competitive surfer. That was her dream,” Hild says. He says when Anderson won the title, it was the first American victory in a long time. “And it was the first time a woman had the kind of dynamic personality and attractiveness and media appeal that Lisa had.” Australian women had been dominant for years, “and the American media didn’t really relate to them. They approached the sport in a very male way — you know, kind of matched power with power. Lisa instead was proud of her femininity — and she was an incredible surfer. It was the first time in a long time that guys respected the surfing ability of a woman. All that added up to huge credibility for Lisa.”
Hild says Quiksilver got Anderson to help with the design of the first women’s shorts. “Men’s board shorts at that time, for example, were way down at the knees, and we asked Lisa, ‘What length do you want?’ And she said, ‘No, I don’t want them down to my knees. I want them tight and fitted, and I want to show off my figure and tan.’ So she helped us with little things like that.”
Hild says Roxy’s first line of four or five women’s board shorts, along with a handful of surf-related T-shirts for women, appeared in the spring and summer of 1994, and was sold at first only in surf shops. “Very few of them even understood it or got it,” Hild says. Most didn’t carry the women’s items. “But a few tried, and the next year, those stores ordered more. The word got out. More stores ordered it, and we tried to keep it in stock in the summer of ’95, but we still couldn’t keep it in stock.”
Hild says by 1996 others in the surfwear clothing industry began jumping on the new trend, and Quiksilver “really put the pedal to the metal” in its marketing of the women’s clothing. “We started creating [women’s surfing] contests and started doing fashion shows in New York and just kind of did all the things you would do to grow a brand in a very aggressive manner.” Ads and promotions appeared in mainstream magazines, and the Quiksilver line moved into upscale retailing outlets such as Nordstrom.
That flood of promotion made it look normal and desirable for girls to surf, Tihanyi says. “In the eyes of an eight-year-old, if you walk into a surf shop and you see a really cute pink surfboard that someone made with a girlie name, and it has things that are appealing to you visually, it tells you someone out there thought enough of you being involved in the sport to make a product for you.”
By 1996, enough girls’ surf products had appeared that the first all-girl surf shops began opening. Tihanyi says that spring she saw an ad in the Reader for one in Encinitas called Water Girl. “And I was, like, ‘Oh my God, this is so cool. I’ve got to check this out!’ ” Tihanyi, who had surfed on UCSD’s team and graduated in 1989 with a double major in communications and literature/writing, was then producing television shows for the surf, skateboard, and snowboard industries. “I wanted to do a segment for our TV show about the shop,” she recalls. “So I immediately called up and talked to the owner. I asked how her sales were going.” Tihanyi recalls that although the shop owner was happy with her clothing sales, she expressed disappointment that few women were buying surfboards. “She told me, ‘Everyone loves our boards, but I’m not selling any because the women come in and they go, “Oh, I have no one to teach me how to surf.” ’ ”
Tihanyi had taught surfing both while in college and afterward, for the La Jolla YMCA. So she says she told the shop owner, “ ‘I’ll help these women out. I’ll run a weekend clinic.’ I put up a flyer in the shop, saying that if anyone wanted to learn to surf, they should come and meet me at La Jolla Shores.” One girl showed up with four friends in tow. “And they loved it!” Tihanyi recalls. “They told, like, 20 people, and my phone started ringing off the hook.… I knew that I was on to something right away, because my students were so stoked. They were, like, ‘Oh my God! You should do this more often. You should do this every weekend.’ And I was, like, ‘Okay. This is fun.’ I love teaching.”
Tihanyi’s marketing prowess is at least as strong as her surfing skills, and she says she knew she needed a compelling name for her fledgling enterprise. One friend suggested she call it Queen Izzy’s All-Girl Wave-Dominating Surf School — which she liked; she wanted something regal. “In Hawaii the ancient queens used to surf. They had their own surf spots.” For her business, Tihanyi thus wanted something “that shows you could be strong and surf, yet still be feminine at the same time, ’cause growing up as an athlete, I had felt like it was hard to be girlie too. You couldn’t be both.” Finally the phrase “surf diva” came to her. She explains, “A diva is the woman in the opera who has the lead role. She’s at the head of her game; at the top of the class. She’s confident. She’s very talented. She knows what she wants and knows how to get it. She may be a little capricious,” Tihanyi smiles, mischievous. “But that’s okay. She’s just very feminine.”
