Sometimes I forget that the surfing community is just like any other group of humans. I think that because we all share a passion for standing on bits of fibreglass travelling along waves, we are somehow united. We have grown from a counter culture rooted in opposition to the establishment – surely we are a tolerant band of brothers and sisters.
It took a fifty something year old shouting man to bring me crashing back to reality.
I’d done something terrible to him and he was incensed.
“Who do you think you are…..who is she?“(looking around at the other surfers).
“Where do you even come from?”
“Who does she think she is?“(looking around again).
“Where is your husband? I’ll talk to him about you, I think I need a little chat with him.”
“Oh no, you won’t have a husband, you’re too much of a f****ing scold for that.”
“You f****ing b***ch.”
At first I was shocked by this blast of aggression. Then I found it ridiculous. I couldn’t believe the bile that was spewing out of this man’s mouth. It actually made me laugh.
“So we’ve had swearing, misogyny, territorialism……what else have you got for me?”
As this man (lets call him ‘Ian’) shouted obscenities, I noticed a subtle change in the positioning of the 5 or 6 surfers (all of whom happened to be men) who were near by. They all paddled towards me and left Ian in his own little patch of ocean. And then the surfers who had surrounded me started chatting;
“Don’t worry about him….he’s horrible in the surf, they don’t call him pit bull for nothing”.
“How are your family – kids OK?”
“He’s total idiot – just ignore him.”
“I don’t know him….I just don’t know him.”
“He just needs to stop talking, its embarrassing.”
It was incredibly reassuring and kind. That small possy of surfers might not think of themselves as feminists but all of them came over to make it clear that what Ian had done was not OK. They were appalled by his outburst and they were making it obvious.
So what unspeakable thing had I done to spark Ian’s furious rant?
Here are the facts. I was paddling back out to the line up and Ian was close behind. A bodyboarder and regular (lets call him ‘John’) stormed past us, smiling. Ian shouted at him, aggressively,right in my ear,
“That’s the second time you dropped in on me. You’re getting to be a total f***ing twat”
And then I did that terrible thing that caused Ian to totally loose the plot. I said,
“Mate, can’t you chill out a bit, its not nice hearing that swearing out here”
This single sentence flipped Ian into uber rage. He was geninuely astonished that a member of the inferior female species would challenge him in any way. What upset him to the point of mouth frothing anger, was the fact that a woman had dared to admonish him. Ian it transpired, was a fully fledged male chauvinist pig and he was out and proud about it.
The beautiful thing about the whole absurd incident, was that every surfer in the vicinity made it crystal clear that Ian was on his own.
SPOILER ALERT: forty seconds of terrible surf, a woman in her forties and a lot of wrinkles…….possibly the least glamorous surf film you will ever see.
I’m feeling weirdly pissed off.
I’ve just had a gorgeous evening surf at Porthmeor. There was hardly anyone about and the sunset was beautiful. I caught loads of waves and even managed a few half decent turns. I strolled up from the beach to discover my kids asleep in bed, dinner in the oven and a beer in the fridge. Life doesn’t get better than this. Having discovered surfing at the age of thirty nine, I’m now totally addicted. I’m so incredibly lucky to have the surf right here on my doorstep – I should have a perma-smile plastered on to my face.
But no, I’m angry. Worse still, I’m angry with myself.
Why didn’t I do this years ago?
I had every opportunity. I grew up in Cornwall and spent endless summers hanging out at the beach and winters walking the cliffs watching the swell roll in. If only I’d started then, I’d now be one of those cool surf elders, effortlessly gliding down a wave, smiling at the exuberant young hustlers. Instead, I’m feeling ridiculously self conscious – surely 39 is not the right age to start surfing and why are there so few women like me out there?
I’m the oldest grommet in town.
It wasn’t meant to be like this. When I was eighteen I bought one of those brash neon wetsuits that everyone was wearing in the 80’s and persuaded my boyfriend that he should teach me to surf. He gave me a massive orange fiberglass plank of a board and pushed me out into the heavy swell that was pounding Kennack Sands that day. His teaching style turned out to be hands-off. He paddled out back and I didn’t see him for a couple of hours during which time I was spun around underwater, bounced on the sand and truly thought I was going to drown. I ended up tearful and defeated on the shoreline. He ended up stoked having had a great surf.
If I’d been mentally tougher and physically stronger, maybe I would have persisted. Instead, I decided I couldn’t surf. It gets worse, I spent hours watching the boyfriend surf, reading books parked up in his van or waiting with endless cups of tea in greasy cafes. And then we went to Australia, and circumnavigated this surf mecca for a year. We traveled round in a classic surfmobile; an old Holden Ute with enough room to sleep in the back and his surfboard on the roof. We worked our way around picking fruit and visiting all the classic surf spots; Bells Beach, The Gold Coast, Margaret River…… And what was I doing all that time? Hanging around on the beach, reading endless novels and pretending that life couldn’t be better. Pushed way down inside me was the nagging feeling that I still wanted to be out there – I just didn’t have the guts to do anything about it. I’d already tried and failed miserably.
