The Untold Stories of Women Surfers
FOR THE LOVE OF SURF by Beth O'Rourke
Day to day, I encounter many people that proclaim, “I love surfing”. If we continue to chat, I ask who they idolize and why. Inevitably, they name a high profile, heavily marketed person in the current spotlight with thousands upon thousands of social media followers and oodles of heroic footage shot on a RED camera. Often, the answer generally skews male and comes with the hashtag GOAT. This makes complete sense to me because we all deeply understand the savage influence wielded by mainstream media and the coverage money can and will always leverage to purchase power. When I’m asked who I so admire, I mention legends such as Lynne Boyer, Margo Godfrey Oberg, Marge Calhoun, Sandy Ordille (note this is a VERY abridged list!), I am met with a half smile and a slow, “who is that?” head tilt.
This is one of the reasons I dedicate time to projects like Withitgirl. I don’t pretend to have a comprehensive knowledge of surf history (that’s what Matt Warshaw’s Encyclopedia of Surfing is all about) but I do strongly believe in the importance of entering so many virtually unknown, worthy lives into this extremely esoteric realm. Moreover, tradition has set the fiendish trend to overlook and marginalize women, ensuring their place as a mere accessory to achieving a man’s dream. This is hardly a new concept if you consider how the many elements of “coverture” are as alive and well in the present day as they were in the early days of the English colony known as America in the 1860s.
If you’re one of those folks that declare they love surfing, I invite you to broaden your infatuation and read on, for when you’ve reached the last sentence of this article, I hope your mouth broadens with a full, toothy smile, the corners of your eyes wrinkle with happiness and you share this link with a few good mates. This, my friends, is how our culture will support its very own survival; this is how we make history.
"One of the things that I’m motivated by right now is the fact that the media has played a big part in the history of surfing and I would like to be a part of making things easier and more open for young women. That’s a big broad goal and it takes a team, it takes all of us, and more. I mean look what we have just here we’ve got a generation of Lynne’s and my age and all of you, and the hopes are to make it better for everybody." Sandy Ordille May 2021
IN HER ZONE by Sandy Ordille
Lynne is Sunset Beach personified. Lynne stands tall, adapting to any shift that life throws at her, and never stops charging at whatever she is doing. People often misunderstood her shyness as stand-offish. She had an uncanny ability to be in the zone that did not allow or acknowledge, unwarranted distractions. Surfing is a nature-based sport with strong spiritual ties for those who build their life around it. Lynne built her life around surfing. She lives every day in her own zone. Lynne has always had her eyes intensely set on the ocean's horizon, scanning for any sign (or signal) of an incoming set of waves. She would also listen to the wind, which would often shift or come in bursts up the face of big sets. In the water, Lynne would paddle towards the incoming feathering mountain wave, take off way outside, negotiate the drop, with wind gusts up to 30 mph coming up the face, set her bottom turn, project herself into the bowl, get tubed, and shot back out onto the face of the wave. With grace, she concluded her ride by gauging another cutback, hitting the white water, bounce off, and headed back down the line.
I met Lynne in 1975 when she traveled to California to free surf and compete in a contest at Malibu. She came to San Diego with her friend and Hawaiian teammate Becky Benson. I lived in La Jolla, CA, and Becky stayed down the street with her family friend. Lynne came down to surf the reefs of La Jolla, in particular the infamous WindanSea. I had paid my dues and established myself as a daily free surfer at Windansea. I met up with Lynne and Becky, and we paddled out together at Windansea. The local boys were not known (at that time) for their kindness to strangers, nor very accepting of women surfers. They liked their babes laying on the beach, waiting and watching them surf. The best tactic to overcome the male-dominated surf possie was to be a very accomplished and extremely savvy surfer, which we all were.
