Surfer girls unite

The sport of surfing has cast a wide net, drawing more females to it than ever before.

By Lori Allen/ Special to The Malibu Times

Malibu’s beaches have been the paradigm point break for surfing. Names such as Mickey Dora, Dale Velzy and Lance Carson have made its shoreline infamous, particularly Surfrider Beach. It wasn’t just men who brought the surf culture to the mainstream. Sometime-starlet Mary Ann Hawkins added glamour to Malibu’s beaches in the ’30s and ’40s and, later, Kathy Kohner Zuckerman, as teen surfer girl Gidget, brought the idea of females and surfing to the big screen in the fifties after her father’s book about her angst-filled teen years at the seaside was made into a film.

The sport, however, like many others, has mainly been dominated by men throughout the years.

No so anymore.

Female surfers have been on the rise and are spreading the word about what makes this sport so special. These days more women are in the water riding waves for fun, entering surf contests for cash prizes and corporate sponsorships, as well as adapting to the culture more than ever before.

“Women give class and beauty to the sport and they are pioneering some tremendous feats,” KTLA Prime News Surf reporter Jaimie Chambers said.

Local surf shop owner Jefferson Wagner, who’s been in business for more than 30 years, said 25 percent of the surfers in the water today are women, whereas in the days of Gidget, it was only about 10 percent.

Rebecca Heller, an avid surfer and author of “Surf Like a Girl,” is a perfect example of how strong the pull of the waves is for women. She quit her day job to spend more time practicing her surf skills at the beach.

“Surfing for us is noncompetitive; it’s about doing something simply for the joy of it,” Heller said in a recent interview.

However, Heller does admit that surfing “is an intimidating sport because you are never totally in control out in the ocean. But it teaches you to have a ‘can do’ attitude, and a bit of humility.”

Heller’s new book gears specifically to the beginning female surfer. A film executive with a passion to master the sport, Heller offers her readers an in-depth look of what it takes to understand the fundamentals, tips from a pro, safety techniques, style and etiquette.

“I think what is nice about ‘Surf Like a Girl’ is that I speak their language from direct experience. I can remember every fall and wipe out. I can tell them what to do and what to look out for,” Heller said of her book.

Like Heller, longtime surf instructors Izzy and Coco Tihanyi also recently published a book geared to teach women how to surf. The two recently appeared in Malibu to promote their book, “Surf Diva.” In it, the Tihanyi sisters provide readers with information on the lifestyle, fashion and reasons as to why surfing is being touted as one of the most stimulating sports in the United States.

“My message for writing this book was to open doors for women,” Izzy Tihanyi said. “Anything to empower them is a good thing, plus why should boys have all the fun in the water?

“It is really great that women’s surfing has reached a point where it could generate a great turnout of books,” Tihanyi added, commenting on the rise in popularity of surfing amongst women.

In addition to promoting their new book, the Tihanyis also operate a surf school in La Jolla offering women of all sizes and ages surf lessons.

And then there’s Malibu resident Kathy Kohner Zuckerman who, in 1999, Surfer magazine listed as one of the 25 most influential surfers of the century. Even at 64, she still surfs and believes age should not be a limitation for surfing.

Zuckerman talked about how surfing has progressed throughout the years, describing her former days in the ocean water as the antithesis of what it is today.

“When I surfed as a kid there was no publicity,” she said. “But now there is a sense of accomplishment and allure to the sport.”

Although the equipment has improved quite a bit, the thrill of surfing still remains the same. Zuckerman and her girlfriends surfed for fun as children when there were no female surf competitions or sponsorships at that time. The thought of using surfing to cross social barriers was not something they intended. But the longtime surfer is grateful that her father’s story has expanded into something never before imaginable. It has now grown into a billion-dollar business industry generating revenue for its fashion, films, literature, lifestyle and aesthetic appeal.

Although surf films, in general, these days are not mainstream fare for the movie-going public, the surfer girl film “Blue Crush,” released several years ago, solidified the status of the sport amongst women.

Sanoe Lake, who occasionally surfs Malibu’s waves, starred in the 2002 film. After receiving so many questions about how to surf, the actress decided to pen her experiences, with the help of writer Steven Jarrett, and inspire more girls to get out into the water. Like the previous books mentioned, Lake’s “Surfer Girl” also inspires, informs and instructs future girl surfers. It also gives a brief, but concise history of women and surfing-beginning at the beginning. Lake describes how the first waves were most likely ridden on body-board style wooden planks in the Pacific by explorers who left Southeast Asia in open canoes. The sport then spread to Western Polynesia, where it was dominated by males, then to Eastern Polynesia approximately 2,000 years ago, where both sexes enjoyed the sport. It experienced a decline when missionaries came to the islands, and disapproved of the “minimal attire,” Lake writes in her book, as well of anything that did not involve worship or work.

However, a resurgence came in the early 1900s, and with the likes of the “grandfather of modern surfing,” Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku (the local Duke’s Malibu restaurant is named after the surf god), it exploded in popularity.

Now, women champion celebrity surfers such as Lisa Anderson and Layne Beachley have brought the sport of surfing for women to the forefront once again.

As Lake said, “There is no other lifestyle like it.”

More information about surfing, the lifestyle and the surf books mentioned in this story can be obtained by visiting the following Web sites: www.surflikeagirlthebook.com; www.surfdiva.com; www.encyclopediaofsurfing.com

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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