Having only ridden my first wave in the 21st century, I don’t know what it’s like to be the solitary woman in the lineup. I can’t imagine what it would be like to enter a surf shop and find wetsuits exclusively in men’s sizes, or to be unable to find a surf camp with coaching sessions especially for girls.
But Californian Heather Hudson knows exactly what that feels like, which is why the first-time filmmaker was perfectly positioned to tell the story contained in The Women and the Waves. The film – which gets its UK premiere 24 April at The Surf Show in Bristol – documents the experiences of 10 female surfers ages 17 to 64 as they’ve made their marks in the water.
Weaving interviews together with archival and new high-definition surfing footage, it’s a tribute to early female pioneers who paddled out into all-male lineups and charged waves where women had previously feared to tread, as well as an examination of what it means to be a girl in this unusual and addictive sport.
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Heather started surfing in the 1970s when she moved with her family to Malibu as a teenager. “Back then there weren’t a lot of women surfing. You just didn’t see other women in the water,” she says. “You pretty much had to teach yourself.” She recalls the day that she first went out in tiny waves at Surfrider Beach on a board borrowed from her boyfriend. “I remember thinking in my mind, ‘I’m always going to do this my whole life.’ I knew it.”
That same passion and plucky courage is a common theme among all of the film’s interview subjects, from five-time Women’s World Champion Linda Benson, who began riding waves at age 11 in 1955, to 22-year-old Aussie waterwoman Shakira Westdorp, who regularly drops into heart-stopping bombs at Waimea Bay.
Part of Heather’s motivation for making the film was to shed light on an area that doesn’t always get much airplay. “The image that the media puts out is so different from everyday life for surfers. There are young men that are 18 to 25 that rip, ok? Other people look at surfing and they think that those are the only people that surf. But in everyday life now there are kids that are five, there are old men that are 80. There are all types of different people that surf.”
Another motivation for Heather was to take a snapshot of an era that’s swiftly fading away. These days the profile of women’s surfing is definitely on the up – Maya Gabeira is grabbing column inches all over the mainstream press for her big wave riding prowess, while 16-year-old Carissa Moore pulled off a coup last year by becoming the first woman in 14 years to land the cover of Surfer magazine. The Women and the Waves reminds us that feats like these would have been impossible were it not for a few lone female riders back in the day who dared to take the plunge. “It’s like a little time capsule saying, ‘This is what happened,’” affirms Heather.
After decades of women being a true minority among wave riders, she points to the launch of Roxy – the first surf brand just for girls – as a turning point in the 1990s. “I remember being so excited as a female surfer that they were making things for us, because we always wore the boys’ clothes!” Later, mainstream cinema lent further momentum to the cause in the form of blockbuster Blue Crush. Finally, “surf schools had a huge impact,” she says, by beginning to offer instruction just for ladies. “And now the girls are coming out in hoards.’
Since its debut last year, The Women and the Waves has been an official selection at 13 film festivals, and has been screened in front of audiences from Santa Barbara to Santa Cruz and from New Zealand to New York. Its thoughtful observations have broad appeal across geography – not to mention gender. “Men do come up after screenings thanking me,” Heather says, “because a lot of them have wives and girlfriends and daughters that surf!”
The Women and the Waves had its British premier at the WaveRiders Film Festival during the UK Surf Show, an event celebrating surfing, ocean sports and coastal lifestyle through fashion, film, photography, art, music, demonstrations, lectures and more. www.surf-show.com
Surf schools will all-female coaching staff
• Hibiscus Women’s Surf School, Newquay, Cornwall www.hibiscussurfschool.co.uk
• Walking on Waves Surf School, Saunton, Devon www.walkingonwaves.co.uk
Surf coaching weekends for women
• Girls on Waves Surf Weekends in Croyde, Devon, 15-16 May, 12-13 June, 17-18 July and 18-19 September www.surfsouthwest.com/girlsonwaves.asp
• Surf Sistas Weekends in Newquay, Cornwall, 11-13 June, 9-11 July, 13-15 August, 10-12 September, 1-3 October www.surfsistas.com
• Surf.Chick weekends in Bude, Cornwall, 11-13 June and 10-12 September www.elements-life.co.uk/surf.chick
• SurfGirl weekends in Newquay, Cornwall, 17-18 July and 25-26 September www.englishsurfschool.com/courses.html
Shannon Denny, Sportsister
The Women’s Sports Magazine
Image credit: Graciegirl / Swell Pictures