I watched Lynne take off on the biggest wave of the day at Windansea and outmaneuver 95% of the men in the water. Lynne won favor forever at Windansea. Later, we piled into my old car nicknamed the "Pink Fink." and traveled up north to Malibu for a contest. We had a great road trip with many laughs and pranks in between surf checks at some of the iconic Southern California surf spots: Church, Trestles, Cottons, Huntington Beach, Topanga, and finally, Malibu. We set up camp at a small, local motel directly across the street from the Malibu Pier, and we set out to get some practice waves at First Point. Once again, Lynne shined the brightest and had an uncanny ability to read how the waves moved from outside kelp beds onto the rocky point. Lynne surfed so radically, yet poetically, down the line on that natural yet very mechanical right point break.
Lynne's surfing has, without a doubt, historically upgraded the level of women's pro surfing and beyond. She has never been on the cover of a surfing magazine even though she was the World Champion in 1978 and 1979. In the era we competed in, women were often judged more harshly, not just by the men on tour but also by women. I have found Lynne's grace and friendship similar to a rogue wave. People don't see the beauty coming because it's under their radar. Its energy is quiet, sneaking up on the reef, pier, or sandbar, then pitching the best wave of the day.
Where did you grow up, and how did you start surfing? Include your early history of styrofoam board riding on the East Coast in Wildwood.
I grew up in Adelphi, Maryland, and Hawaii. When we lived in Maryland, we went to Wildwood, NJ, every summer and spent the time at my Grandma and Grandpa Boyer's big wooden house. It was only 4 blocks from the beach, so we went there every day during our time at the seashore. I remember riding rubber mats and a styrofoam surfboard on my belly.
How young were you when you realized surfing was life for you?
I was 11.
Were you immediately hooked on surfing, or did it slowly grow on you? Who taught you to surf, and when did surfing really take hold of you?
I was hooked from my very first wave at Rest Camp, Waianae. The second time we moved to Hawaii, I promised myself I would learn to surf. I was a very shy girl, and during our first year back in Hawaii, we lived in Schofield Barracks, and I went to 7th grade and didn't have a single friend. It was pretty traumatic for me, as I always sat alone for lunch and went home with no one to do stuff with. The saving grace for me at that time was my Dad, as he had Wednesdays off and would take me surfing to Pokai Bay, where rest camp is. This is where I caught that wave that got me hooked from that ride on.
What was your relationship with your parents regarding your love of surfing? Was your Mom more supportive than your Dad or vise versa?
My parents were always supportive of my surfing. I started doing well in the amateur HSA (Hawaii Surfing Association) surf meets here on Oahu, and Mom would always come to cheer me on. When the offer of becoming pro on the first-ever IPS Pro Tour, my parents paid for all my travel fares. We had no money back then except what money we could win during a contest, which wasn't much.
Did your sisters learn to surf at the same time as you? Was their reaction to surfing different than yours? In what way? Did (your sister) Jill receive more support because she was involved with windsurfing?
Yes, Pam and Cherie learned to surf, but I don't recall Jill learning then. They enjoyed surfing but were not as hooked as I was. They had other interests and ended up going in different directions than me. Jill eventually became a very famous Windsurfer during the boom in the '80s. I think there was more money available to Jill since it was during the '80s, and she had a lot of sponsors paying her way around the world. My parents showed an equal amount of support for both of us, as I recall. Jill is 5 years younger, and when I started surfing, windsurfing hadn't been invented yet.
Did your parents support your pursuit to be World Champ?
Yes, I had their full support!
When did you decide to start surfing Sunset as a free surfer? Did you paddle out at Sunset alone or buddy up with somebody? (Cherie Gross, Bobby Owens, Becky Benson, Rell Sunn?)
I never decided to surf Sunset as a free surfer. The only reason I would surf there was to compete in the empty lineup there. On practice days before a contest, I could not compete with the hungry men in the lineup. They would always out-paddle me and also intimidate me.
What was the first year you began surfing Sunset Beach as a professional?
I think it was around 1975. I surfed at Sunset during the Smirnoff Pro that Laura Blears was the first to do the year before as the only woman featured in the all-male event. The following year, the contest organizers invited 6 women to compete, one in each male heat of six. We were like sidekicks to the event to help get more attention, I believe. The woman with the highest scoring rides would win the first prize, which was hardly anything at all money-wise. The first year I actually surfed Sunset was 1976 when we had a Women's division.