“As soon as I had the name, I knew I had something,” she says. She sought to trademark it for a variety of categories: education, apparel, surfboards, sunglasses, shoes, and more. At first she had a hard time because the trademark clerk thought Tihanyi’s business had something to do with scuba diving. This was a common confusion in the beginning. “People were, like, ‘Surf Dive-a? What’s that?’ ” Recently, however, Tihanyi asserts, “the word ‘diva’ has made a big comeback. You see it everywhere.”
It’s not hard to imagine that Tihanyi’s surf school has had something to do with the popularization of the word. After she gave that first all-female weekend seminar, she says, she continued to work three jobs for a while. “I would work for the TV show during the day. At night I would teach English classes for the sat, and on the weekend, I taught surfing.” But by the summer of 1998, she had enough business to run the surf school full-time. Now she boasts that it’s the largest in the United States, “and women’s surfing is one of the fastest-growing sports.” Last summer, amidst the hype for the movie Blue Crush, Tihanyi found her surf school spotlighted by Time, the Washington Post, USA Today, the New York Times, and other news organs. She was by then employing 35 instructors. “And they were busy every day. We had three locations going; we were just cranking.”
Although the pace slows in the winter, Tihanyi says the school operates year-round. “We get women from all over.… They’ll take a weekend here from Seattle, San Francisco, New York.… And the winter is a great time to learn — because instead of having 25 people in your class, you might have 8. So you’re going to get more attention. It’s not crowded in the water. Sure, you’ve got to wear a wet suit, but once you’ve been in the water for about five minutes, you don’t even feel the cold anymore because it’s a workout. You’re paddling. You’re jumping over waves.”
Regardless of the season, the most popular Surf Diva instruction provides (in exchange for $115) four hours of lessons, support, and encouragement delivered in the most nonthreatening manner. Tihanyi says she tries to give everyone who signs up a reality check, “because surfing on TV and in the movies can be made to look really easy. And it’s not. I like to call it the lifetime-achievement sport. You’re always learning something new. You’re essentially trying to predict what the ocean’s going to do: if that wave’s going to break over you or not. I like to compare it to learning a musical instrument. I can give you a few lessons, but you’re not going to be a rock star. It takes practice. But practicing is fun.”
Tihanyi’s instructors, energetic and irresistible as puppies, use the word “fun” like a mantra. Surf Diva’s motto, they tell their charges, is that “the best surfer in the water is the one who’s having the most fun.” Most of the teachers are women, but “We do have several male instructors who have learned to teach the Diva method,” Tihanyi says. “And they’re awesome. I call them my Divos. We hired them because they are very patient. They’re teaching for the right reasons. And they’re enthusiastic.”
The nurturing, welcoming, all-embracing ethos is about as far removed as imaginable from the clannish (“Locals only!”) exclusivity that’s long been a staple of surfing. But Tihanyi says it’s what women want, and she claims “until this year” she didn’t hear much criticism for bringing more surfers into the sport. She says one day last summer, “We had a guy freaking out because there were some kids in his way. I mean, he’s surfing La Jolla Shores [where most of the Surf Diva classes take place] on a weekend in August!” Tihanyi snorts at this. “I like to call La Jolla Shores the Kiddy Pool,” she says. “It’s the beginner beach. It’s like Waikiki. It’s a perfect place for beginners to learn. More advanced people go to other beaches. I tell beginners, ‘Don’t go to Windansea. Don’t go to the reefs. Stay away from the rocks. Don’t surf near the pier.’ ”
Although she’s brought thousands of new surfers into the water, Tihanyi also argues that “We’re teaching them safety issues. We’re teaching them proper board handling. Would you rather have all these people rent a board or, worse yet, go buy a hard board with no leash from a garage sale or a shop and paddle out with the wrong board at the wrong spot with the wrong equipment — and get in trouble?” Newcomers who don’t receive instruction “have no clue,” she contends. “When you learn to drive, you’re told when you merge onto the freeway, you better look over your shoulder and see if there’s not a semi-truck pulling in right next to you. Well, it’s the same thing with surfing. If you’re not told to look behind you when you go after a wave, people will drop in, and there can be collisions.”