How could a stroppy little feminist like me have ended up being that most obvious of stereotypes; the loyal girlfriend waiting for her boyfriend and listening adoringly to his tales of daring exploits in the surf. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing inherently bad about supporting your man and enjoying the beach. Just not when you’re secretly resenting the fact that you’re missing out on something that looks amazing.
BACK STORY PART TWO (for part one see below)
Fast forward several decades……..the surfer boyfriend and I split up nearly twenty years ago. He cheated on me with one of my best friends. So much for all the times I’d hung around patiently waiting for him on the beach, it obviously counts for nothing when you’ve got a friend with breasts twice the size of yours. I’ve been living in London for ages, trying to get a career going, clubbing, travelling…. all the usual stuff. I’ve noticed in latter years that when I meet people and they discover I’m from Cornwall, they all ask if I surf. No one ever used to ask me that, when did surfing get so popular and when did it become the norm for girls to do it? Some mates go to Croyde on holiday and come back raving about surfing and telling me that they stood up straight away. I’m confused, how can you stand up on your first day? Don’t you just plough over the top of a vicious green wall of water before nose diving into the depths and getting beaten around by the white water and quite possibly your surfboard? It makes me remember the long ago humiliations of my own surf attempts. I must be really rubbish if my friends can pick it up so easily.
And then I find myself living in St.Ives and I discover a whole new world out there. I’m on the beach with my family and one of my new friends grabs a big foam surfboard from her beach hut and heads out to mess around in the white water with her kids. It looks fun. There is a big awning further up the beach and on closer inspection it turns out that there is a Rip Curl promotion happening that day. Free T shirts, massage, temporary tattoos, tropical sun block and a free surf lesson … but only for girls.
My friend is totally up for it, ‘of course we’re not too old, come on, give it a go…’ I look around at the motley assortment of women and girls lining up for their induction. They range in age from about ten to forty five and we come in all shapes and sizes. If they can do it, surely I can too. So I step forward, my heart pounding. John, the local surf instructor talks us though surf safety and we all laugh uproariously at our attempts to pop up in the sand. ‘Don’t go out beyond waist height….. you’re trying to catch the white water….don’t even try to stand up for a while… just get the feel for it’. You what??? But that doesn’t sound in the least bit daunting. I can do that. And it turns out that everyone is just as bad as me …and we are all having a total blast. And I stand up, on a big yellow floaty surf board, straight away. And when I fall off, its really funny. And when I get hit in the head by the board, it doesn’t hurt. Everyone is cheering each other on and John lets out great whoops of encouragement. Two hours later, I’m surrounded by shiny happy female faces. We are all totally stoked. I know this is nothing like real surfing on unbroken waves, but I have stood up on a surfboard aged thirty nine and I love it. The next day, I go out and buy a wetsuit and a beautiful sky blue Hawaiian Soul minimal decorated with hibiscus flowers. It is so obviously designed for a girl that it takes my breath away. This time I’m going to do it.
Surfing is one of those occupations that unfolds like a road full of hairpin bends in front of you. The more you do it, the more you realize that you don’t know anything and don’t even know quite where you’re going. It’s a long hard slog to achieve even a reasonable level of competence. You have to spend a lot of time in the water, not seeming to accomplish much or even going backwards. And then one day, out of the blue, something clicks and you do something new, and you can’t believe how happy you feel. Its intimidating taking a learner board out towards a bunch of pumped up surfers who have been waiting for a decent swell for weeks. However much you try to keep out of the way, you will screw up someone’s ride at some point. Funnily enough, the really good surfers; the guys from St.Ives Surf School and the locals who are sponsored by the big name brands; don’t seem to mind. It’s the testosterone fuelled wannabes who get angry.
I’ve finally realized that the reason I was intimidated by other surfers was my own lack of confidence. When I was starting out, I felt too embarrassed to interact with other people in the water. I felt way too old and conspicuous – why would anyone want to say hello to someone as goofy as me? Now I know that if you smile out there, most people smile right back. I find myself having a quick chat between sets and asking for advice. I even occasionally experience the role reversal of having to swerve past a learner watching me with that paralysed look of fear that I remember so well.
There is a reason you don’t see very many older women in the surf – most of them are too busy working and looking after the kids to spare the time and energy required. Unless you’ve got a supportive partner, the logistics are just too difficult. But now, as if I’m being rewarded with some kind of karmic payback for all those wasted teenage days, I’ve got a man who loves it when I surf. He doesn’t want to surf himself and encourages me to do it because he knows it
makes me happy. I’m so ridiculously lucky, how can I continue to be haunted by regrets from the past?
So enough of the self indulgent anger directed at my younger self. Enough beating myself up for not being tough enough to surf when I first tried it all those years ago. Because I’m finally doing it and its fun and frustrating and exhilarating and scary. And if I’m still surfing in two decades time, which I plan to be, I’ll look back at this time and realize how young and free and strong I am …. right here, right now
(a big thank you to Anna Mansell for editing this)
- Feminist Surf Possy 17th March 2017
- Confessions of a middle aged surf grommet – Wrinkles are Good 10th December 2015
- Confessions of a Middle Aged Surf Grommet – back story part 1 23rd September 2015
- Confessions of a Middle Aged Surf Grommet – back story part 2 12th August 2015