Please explain the rip currents' layout that creates a relatively easy transport out to the take-off spot, even when waves are big.
Sunset Beach is a very tricky place to surf. It is powerful and works best on a large West swell. The channel between Sunset and has a strong current on big surf days. The only way to get to shore from the lineup is to catch a wave or commit to being smashed by a big whitewater. Then have the whitewater drag you in until you can get on your board and paddle through the inside chops into Val's reef and ride a small wave into the beach. The riptide that comes out through the channel there is way too strong to paddle against. One time my leash broke, and I had to actually swim across the channel and get smashed by a massive wall of whitewater …. And relax and let the first wave drag me in, so the next ones weren't as strong, and do my best not to panic.
The wave covers a considerable distance, and it has an outside peak/section and a hollow inside section. For the outside West peak to break nicely, the swell needs to be at least 10-foot faces. On a North swell, the wave breaks further North and isn't quite as powerful, but it can be a really nice long ride.
Describe how far out from shore the actual take-off spot was and how that distance can make the waves look smaller from the shore (during the surf check)
I don't know how far out to describe it… The distance can make the waves look smaller than they actually are, but when you wait long enough and see a surfer on a wave, this is how you can see the size of the waves. The more one surfs there, the more one can judge the wave size by where it is breaking on the reef.
Talk about the surfboards you rode out at Sunset Beach, what designs worked best for you. Who shaped them for you, how he helped coach you back when no one was coaching the women. (Note: do you have pictures of these boards we can use for the story?)
Harold Iggy, a master shaper/owner of The Surfboard Shaping Co. surf shop, was my shaper and coach. As I recall, my favorite board for Sunset Beach was a 7'4" double-winged swallowtail. I also had a 7'10" round pin that worked really well in large 10' plus "Hawaiian" Sunset Beach waves. The double-winged swallow tail allowed the tail of the board to be narrower so it would hold into the wave better while doing hard bottom turns, and then for off the top moves, the winged portions of the board allowed for more loose and responsive, quick and snappy turns for the times.
What was the first paddle out like? Describe that first ride and other memorable rides/sessions?
My first ride was at Rest Camp, Waianae, on my Dad's old 9'plus tanker with the old-style skeg. I will always remember the feeling and sound of the water chattering underneath the surfboard as I trimmed across the wall that never really broke into whitewater. From that moment, I was hooked. I naturally just knew how to turn and follow the wall of the wave.
I will always remember a specific surf session at the Lancer's World Cup event when the waves were 10' – 12' Hawaiian, and I was on. The wind was off-shore with just a light breeze and a velvety, smooth texture to the surface. Margo and I both egged one another further into the large a-framed pits of this perfect West Swell that was rolling in. I had some of the best rides of my life that day. I felt so in control and on, and like no one could beat me. The universe aligned with my surfing on this special day as I won the contest and took home the biggest purse I have ever won at $5,000.
Other sessions that were unforgettable were at one of my favorite surfing and training spots, Chun's Reef. I'd go out on the big close-out days and catch the in-between-the-big-close-out-set waves that didn't close out. On days like this, with only about 6 of us out, we surfed in circles for 6 hours straight, from the crack of dawn to 1:00! I was in such good shape because I ate, drank, breathed, and slept surfing back then. It was my life.
What did you have to do to get prepared to approach this type of wave?
I had to surf a lot. Since I couldn't catch any waves at Sunset, I'd practice at Chun's Reef, and then the day the contest was held at Sunset, I'd go out and warm up before the competition started. Harold Iggy helped me to ride this special surf spot of Sunset Beach by telling me to always look one, two, or three turns ahead, sorta like a slalom skier does. Even though I had never skied, I knew what he meant and applied this tip big time to my repertoire on waves of any size or conditions. He also showed me the lineups and told me to keep my legs bent and loose enough to use as shock absorbers when taking the steep, steep drops as the surface of the waves could often have some bumps to navigate, which helped me a lot. Sunset is the fastest and scariest wave I've ever ridden. Also, the most exhilarating! Oh, what a feeling!