“I’ve seen kids come over here and get trashed on these dry reefs,” confirms Debbie Beacham. The former champion, who at 49 still surfs the La Jolla reefs daily, grows heated when the topic of clueless newcomers arises. “Not only is it dangerous for them, but it’s dangerous for the rest of us who surf there. They’re just looking up at you like, ‘Oh! You’re coming right at me.’ Duh! Move!”
“Surfing isn’t tennis,” she asserts. “It is an element of nature that you cannot control, never will control, and have to respect.” Yet portrayals of surfing as lighthearted and fun “tend to ignore that. And it sort of creates these halfway-to-being-real surfer people. They can stand up, but they don’t understand all the ramifications of being in the ocean. Which are, number one, respect for other surfers. You can’t just go paddle out at a place where there’s five guys and go, ‘Oh, look, there’s somebody surfing! Let’s go out there!’ If you don’t know it, you need to make sure you’re even welcome down there.”
Surfing is a lifestyle, she continues. “You go and you sort of meld into the natural environment, and you figure it out and respect the people who are already there. That’s a huge part of what’s missing at present.” Beacham says she’s seen carloads of newcomers arrive at Windansea, “and then they go home to La Mesa and get 5 more kids to come down. And there’s, like, 20 kids, arriving in packs of cars, who don’t know how to surf these spots. It’s not only dangerous, it’s frustrating to people like myself who’ve been here for years.”
Margaret Wiesehan recalls the impact several years ago when Highway 52 finally went through all the way to Lakeside. “All of a sudden, all those people from Lakeside and Santee, who used to have to go out highway 8, had a straight shot to the Shores. And I’m telling you, you couldn’t believe the difference in the amount of surfers at the Shores.”
Wiesehan says that the information highway has had an even more profound effect. She strides over to her computer, where the screensaver is a photo of the surf at Blacks Beach on Christmas Day, 2000. She and her husband and son rode the huge waves that rolled in that day. “It was the best day ever,” she murmurs. “It was the best Christmas present ever.” She clicks to one website after another reporting on surf conditions. “There are a million sites,” she says. “I can show you a picture of surf anywhere between Ocean Beach and Santa Cruz!” Some describe the surf and also estimate the number of people trying to ride it. Wiesehan herself checks conditions online every morning and says, “It’s great when you need it. But the rest of the time, you’re thinking, ‘Oh my God. Everybody’s going there because they said online it was looking really good.’ ”
Weather forecasters can also generate unwanted crowds, Wiesehan testifies. She recalls one week last fall when “we’d been hearing on the news every night that we were expecting big, giant surf. They were talking about it at every weathercast, and we’re thinking, ‘Oh, great.’ ” She finally suggested to her husband that they check out one of the surf breaks near Calumet Park in La Jolla. “Even ten years ago, there was nobody surfing those breaks. People knew about P.B. Point. It was very popular. But these in-between spots — the cliff going down is sketchy…always wet and mucky. You could have great surf out there and have just 2 people in the water. Or 5 people in the water. Not a big deal.” Thanks to the hyperbolic weathermen, however, Wiesehan and her husband counted at least 150 people in the water “between South Bird and P.B. Point.… And this is at 4:15 on a Wednesday afternoon in late October. It’s not like it’s a weekend. It’s not a Saturday morning. But because they talk about all this surf on the news and everything, it’s like everywhere is crowded.”
