Surfing Together, Apart

By: Liza Monroy

The word ‘contest’ can be intimidating,” says Aylana Zanville, proprietress of her Santa Cruz-based, single-person run surf-and-swimwear company Ola Chica. Along with web and graphic designer Marisol Godinez, Zanville has organized the Women on Waves Surf Contest since 2018.

It’s a sun-drenched afternoon. We’re sitting in Adirondack chairs in third co-organizer Corey Grace’s lawn on the East side of Santa Cruz. It’s “production day.” Godinez, Zanville, and Grace are assembling and preparing to send out the participator kits, containing t-shirts, decals, a tote bag, and a beautiful commemorative print Godinez designed.

Because of the intimidation factor Zanville mentions, were it a more typical year, I probably wouldn’t have participated. As a forty-year-old wife, journalist, and mother of two young girls, I surf when I can steal some moments from work and the domestic realm. The idea of being judged made me nervous. But Zanville explains that even in its regular format, evaluation was never the point of Women on Waves. ”It’s more of a festival,” she says. “About positivity and festivity.”

Usually based in Capitola, WOW, like virtually everything else in 2020, went virtual. The upside: wider participation. Women from the world over, including the U.K., Australia, France, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, and other countries, were having kits shipped. The instructions: post images or video on “contest day”—Saturday, October 17th—using a slew of social media hashtags including #surfingfordiversity, #surfingforsolidarity, #surfingforinclusion, #womenonwavessurfingday, #WOW2020, #browngirlsurf, #blackgirlssurf, and #seabeauty. We couldn’t meet in person because of the virus, but Women on Waves was going viral. 

“We’re trying to get the equality we deserve,” says Zanville, who learned to surf in the mid-nineties at age sixteen, when the lineup was not particularly friendly to women. “There’s no better feeling than being in the ocean.”

Godinez wanted to learn to surf for her 30th birthday. After subsequently having two kids, “I would come out, nurse, and get back in the water.” Grace also started surfing at 30. With her business background, she manages organizational tasks for Women on Waves. “It’s about diversity, equity, and inclusion, with everyone along for the journey,” she adds. “The surfing world mirrors society so we hope to open up conversations about women in surfing.”


Women On Waves

Marikah Burnett and Lizelle Jackson photographed by Eliseo Parra


What can be surprising is that this is not new; we’re actually going back. As writer and professional surfer Lauren L. Hill notes in the excellent book She Surf: The Rise of Female Surfing (Gestalten), “…historians of Ancient Polynesia acknowledge that it was women who seemed to stand in the highest regard for their skill and poise as surfers. Woven deep into the chants and lore of surfing culture are the stories of revered women who rode waves with utmost grace and athleticism… Ancient Hawaiian stories recount the legacy of female surfers, despite their omission from the dominant masculine narrative of surfing legend and lore… Right now, women are reclaiming our natural place in the global sport, art, and culture of surfing. While men’s performance and perspectives have tended to dominate surfing narratives, the last three decades have seen women’s participation increase exponentially… As girls are given the opportunity and support to engage with sport, and as accessibility to boards and beaches increases, we will make up for lost decades in getting back to surfing’s legacy of inclusivity.”

On event day, Zanville, Godinez, and Grace surf at Privates Beach in Opal Cliffs with a group of women of across a range of races, ethnicities, nationalities, and ages. Coincidentally, at the same beach on the same day, a large memorial paddle-out for Santa Cruz ripper Kati Cesareo is being held. Cesareo passed away in October at the age of 36 after trials for the rare form of breast cancer she had were paused because of Covid-19. Above the staircase to the sand hangs her portrait along with a photograph of her surfing an impressive wave. The intermingling events further highlight the connection our common kelp-filled, watery field of sacredness and play inspires. 

There’s palpable camaraderie in the water. Godinez, riding her colorful custom-made Dawn Patrol surfboard for the first time— too beautiful a creation to cover in wax, it’s been saved for a special occasion. She shaped the board under the tutelage of Capitola-based Dawn Patrol’s Carl Gooding.

“Surfing is about having something separate from being a mother, something just for me,” she reflects, taking a moment to talk about our shared love of riding waves. 

As the tide drops and the day comes to the end, colorful flowers from the memorial wash ashore, leaving a trail of petals on the sand.

 Saturday, October 17th, may have passed, but its positive effects ripple through the vast community of waterwomen. In Encenitas, Marikah Burnett was surfing Inkwell Beach with her fellow WOW surf sister Lizelle Jackson and the Color the Water crew, a group of “beautiful melanated surfer friends, most of whom are female,” she describes. 

“American surf culture lacks diversity and representation,” Burnett writes, “which can make it difficult for new surfers to feel welcomed and accepted. I realized that when you disregard the unspoken ‘rules’ and hierarchies of the lineup that end up separating us, surfing has such a beautiful way of effortlessly amplifying joy and fostering connection. I am grateful for the Women on Waves Surf Day for reminding me of that and I am excited to seek out and create more
spaces like it in the future.”

Across the country in Miami, the Water Women Collective, founded by Miami local Karen Monteagudo, brought over 30 women to participate in WOW, and received a prize for their photo of the women and surfboards in formation, spelling out “WOW” in the sand. 

Women on Waves

Surfers pose at the WOW event in Miami. This photo won best photo in the image contest. Photo by Femke Tewari

Meli Billskog, a member, described her WoW experience: “We all met on the beach in Haulover Park. Karen always likes to do introductions and it is so amazing to see all these women from ages 20 to late 50’s, from Europe, Latin America and the US, all coming together as a sisterhood to enjoy the gift of the ocean and surf. Women that have been surfing for ten to fifteen years able to catch waves where there are no waves, next to newbies like me, sinking and flipping over on our foamies. What a day we had! I’m looking forward to more events where we can support diversity and advance what I hope becomes a true worldwide women’s movement. Women everywhere need this.”

Billskog’s group-mate Sandra Abi-Rashed was similarly energized. “I moved to Miami last year from Montreal. Being part of this amazing group of like-minded, authentic women has helped me find the missing piece to make me feel  more connected to the ocean. As the daughter of immigrant parents—my mother is from the Philippines, my father from Lebanon—I grew up embracing diverse cultures but I was always intimidated by surfing. I thought it that I wouldn’t fit in. The generosity, camaraderie, and selflessness of movements like Women on Waves and WWC is a reminder that we are part of something greater than ourselves. We have to come together to support and encourage one another, with no judgment, in a safe space, no matter our skill level, background, origins, age… surfing is for all.”

“The Woman on Waves event was such an incredible experience,” adds Lexi Insausti, still surfing at 4 1/2 months pregnant. ”Going out and feeling like the only ‘girl’ in the water, I had this feeling I was in people’s way or had to give up waves to more experienced surfers.” 

WoW 2020 exceeded Zanville’s expectations, inspiring the possibility for the future of the women’s surf event to include a digital component after it resumes in Capitola. Even more exciting is the connections that have been formed. Having WOW in common opens possibilities for women’s surf travel and exchanges in a future post-covid world. Meanwhile, we ladies of the waves are lifted by seas of sisterhood near and far.