Wave Seekers: Women’s Pro Surfer pioneer Debbie Beacham recalls the early years

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. Next week, we’ll conclude our reports by featuring an interview with Bill Andrews.

Debbie Beacham. As a professional Surf World Champion in 1982, president of the Women’s Professional Surfing Association (1982-1986), and Surfing Walk of Fame in Huntington Beach inductee, Beacham should be one of those names everybody remembers when they talk about the history of women’s surfing.

But that’s not always the case.

“A lot of people, are like, ‘Oh pro surfing started before the ’90s?’ ” she told La Jolla Light. “Because that’s when the Internet started to be seen and women’s surfing had a face (Lisa Anderson as the image of Roxy) with a good surfer, even though we had been doing all of this. But there were never any photographs because the guys never photographed us at the time. That’s the way it was.”

The first time Beacham surfed, at age 13, she paddled out in Coronado. “My dad was in the Navy, and we traveled around a lot. I always wanted to surf, so as soon as we got to California, I just went, ‘Dad, let’s go get a surfboard,’ and that’s how it started. In those years, there were no surf schools, nobody taught you or anything. You didn’t learn how to surf, you went out and figured it out on your own.

“We went to Coronado beach ... it was a really beautiful summer day ... we, of course, wiped out right away ... we were laughing, we didn’t know which side of the board to even stand on, so it was like, ‘Uhh, here we go!’ And it was fun.”

Ever since that first surf session, Beacham said she knew she would always make her way to the beach and surf. “We lived on top of Mount Soledad, so for me, in those years, the late ‘60s, I had to walk with a 9-foot surfboard on my head, all the way from the top of Mount Soledad to the beach, and I was 13 or 14. I didn’t care, I was just committed. Whatever it took, I was just going to do it.”

Like all the surfers of that era, Beacham lived the downsizing of surfboards in first person. “I was trying to surf on a longboard, and as the boards started progressing to smaller boards, it was hard to go back to longboarding, so I never went back into it.”

Women in Surfing

“The 1970s were such quiet years in surfing, there were very few girls involved. I had my best friend, who was another surfer from La Jolla High School, and we were the only two girls surfing at WindanSea ever,” Beacham recalled. “People were very kind and encouraging. Her big brother and all the boys were helpful, ‘yes come out! The swell is good!’ they would call us. We enjoyed the camaraderie in those days, it was just so easy-going and laid back.”

Back then, she said, surf contests only happened every two years. “People who would win those contests were idols at the time,” she added.

In the 1972 International Surfing Federation World Surfing Championships in San Diego, Beacham saw the championship’s Open Women first place slip between her fingers.

“I was doing really well, and then the day of the last event, I got a ‘4’ because I lost my board, and I had won everything up until that moment. I could have been a world champion in ’72, but I didn’t really know how to compete well. There was no training, you just went out to surf. So from that point, I started to become more serious about competition.

“We, as women, wanted to have an event, but we were at the mercy of the men. We had to hope they’d include us, and when they didn’t, we were like, ‘Oh what are we going to do?’ So we created Women’s Pro Surfing in 1976, a group to send the message out that ‘We’re here, we can go get money, we can bring in sponsors, we can promote.’ And that was my game.”

Across the board, women in sports were asking for more pay and more rights and that fight is still on today on many fronts.

“People were constantly going, ‘They’re not good enough, so why should we spend money on them?’ and ‘They don’t have enough people watching their event.’ We had to be, ‘Guys, look, we can do this!’

“Unfortunately, we couldn’t run our own events, and it’s true, we didn’t have enough people, so we had to be the little sister to the bigger men’s event. And that was balance, making sure that we were there, seen. Making sure we got prize money. That was my job, so that the guys couldn’t complain, ‘You’re giving out our prize money to the girls.’ And that’s when women pro surfing, sort of blended, and I was pretty instrumental in that,” she said.

After that, in the early ’90s the swimwear and gear brand “Roxy” was created, and its face was a female pro surfer, Lisa Anderson. “In a lot of people’s minds, that’s when (women’s) pro surfing started,” Beacham explained, “So when you watch all these amazing women surfers, to me it’s so awesome that they have a platform, and it’s really valid, as solid as the men’s platform. But it has to do with certain key events that made it happen, starting with us pioneering it to Roxy to the (World Surf League) giving equal pay to women in the tour (in 2015).”

Scorpion Bay

For 15 years, Beacham has owned a home in the remote village of San Juanito in Baja California, aka Scorpion Bay, which is her favorite place to surf.

“It’s spectacular surfing,” she said. “I love it there. It’s very fickle and you kind of have to hang, and that’s why we have a house. My kids feel like it’s their second home. We’re big on just getting time in the water, trying to avoid the crowded months. But at the same time, it’s so healthy and simple, there’s only generated electricity, a few paved roads. It’s just really an outback experience.”