Wave Seekers: La Jolla Surf Moms paddle out after dropping kids at school

Editor’s Note: As a world renowned surfing town, La Jolla has its legends of the sea. We’re stoked to bring you their stories in this new summer series. If you know someone who should be included, please provide their contact information to reporter María José Durán at mduran@lajollalight.com or (858) 875-5951.

The Surf Moms, a group of almost 10 women who paddle out together off La Jolla beaches, first met nine years ago. “We see the same people in the water every day, because we surf every day. So when you see the same people over and over, you start talking,” said La Jolla resident Valerie Juboori.

“The Surf Moms group got started because we surfed at the same time of day. We would drop our kids off at school, and then everyone would have their stuff in their cars and just head right to La Jolla Shores beach. From there, we expanded,” elaborated Surf Mom and Shores resident Jill Nooren, who moved to the 92037 ZIP code in 2008 from Iowa.

In the early morning of June 28, equipped with wetsuits and surfboards, four of the Surf Moms met La Jolla Light at Kellogg Park for an interview and surf session. Their members are from different walks of life, ages and sizes. Some of them are retired, others are stay-at-home moms or are looking to rejoin the workforce. Half of them live in La Jolla, the rest drive to town (sometimes an hour) to surf with their friends. They surf at different beaches, but mostly La Jolla Shores. What all of them have in common is their love of the sport.

“To me it’s the perfect blend of mind, body and spirit. It’s the one sport and the one place where I can go and sort all my problems,” Surf Mom Barb Whatley explained. “I’ve been through some things in my life, and this was my salvation. It makes me happy, it challenges me and it gives me perspective.”

For Juboori, who’s originally from the Dominican Republic and who has been surfing for 18 years, the sport is more than a hobby, it is a lifestyle. “My life revolves around surfing. The people I spend time with, we’re all of the same mindset. There’s nothing that a good day of surfing cannot cure.”

Jessi Epperson agreed. “It rejuvenates me,” she said. For her, just paddling out with friends is fun enough. “It’s very relaxing, whether you catch a wave or not, (it’s awesome) just to be floating in this huge ocean and to look around and see how fortunate we all are.”

Nooren added, “It never gets old for me. I can’t believe I live here, this is the best thing ever.”

The Surf Moms interrupt each other, finish one another’s sentences, tease and laugh out loud (a lot). But overall, inside and outside the water, they uplift each other.

Juboori explained, “People cheer you on. They are so happy when you’re doing well on a wave, and they may not even know you. I’m pretty sure when you’re running a track, people aren’t going, ‘Good one!’ ”

Nooren interjected, “We all have kids ... problems with different things.” In fact, Whatley and Epperson are both breast cancer survivors.

“One of the things we do,” Whatley said, “is, ‘No judgments.’ Everybody’s got history, baggage and whatever, but on the water, we’re all just surf sisters doing our thing. And I like that, sometimes you need a break from life, and this is it.”

She said chemotherapy and other breast cancer treatments can change the muscles used for paddling. “I can paddle, but I can’t actually surf right now,” said Epperson. “I have a side effect, so I have to wait. I think our surfing proves to ourselves and to our kids that you can fight through something and get back to doing what you want to do and still be happy.”

When asked what their favorite wave was, they answered in unison “every wave.” But for Juboori, the ones that stuck with her the most were “the times I almost died. Like at Black’s Beach 20 years ago. I was out surfing and the waves started getting bigger, and bigger, and I just couldn’t take them in. I sat out there crying for like an hour, ‘I’m going to die.’ And then one medium-sized wave came and I was able to ride it back to shore,” she explained.

Whatley suffered an injury during a surf session three weeks prior to this interview, when a surfboard hit her head. “(I was) taken in an ambulance, had stitches and a concussion,” she related. “But the point is, I just wanted to get back into the water as soon as possible. And the guy who hit me, he’s great guy. We didn’t quite kiss, but we made up.”

Epperson chimed in: “A lot of people who don’t surf ask, ‘Why would you be doing that? You’re getting hurt, there are sharks!’ and I’m like, ‘It’s all I want to do.’ ”

Nooren summed up the Surf Moms experience, “The thing that bonds us all is that we can’t live without it. The good, the bad, and the ugly.”

Competitiveness

“None of us are Malia Manuel,” Nooren said, referring to the competitive female surfer from Hawaii. “But because we have daughters who surf competitively, it’s important for us to be a role model, (show them) we can do this, too, have fun with it, and we may not be the best surfers, but we’re going to get in there and do it.”

Juboori followed, “I just want to show my daughter that here we are at our advanced age and we’re still loving this. It’s such a healthy lifestyle, so hopefully, they’ll integrate it into their lives, too.”

When she was growing up, and especially in the Dominican Republic, there weren’t many women surfing. “We were the only two girls on the whole island who surfed. And that was very weird, we were frowned upon, and now there’s tons of women in the water,” she said.

Epperson elaborated, “I know every time my daughter’s in the water, sometimes she’s the only female out there, and the guys are always, ‘Good job!’ or ‘Who’s that little girl?’ because she does look little compared to all these men. But she’s not afraid and it’s awesome that all of us have raised our girls to just jump in!”

Nooren added, “Our daughters learn not to be timid because in the beginning, they didn’t want to go in, but now they have confidence. They’re good enough, they know when to go and when not to go, and that confidence shows outside the water, too.”

Boards of choice

When asked what their surfboard of choice was, these were the Surfer Moms’ answers:

Whatley: “I’m a longboarder. A 9-foot-long board, that’s the one I like. I can catch just about anything in all the conditions that I would ever choose to surf. I’m not looking to surf 10-foot waves. If they’re that big, and I can’t catch waves with this board, then I probably shouldn’t be out. And as I get older, I feel like I’m still improving and getting better, but I do realize that when I do get hurt, my recovery time takes up a significant amount of my life, so I try to minimize that.”

Juboori: “I grew up shortboarding, but I’ve been longboarding for 10 years. I did the switch because surfing here it’s more crowded, so the longboard is easier to get in (a wave). If I’m surfing against a 19-year-old boy, and we’re both on shortboards, guess who’s going to get the wave? It’s going to be him! But if I’m on a longboard, ha! It’s mine! Problem solved.”

Epperson: “I surf a fishboard. I love it, it’s fun and it’s floaty. It lets me just kind of have fun and hang out, and if I want to pop up and catch a wave, I can, and if I want to just chill, I can.”

Nooren: “This is my baby right here. I love her. Honestly, I was scared of the 9-foot boards, because they hit me a whole bunch of times. I just progressively moved down and I love this, it’s a 7-foot, 6-inch board and it rides like a longboard, but is not as much for me to handle.”

Surf Term of the Week

  • Beach Break: The spot where the waves break on a sandy beach, such as the one on La Jolla Shores beach. This type of wave is forgiving, and the best kind for those seeking to learn how to surf. Local surf schools take advantage of the lenient waves at La Jolla Shores to teach students year-round.
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