What was your training routine? I remember you sharing how you got up every morning at 4 am and drove to the North Shore to surf.
I'd dawn patrol every day I could, Summertime at Kaisers, Inbetweens, and Rock Pile, and during the winter, at Chun's and Haleiwa, and on a North swell, Laniakea. I'd surf from 4 to 6 hours a day, usually the morning session, since the afternoon would get windy and blown out. I also went running and did some yoga stretches my Mom showed me almost every day. I didn't train at Sunset Beach because I could not catch a wave due to the crowd of aggro men. So I would use Chun's Reef as my training grounds and also Haleiwa. But at big Chun's, this was the best because it was uncrowded, and I could catch plenty of waves and practice late take-offs, and hard bottom turns and off the tops. Over and over again. At Sunset, I would be very frustrated because it was just too male-dominated, and they were all so aggressive.
When did you first compete professionally on this wave? You had to sign a release to compete on this wave...talk about that?
The first competition was at Sunset Beach in the Smirnoff Pro event, with one woman in each of the men's 6 person heats. I can't recall signing a release, but I probably did.
Talk about your drive to be the best. Your rivalry with Margo, the first time you beat Margo at Sunset? How did you utilize your relationship with the wave during heats to garner an advantage? Year and wave conditions. ABC Wide World of Sports covered this event.
I had such a drive to win. I had to win. Nothing was gonna stop me. I surfed so much and practiced so much, and positioned myself into the right positions to catch the best waves and rip them to shreds in contests, that perhaps I could intimidate the other women. You'd need to ask them, but I just knew I would win and felt so confident. I also had great friends and family support, especially in Hawaii.
Not sure which contest I won against my rivalry, Margo Oberg. But it was either at Sunset Beach or Haleiwa. I knew I could beat her. She just didn't surf as well as me. She didn't cover as much of the wave face, and I always focused on surfing like the men. There weren't any women to look up to for what I wanted to do on waves. So I had several male idols, mostly Larry Bertleman and Guy Pilago from Makaha. They were way ahead of his time.
What strategies did you utilize to catch the best waves in the heat and free surfing?
I used my secret lineups on land and in the ocean. I had a keen eye for seeing the sets before others saw them, so I would get in position before they could. I knew how to figure out which wave of the set would be the best wave; somehow, naturally, this came to me, I figured it out on my own. There were not really any coaches back then. However, Harold Iggy did give me some great tips, and so did Ken Bradshaw for surfing his favorite spot; Sunset Beach.
The other strategy I used was to surf the less crowded and less perfect surf spots on big close-out days. I was in excellent paddling shape and also surfing shape. Running was good for my cardio, and surfing was my only other exercise. But I did have a yoga-ish-stretching routine that I would do as often as possible to keep my body limber.
Do you think the lack of sponsors created disparity amongst competitive women surfers? How did this play out during the heat at Sunset Beach?
Yes, it was tough to be a pro-surfer back then. Especially if one wasn't at the top and winning events. There weren't many events each year, so we only had about five chances to complete. I'm sure it was hard for the women who were on the tour who weren't winning. I was lucky since I could win some of them and make a name for myself. I was also fortunate that my parents saw how good I was at surfing and fully supported me by paying for my airfare to events. Then, after I made a name, I got a sponsor Ted Adegawa of "Ted's Surfshop" in Japan, and I think he helped pay for my airfares.
Also, I was so fortunate to have Harold Iggy as my shaper and get on his Surf Team! In the early days, I learned how to shape and build surfboards from buying surfboard kits from Harold's shop. But then, I became successful with my contest wins, and he asked me to be on his surf team. I know one woman who was very upset by this. But it didn't stop me!
What was your experience with the all-male judging panel at the Sunset Competition? Did you ever feel you were discriminated against because of your sexuality, judged unfairly?
I didn't even know my sexual preference during that time in my life, so I can't recall feeling discriminated against. I was trying to figure all of this out during those early days. I was too afraid to even think I might be gay. But as I look back, I did have those feelings for other women.
