Wave wellness

Women up and down the country are discovering the joy of the traditionally male-dominated sport of surfing.

The sun has barely begun creeping over the horizon as the first cars pull up in the gravel car park. One by one, women get out cradling their cups of coffee and make their way down to the beach to inspect the surf. Yesterday’s wind has made for large, choppy waves that appear to be rolling in from every direction. Not exactly peak surf conditions, but then nobody is out here to prove anything.

As wetsuits are rolled on and boards are untethered from roof racks, everybody agrees that there’s always some fun to be had regardless of the conditions. For a growing number of women, who spend much of their day putting other people’s needs before their own, getting out in the ocean for a surf is a rare moment of solitude and self-care. As the tides turn on this once male dominant sport, women are falling in love with the benefits of surfing and are etching out their place within surf culture.

A history of women’s surfing

While women have grown up surrounded by surf culture, the lifestyle has tended to portray the man out catching waves, while the woman sits on the beach in a string bikini reapplying suntan lotion. But historically, this wasn’t the case. 

There is strong evidence to suggest that women have been surfing alongside their male peers as equals throughout the Pacific since the early seventeenth century. Not only was it the sport of Hawaiian royalty, but myths and legends of Hawaii tell of a female demi-god named Mamala who took great delight in “taming the Pacific”. 

On the wildest days, this celebrated supernatural chieftess would assume a half-woman, half-shark form, and could be seen riding the waves. However, the sport was eventually discouraged by nineteenth-century Christian missionaries who deemed it an uncivilised pastime for women. Although the occasional female surfer fought the odds and gained a mention in the timeline, the damage done to women’s surfing has been slow to unravel, until now. In the past five years, the sport has seen a resurgence of women reclaiming their place on the waves.

Welcoming the renaissance

“Until recently there had been no real framework for women to be able to learn the sport,” says Che Burnett, founder of Aotearoa Surf School in Te Arai.

Realising that many women sitting on the beach were yearning to be in the water themselves prompted him to started Surf Sisters, a women-only surf class.

“Often a mother will bring her young son to after-school surf lessons, and I’ll spend half an hour convincing her that she should be out there too. Once they do get out there, they just completely light up.”

Burnett also noticed that women were wanting a very different approach from men to being taught how to surf. 

“After so many conversations and enquiries, we realised that women were really after a safe, encouraging environment where they could be coached in surfing and gain ocean confidence at their own pace,” he says.

Women’s surf classes across the country are now not only providing a springboard for girls and women to find their place in the world of surfing, but also creating an opportunity for them to meet like-minded people and form strong bonds. The result is an organically growing community that embraces people of all ages and backgrounds who share one common interest: an obsession with hitting the waves.

A life-changing sport

As every woman who has taken up the sport will tell you, surfing seeps into aspects of your life in ways that you might never have expected.

“Once you start surfing, your life changes. The way you think changes, and this can help you in facing life’s challenges very differently, with more confidence and focus,” says personal development consultant Jayne Redfern, who took up surfing at the age of 48 years young.

In part, this is due to the therapeutic nature of the ocean, but it also comes from achieving something difficult. 

“Big changes in a person’s ‘self-concept’ seem to take place when learning to and eventually mastering surfing,” explains Annericke Pretorius from Massey University’s School of Psychology. “Experiencing a sense of mastery in developmental tasks, work or leisure activities is essential for building self-resilience, self-efficacy and a positive self-concept. These attributes, in turn, help us to feel as if we can deal with other challenges in life.”

Surfing for mindfulness

And then there’s the mindful aspect that lends to the laid-back surfer stereotype. Standing on the shoreline watching the waves roll in is a humbling experience. There’s always a mixed feeling of giddy excitement and nerves. And yet the moment you feel the first rush of cold water flood your wetsuit, all other thoughts and worries fade away. Beyond being just a sport practised for physical benefits, surfing is unique in that it supports the mind, body and soul simultaneously.

“You need to be right there in the moment!” says Northland production scheduler and busy mum Sophie Airey. “When you’re in the water there’s no phone, no email, no texts, no calls, It’s just you and the ocean. Surfing is food for my soul. There’s no other way to describe it.”

A form of therapy

While 30 minutes of surfing is proven to have significant mental and physical benefits for anybody, for some, surfing is nothing short of a lifeline. While working with the Live for More Foundation for her thesis on surf therapy, Pretorius made an interesting discovery.

“In regards to adults struggling with addiction and trauma, surfing can help participants to re-connect with their bodies positively and to experience a childlike joy and pleasure that they had felt eluded them in their adult lives – something they perhaps began to pursue through drug use,” she says.

Auckland radiologist Tracey Shanta can attest to this and explains how getting out in the ocean was key to her recovery.

“I used to just lie on the beach and sunbathe, read and drink as both my brothers would go surfing. I thought this was living the life. Then I got clean, came into recovery and needed to make new friends and find new hobbies, so I thought I’d give surfing a go,” she says.

“Surfing taught me resilience, determination and how to keep pushing through despite my setbacks. It has changed my life in a million more ways than I ever could have imagined.”

Research suggests that Shanta’s experience isn’t unique. Because surfing is understood to significantly reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression, it is increasingly used alongside other treatments for PTSD, drug and alcohol recovery, autism and at-risk youth as an additional form of therapy.

“Surf therapy can be used with anything and it benefits the person,” says Live for More founder Krista Davis. “Research is showing how it is more effective than modern medicine in some situations.”

Surfing is a sacred time to block out the noise and reconnect with yourself. Not only does it still the mind, it often leads to further positive lifestyle changes such as practising yoga, healthier eating and generally having a calmer disposition. 

Whether you master a pop-up on your first wave, or you wipe out the first ten times, it’s an experience that will leave you feeling exhilarated and counting down the days until you can go out again.

“Don’t underestimate yourself, give it a go, get out there,” encourages Burnett. “Surfing is suitable for everybody, no matter your age, gender or background. There has never been a more important time than now to get out and connect with our oceans.

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