I liked Blue Crush and Point Break as much as the next girl—and have tried surfing on and off for more than a decade—but it took a male co-worker’s suggestion that as a woman I couldn’t be taken seriously about surfing to make up my mind to finally master it.
This winter, I saw a series of outstanding, respectful instructors of both genders (personally, I’ve never felt the need to move to a pink ghetto), but that wasn’t always so. On a foray into the sport five years ago, my (male) teacher repeatedly called me a princess and made no move to help or calm me as I got tumbled through an impact zone I had no business being in.
Screw him. This time I got to the point of independence—and pure joy. When it finally all came together, and I caught a green (unbroken) wave and rode it nearly to shore, it was as exhilarating as looking down at the clouds from the top of Kilimanjaro.
Not that getting proficient puts an end to all the nonsense in the water. I spoke to a number of female competitive surfers and instructors, and every one had a story about the guy who insulted them in a lineup or dropped in on their wave. All who had competed lamented the fact that the women’s heats would be held in subprime conditions, leaving the best waves to the boys. (Coco Ho recently came under fire for saying women deserve less—yes, less—and several people I talked to agreed with her.) That’s all changing, luckily, as more women are picking up the sport.
Seven-time world champion Layne Beachley wrote me, “We have been forced to surf in shit waves because the men refused to do so.” Holly Beck Obermeyer, who won the amateur National Surfing Championship in 2001 and spent the next ten years surfing the globe as a professional, encountered other brands of sexism. Her mother told her surfing was for boys and that she should look cute in a bikini to land a surfer boyfriend.
But for everyone I talked to, the “awesomes” far outweighed the “bummers.” “I love sharing the waves with other women,” says Beachley, “because we have the ability to laugh at ourselves and cheer each other on.”
Where You Can Join Them
Surf Simply, Costa Rica
Surf Simply is where I finally gained the confidence I needed. Founder Ru Hill combined what he learned coaching competitors and teaching into a step-by-step one-week program for all comers that demystifies the sport. While getting up is the goal at many surf schools, here it’s just the start. Think two in-ocean coaching sessions a day, pool work, classroom theory, and strong video coaching for 12 guests of all levels per week. More than half his clientele are women, as are half of the surfers on the Playa Guiones in Nosara, where Surf Simply is located. Roughly half the coaching staff are women, including excellent senior coach Jessie Carnes, who was my instructor for the week. Gender just didn’t come up (aside, maybe, from when Jessie gave me a pink rash guard so she could find me in the water).
Rancho Santana, Nicaragua
This residential community near Rivas on the southern end of Nicaragua’s Pacific coast just added a 17-room inn that makes it more accessible then ever. But primo surfing has long been a draw. Among the five beaches on the property, Playa Santana draws experienced surfers, while Playa Los Perros is more beginner friendly. Isabelle Delfosse, a surfer since the age of 13 from Belgium, runs the surf shop and surf school, and sometimes gives lessons herself. She pushed me to be more independent than many guy instructors ever have. “Finding a woman instructor, I think, is refreshing for guests,” she says, even though she adds that she doesn’t treat female students any differently. “Mostly you are always greeted by men. Kids love women teachers, and I feel a great connection with female students too.”
Surf with Amigas, Central America
Beck Obermeyer started a women-only camp in Nicaragua when she retired in 2010. “Women in the water are just different. We can be silly. We like to cheer for each other. We are supportive. I wanted to keep that feeling alive,” she says. Now she runs weeklong retreats in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Panama, and Nicaragua, still women-only because “I also know that it can be very intimidating to learn to surf, especially as an older (30-plus) woman.” Surf shops and surf spots are usually dominated by men, so Obermeyer wanted to create a space where women could feel dominant and supported. She also likes leading a pack of women out to take over a lineup and seeing the guys “get sucked into our vortex of positivity.”
Kelea Surf Spa, Hawaii
On the fabled North Shore of Oahu, Kelea pioneered the women-only surf-and-yoga retreat some 15 years ago. Its hope is that the women who spend a week there will come away with clearer minds, less stressed-out psyches, and stronger connections with the environment. Guests stay together in a private villa near the town of Haleiwai and eat healthy meals prepared by a private chef. “If you’ve ever dreamed of being a surfer girl full-time, Kelea let’s you live out your fantasy,” says avid surfer Jen Murphy, who was still fairly new to the sport when she spent a week there, surfing the “amazing” longboard breaks at Laniakea and Pupukea. “The schedule looks like this: Surf, eat, yoga, surf, lunch, nap, massage, sunset session, dinner, hang with new friends watching surf flicks.” A week on that schedule left her a much better surfer.
This is white-glove surfing. Tropicsurf operates out of five resorts, including many Four Seasons properties, Mukul in Nicaragua, and the much-buzzed-about Nihuwatu in Indonesia. While its claim to fame is surf vacations that nonsurfers in the family can enjoy, the instruction is excellent, thanks to strict hiring criteria and a serious continuing-ed program. Lessons range from half a day to a week or longer, sometimes aboard cruises on luxury yachts. Some 85 percent of guests are beginners, half of whom are women, and they teach kids as young as four. Expect a lot of hands-on attention: When I went out with TropicSurf at the Four Seasons Punta Mita in Mexico, I had help from two instructors—one to push me into the waves at the break, and another to help me right my board close to shore. Owner Ross Phillips says that “women tend to listen better, and consequently their wave selection skills develop faster because they don’t like getting knocked about like some men do.”
Aganoa Lodge, Samoa
Here’s the reward for making the effort to learn. This eight-fale lodge is pure Robinson Crusoe bliss, with a postcard-perfect point break in the bay right outside—and virtually no one on it. The new retreat is a modern-day take on the old explorer’s view of surf travel, where the point was to get as exotic and removed from civilization as possible. If you aren’t up for the big wave, there’s a smaller break on the other side of the bay, gear for other watersports (SUP, snorkeling, kayaking), a staff that’s happy to show you around the island, and a powdered-sugar beach to chill out on. And, yes, it’s co-ed.