Saturday, June 13, 2009

Surfing, Sexism and Self-flagellation

I have been surfing for about 7 years now. a long 7 years.

It's a very difficult sport to master and I'm not even close to where I want to be. But I work on it frequently. I surf because it maintains my sanity. Without it, I'm left swimming in a sea of dark mental chatter that threatens to drown me out entirely.

I bought a short board last Christmas. This is a very big deal. Short boarding is for the hotshots, the pros, the fast ones, the shredders, the rippers. Short boards are difficult to ride and require more control and manipulation. You "carve" a wave instead of coasting down it and build momentum with fast turns.

I'm 42 and female. I bought a short board that many men my size can't ride.

My first official short board (6'0) by shaper John "JC" Carper

Long boarding, on the other hand is easier. It is how many people learn how to surf, though I did not. It's a bigger and slower, experience. You can catch waves more simply. Its easier to find your center of balance. It's graceful and an art in and of itself.

In a nutshell, short boarding is like driving a touchy race car and long boarding is akin to taking a Cadillac out on a Sunday drive.

This is long boarding:

This is short boarding:

Two totally different animals.

I spent the better part of the bitter winter struggling with this board, wiping out repeatedly and spending agonizingly long moments pinned to the ocean floor in 38 degree water temps. I've been held under so long that I couldn't speak afterward, my facial muscles constricted from the cold.

Sitting in my truck, heat blasting and ego deflating, I'd wonder if my new board is simply beyond my skill level. It's just another mistake I've made. And a costly one since boards aren't cheap, long or short.

And the men out in the water didn't help. They'd paddle up to me, icy breathed, saying, "You really should try a longer board. It's easier." Of course, I knew they'd never say this to a guy. I paddled far from them and practiced. All winter. I stayed away from "the group" until I felt more confident. I didn't need their critical eyes on me, like watery vultures preying on weakness.

It's important to hold your own with other surfers. The better you get, the more you're "allowed" to surf with the good ones at the better spots. And they give you no breaks. They'll yell at you if you pull off a wave (meaning you chickened out at the last second) and they expect you to keep up with them. It's very "in club" and very competitive - male or female.

Very slowly, I improved and joined back up with other surfers. I could catch waves, drop in, make turns but still hadn't mastered sharp turns, where you use your back foot as the pivot. My board still feels like glass under my feet. It goes so quickly and my response time needs to improve. But I hold my own.

Still, the chorus of voices chant, "Get a long board, Beth."

An aerial - something I cannot do...yet!

Luckily, there is one voice of dissent: Kurt, the youngest of The Brothers:

Kurt, keeping it classy.

Yep, he's my only ally. Friends and I have lengthy discussions wondering whether Kurt may in fact be part wild. He's a highly kinetic dude. Think Spicolli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High meets a hand grenade. He's an aggressive and good surfer. And a real sweetheart. He believes in me. He's my crazy little lifeboat.

I surf with him the most. He's watched me get tossed about like a rag doll all winter. It sucks failing repeatedly but having someone watch you fail repeatedly sucketh that much more.

A better photo of Kurt so he doesn't kill me.

Kurt has constantly maintained that I could learn and master this board. I just had to stick with it.

He's heard people tell me I should get a long board and he gets equally defensive. "Why should she get a long board? She's good. She's aggressive. She just needs practice." I could kiss him when he says this.

Yesterday, one of the nicest local guys I surf with paddled up to me (right after I caught a solid wave and was feeling rather proud) and I could feel it, before he even said it.

"You know what you need, Beth?"

"Don't tell me, Chris. Let me guess. A long board?"

"Exactly! How did you know?"

My face froze like it did in the winter, but this time with anger. I was pissed.

"I knew, Chris, because I hear it all the time. Even though you all see me catching waves on this board. Even though I've don't even like long boarding. Even though, if I was a guy, you wouldn't say that in the first place!"

"I just see that board slipping away from you sometimes."


"I don't know. Just in general."

"Have you watched me lately? Did you see that last wave? I've done nothing but improve on this board. Besides its 7 inches taller than's not even that short of a board for my size. What, do you want me on a big, fat, pretty cruiser board? Should it be pink with ribbons too?"

He muttered something about not meaning anything by it and paddled away, looking a little hurt and feeling badly.

And so did I. I don't like snapping at people. But a girl can only take so much.

The voices inside my head began their usual battle.

"You shouldn't have been so mean."

"Well, when can I speak my mind? When can I just tell people to back the fuck off? When can I be angry?"

Of course, this kind of battle rages on, regardless of surfing. It's almost as if the more I find "my voice" the more I alienate people. And then I berate myself for...being too much myself. I can be an angry, self-righteous and opinionated bitch. And I don't see any signs of changing these traits. If anything, they are becoming more pronounced.

But then the guilt kicks in and my inner shrew shrieks in frustration.

"What do you want, Beth? Do you want to be yourself or do you want the world to love you?"

"I want both. Isn't it possible to have both?"

"No. It's not. You just aren't that nice, that likable."

"But I am. I am. I swear, I am!" the gentle, quiet soul in me protests. "I'm very kind."

I tried to be nicer to Chris the rest of that session though I was the one who felt insulted, degraded. It's the twisted way in which one lives apologetically.

"Sorry I spoke up. Sorry I got angry. Sorry I exist. Sorry I cried. Sorry I scared you away. Sorry I yelled. Sorry for my clumsy humanness. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry."

What a dilemma we women find ourselves in - or at least this woman. You either smile and hear limiting messages for the fortieth time or you finally speak from your gut and feel like shit about it afterward. I'm trying to eliminate the "feel like shit" aspect.

I'm trying to learn to short board at 42. It's very hard but I'm getting it: short boarding and telling people to fuck off.

Me on a shorter board: 6'7 last summer - photo by Laura Maschal

(Me, several years ago on a 7'2 - my biggest board and not a long board. I'm much better than this now - you'll just have to trust me!)

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