Sport April 2002

A Generation of Gidgets

Female surfers are back in the lineup, in droves

Probably few people remember that in the late 1950s it was a fifteen-year-old girl, Kathy Kohner, who introduced the southern-California surf culture to the American mainstream. Her father, a screenwriter, wrote a quickie novel based on Kathy's stories of a summer she spent surfing at Malibu. The novel was Gidget, which sold half a million copies and was spun off by Hollywood into three feature films, three made-for-TV movies, and a TV series. Surfing exploded in popularity. During the 1970s and 1980s teenage boys came to dominate the sport, and demand surged for shorter, faster surfboards—"pocket rockets." What had already become a fairly macho cult became more so.

In the 1980s, at my urging (I wanted company), my wife, Ann, tried surfing. She was starting to get the hang of it when, one morning at Huntington Beach, just south of Los Angeles, a kid on a shortboard dropped in on her as she was taking off. He sprayed her in the face with his wake while yelling "My wave, kook!" Some Huntington Beach locals proudly called themselves Surf Nazis, and Ann did not enjoy getting to know them. She sold her board.

I continued to surf—a bit sadly without Ann. And then, about half a dozen years ago, I noticed the pendulum swinging back the other way. I began to see longboards again, and more and more women in the water. By now Gidget is definitely back in style. Berkley Books has just reissued the forty-five-year-old novel; Francis Ford Coppola is reworking the story as a stage musical—and Kathy Kohner Zuckerman, now sixty-one, has started surfing again. "My husband became sick with Guillain-Barré syndrome, an auto-immune disease," Kohner told me recently. "Getting back in the water was a way to work out my feelings of sadness and helplessness. Catching that Malibu wave again was like a rebirthing, a way to connect with my soul. So much of my life was about Malibu. It was a dream of mine to surf on my sixtieth birthday—and I did."

From the chilly, kelp-filled swells of Santa Cruz's Steamer Lane to the near perfect right-angled waves that wrap around the point at Malibu's Surfrider Beach, female surfers are taking their places in the lineup outside the wave zone. They are lawyers, grocery clerks, grandmothers, single moms, college students with surfing scholarships, pre-teens mixing ballet and shooting-the-curl lessons, Girl Scouts working toward earning the new surfing badge. They're riding boards and wearing wetsuits designed by women for women, taking lessons at all-female surfing schools, going on all-women surfing trips to Mexico and Costa Rica and Indonesia, logging on to the niche Web site; many even subscribed to Wahine magazine itself, which was affiliated with the site until the recent economic downturn forced it to suspend publication. A select few are surfing the legendary big-wave breaks, such as Sunset Beach, in Hawaii, and Maverick's, near the town of Half Moon Bay, California. According to some sources, surfing, along with golf, is one of the two fastest-growing sports among women in the United States.

At first it was aging male Baby Boomers who brought the longboard back, as they found they no longer had the upper-body strength for shortboard surfing. Longboards, measuring eight feet and up, have wide, fat front profiles for nose riding. They are easy to paddle and ideal for small waves, broken or not. Beginners love them, because they are very forgiving when surfers are just learning to stand. Where shortboarders slash the waves to gain maximum speed, longboarders glide and make graceful banking turns, trimming rather than lunging. Although longboards typically cost two to three times as much as shortboards, they now account for nearly two thirds of all board sales. And women, according to various estimates, make up 15 to 25 percent of the current surfing population.

A man couldn't get away with saying this, but surely Elizabeth Glazner, thirty-eight years old, who until January was the editor of Wahine, can: longboard surfing is all about grace and beauty and balance, and as such it is the perfect sport for a woman. I interviewed Glazner late last year at the magazine's offices, in Long Beach, California. "Surfing is this gift from feminism, a lifestyle that has allowed the generation of women between bra-burning and Title Nine to rediscover a part of themselves," she told me. "It's at your own pace and meditative. It can be holistic and spiritual. If you have disposable income, you can travel to some of the most exotic places in the world to surf—Costa Rica to Indonesia to Tahiti and Fiji."

During its seven-year run Wahine became the bible for female surfers. It presented a unique G-rated blend of soft-pedal feminism, ecology, waterwomen's history, and Endless Summer schmaltz, appealing both to mature women surfers and to pre-teens getting their toes on the nose for the first time. Thanks to Wahine, a generation of surfers came into the water unaware that "surfing like a girl" could be pejorative.

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