This month, Surfer magazine reported the results of a poll conducted on its Web site asking a presumptively male audience how it treats women in the water.
The results of the poll were predictable with 52 percent stating “I treat ‘em like anyone else in the water. If they want to play with the boys, they’ll be treated like the boys.” Another 21 percent claim, “I let them have whatever wave they want,” with 18 percent adding the addendum "… only if they’re cute.” And finally 9 percent claim to “burn ‘em every time. We all know they won’t make the wave anyway.”
In fact, this poll does a decent job of mimicking real life. On any given day at the better surf spots, about 20 percent of surfers in the line-up will be exceptionally good. Confident in their ability to catch and ride waves, these surfers have nothing to prove, and therefore are quite happy to encourage and assist the few females in the line-up. The other 18 percent uses surfing as a rather rudimentary way to score a few karmic points with the opposite sex. About 10 percent are the “angry guys.” You can’t take them too seriously because, frankly, they don’t just burn the women, they’ll burn anybody they think they can get away with dropping in on. Excuses run the gamut of he/she has the wrong kind of board/haircut/address, whatever.
The 52 percent is tricky because, in general these are your average surfers, most decent enough people, just out to have a good time. But largely strewn about in that lot are the “bitter guys.” The failed or wanna-be (but never will be) pros along with the second-string surfers that will never be as good as the top 20 percent but nevertheless spend agonizing hours in the line-up trying to prove to everyone they deserve a spot on the top tier. Females demonstrating any ability or expertise on the peak especially threaten this group. Fortunately, most of these fellows implode on their own over-eagerness to prove themselves and can be somewhat easy to outwit when necessary.
Other notions perpetuated by the mainstream surf media are that women are somehow new to the game, or finally acquiring a skill set worth noting. Both are patently wrong on many levels. For starters, just considering the 30 or so women who regularly surf here in La Jolla, more than a substantial amount have been surfing for 25 years or more. Whenever these magazines probe the “women’s ability” issue, it’s always some bizarre comparison to the men currently surfing on the world tour. But the vast majorities of all surfers don’t surf like the top professional men and never will. Comparing the women of yesterday to the women of today is like comparing, say, 1987 world champion Damian Hardman to Andy Irons. Nobody would dispute Damian’s ability in the water, but no way would those same skills put him with the top guys on tour today. The bar is continually being raised for all surfers, regardless of gender, and it’s offensive to the hard work and athletic prowess displayed by the women of yesterday who were showcasing superior surfing skills in places like Hawaii’s North Shore, Australia and California. And while young ladies like the amazingly talented, 14-year-old Carissa Moore of Hawaii are raising eyebrows, recently winning the Quiksilver “King of the Groms” contest, obviously highly unusual, this is not something entirely new. Back in the late 1960’s, here in La Jolla, Margo Godfrey secured her title as Menehune Champion against an all-male roster two years in a row.
When we have average-to-low crowds in the water, everyone is more relaxed, seemingly sharing waves regardless of any obvious, external differences. And frankly, women have been given far more waves because we are female than had them taken from us in spite of our gender. Rare indeed is when you hear of one man voluntarily giving up a wave to another man, a complete stranger no less. But as the crowds increase, allies and advantages become more crucial for everybody. Women should appreciate any act of chivalry in the water, but really, all we are looking for is the same respect accorded to any surfer who’s next in line and in position.
Maybe next time the magazine will ask the women what we think of men in the water. I laugh, because what comes to my immediate mind is a quote from an industry insider I interviewed (who shall remain nameless) when posed the “women in the water” question back in 1984: “I think they’re nice to look at, but they take themselves too seriously.”