That’s the main reason Wiesehan began surfing in club competitions a few years ago. “That’s why I pay $70 or $80, whatever it is,” she says. “Over the course of two days, you get an hour or an hour and a half in, depending on how many heats you have, with five other women. It’s so much fun!” She’s won one shortboard and one longboard contest, and “everyone tells me I surf just as well as everybody else.” But Wiesehan says all too often she peaks in the semifinals. “I always, like, win my semifinal heat, and then when I get to the finals, it’s like I’m out of synch or whatever. So much of it is the size of the wave you catch. And the size of the wave is just totally luck of the draw and being in position when it happens to come. A lot of times, I’m paddling back out when the good wave comes. You know. That kind of thing. But I surf well enough to get to the finals. So over the course of the two days, I’ve gotten to surf well over my head with five other women in the water at Malibu. Not that many people can say that.”
Eric Huffman looks gloomy when he reflects on the topic of overcrowding. He says there have been times this past year when he’s begun to fear that some kind of regulation may be inevitable. “They tried to do surfing licenses back in Newport in the early ’60s,” he points out. “You had to have a surfing license — be trained and get a license on the bottom of your board, and if you didn’t have that license, you couldn’t surf in that area.”
It didn’t work very well, but Huffman can imagine pressure building to try something like that again. He says there’s “no way” he can imagine that the growth in women’s surfing will abate. “I don’t see any kind of surfing falling off at all.” The sport itself is delightful, he thinks, and moreover, its image has become more alluring than ever. Everyone “surfs” the Internet, nowadays, and every other TV ad features a surfboard. “No longer do you have to hide or defend the fact that you’re a surfer,” Huffman says. “Now it’s almost like you have to be one.”
Out in the surf, though, that means it gets brutal at times. “If you’re surfing a break, and there’s already 15 guys on it and 5 more guys paddle out, and there’s not even enough waves for 15 guys, you’ve got to say, ‘You know what? Paddle down the road.’ ” Except that now, at times, there’s nowhere to paddle, Huffman laments. “Every little break, every throwaway break that we used to tell guys to go to, to get out of our way, now they’ve got their own 25 people. So it’s getting harder and harder.”
And yet… Huffman confesses that he personally is having “a better time than I’ve ever had.” He’s 46 now. “I’ve seen it all, and I can go out there now, crowded or not, and for the most part, I get respect because a fair amount of people know me. People know to give me a little bit wider berth, but I don’t need that. I get off on just seeing other people surf. And I get off on the environment more. I don’t have to have 50 waves. If I catch 5 waves, and they’re good waves, and nobody gets in my way, I’m good with that. A lot of the younger guys say, ‘Hey, he’s an older guy. We’ll give him this wave.…’ It’s kind of a mutual respect kind of deal. So I’m having a better time.”
Linda Benson, San Diego’s first female surfing legend (whom some consider to rank among the greatest women surfers ever), sounds even more serene. Increasing crowds are a part of life, she says with a cheerful shrug. The freeways are crowded too; the hills in Encinitas where she rode horses as a child are crammed with high-priced residences now. “It’s just life, and it’s going to get more crowded.” Probably someone will figure out how to make a wave out in the deep water, she speculates. “That’s progress.”
Benson’s life has also been changing. On May 24, she served on her last flight as a flight attendant for United, ending a 38-year career with the airline, and she has since opened Linda Benson’s SurfHER Surf School. Classes began June 16 at Moonlight Beach in Encinitas. “I’m teaching exactly where I caught my first wave,” Benson exclaimed one recent day. “It’s unbelievable to me.”
Despite the new demands on her time, Benson says she’s still surfing for fun as often as possible. Approaching 60, she thinks she’s a better surfer today than she was in her teens and 20s. This is a sport, she points out, at which one can continue to improve over the decades.
So she’ll surf for as long as she can, she says. If she ever reaches a point where she can’t stand up on a board, she’ll get a Boogie board or a kayak. Somehow she’ll figure out a way to ride the waves, she vows. Without that, she wouldn’t feel alive.