What winning felt like and how second place was never good enough. What has competing in professional surf competitions taught you?
To win a surf contest felt wonderful! To get second place sucked. But it was better than third…I guess it taught me how to compete and win. But also, I've learned that this winning alone left me very empty inside. I felt so alone and like a square peg in a round hole. I remember someone one day at a restaurant in Haleiwa Town, telling me that I must feel so wonderful and good because of all my successes with surfing, and thinking, yeah I should feel so wonderful, but I don't. Something was missing… I totally remember feeling this and not knowing why I felt that way. It was a scary thought, and I found the answer years later. But this is a whole nother story.
What is Sisterhood in big wave surfing - contest heats vs. free surfing? Discuss how rumors of being a gay woman affected the pathway to success in competitive surfing and procurement (or loss) of sponsorship?
There wasn't really a sisterhood in big waves back then that I recall. We were all in it for ourselves… (at least in my reality/mind). I was not out during those days, so I didn't experience any resistance to this issue.
MAY 2002 TEAM ZOOM INTERVIEW
Sandy Ordille, Lynne Boyer, Beth O'Rourke + withitgirls
Keeping it Real ZOOM Highlight with Lynne Boyer and Beth O’Rourke
Beth: So at this point, how do you feel about being a woman now?
Lynne: Fine. I like being a woman. I've come to terms with all that stuff. I've been through a lot of other things during my trek through this life. Women, especially in surfing, sometimes we outnumber the guys out there now. There are so many awesome women surfers in Hawaii. It's amazing. Longboard, shortboard, foiling. Part of the whole thing about that is the confidence I had. It was underlying in the back of my mind that, since I'm a woman, I probably can never get as good as the guys really, because they're stronger. But now I tend to disagree seeing what the women are doing. The women just do it differently. We have a different center of balance. For instance, in gymnastics, the women do totally different types of moves. So who's to judge who's better? Just because someone's stronger and can do a more forceful radical turn? That doesn't mean he's a better surfer than someone that does this beautiful bottom turn sweeping off the lip. You know what I mean? Somebody's just judging this. I question it now. Women can be just as good as men. They just do it differently.
Beth: Well, yes. And I love that. But the thing is that creativity is not a gendered term. And riding a wave is intrinsically creative, right? I think one of the reasons why we're talking to you now is because of your creativity. Initially, you may have been really great at drawing and painting as a kid, but you became known for your creativity when you're in the water. And I want to highlight, not just your surfing, but your being a well-rounded water person. Right? Reading the waves, getting the lineup wired, understanding how waves function - small, big. I mean, you have encyclopedic knowledge. Right. So I just want to say that's just skimming the surface.
Beth: There is a lot of loss of faith in humanity and politics right now. And I will say that the stories that constantly draw me in are me seeking reaffirmation of the human spirit and the love that people actually have for one another. And the kindness that pushes people to great lengths to tell their stories, and to reach out and feel like they're part of this large mass, as divisive as our country and our world has become, it's always been that way.
Lynne: I think that it is so important as a young person to be able to be open and not to have all these shutdown issues and fears. Learning how to face fears healthily, and having support. Not being a square peg in a round hole. Nowadays, it seems like there's a lot more help out there to move past those issues.
Video by Mary Piller from copyrighted licensed archival footage by Ted Adegawa and Ronnie Romero and used with permission.
Additional Links & Information
History of Women Surfing website
Article: “She Surf” Is An Enlightening Look at Women’s Surfing (2020) by Zander Morton
Interview with Lynne Boyer's about Surfing & Art
Bob Barbour Photographer website
Gary Terrell Photography: we are unable to find the website or links: He did all freelance work and was one of the few photographers who could sell prints of his photos because his rolls of film had not been purchased by SURFER Magazine or Surfing Magazine.
Peter Crawford was a freelance photographer from DeeWhy, Australia, who is now deceased.
Lynne's Fine Art Website (wave paintings in the article by Lynne Boyer)
Lynne's World Surf League results (1978 & 1979)
© 2020-2021 withitgirl. All rights reserved. We appreciate your feedback!