Global Paddle Outs Change The Surf World

Gabe Zaldivar

Sometimes surfers swim out past the break. 

A sport characterized by solitude in nature sometimes leans on a gathering. The paddle out is a tradition meant to send a loved one home with love and community.

George Floyd and so many others who have lost their lives through senseless acts of violence are being honored by a sport that is overwhelmingly white.

Rhonda Harper has been working tirelessly close to 20 years to change the face of surfing, to get a sport that prides itself on community to consider its problem with diversity.

And in a year that has been unbelievable for its hardships, the Black Girls Surf founder managed to move the needle and garner change.

“When we start going into communities or we start talking openly about the problems not only in the surf industry but in society in general,” Harper is pondering issues that have plagued surfing for decades. “Our problems are your problems. Now we have to do this together. Because (if we) keep trying to do this separately it's not going to work. We've seen it happen over and over and over again.”

Harper and I are in for a lengthy chat which includes, selfishly on my part, a shout out to the movie “North Shore.” I feel like she’s just down the street. Much of her great work is taking place near my home in Santa Monica, after all.

But she’s in Senegal, trapped by circumstance in a country wherein she runs her BGS training academy and shot recent footage on the great work they are doing in teaching young Senegalese girls how to excel in the sport and one day feature at its highest levels.

Just when she was about to leave the country to head home the pandemic hit and she was no longer able to fly home. 

But it turns out you can get a lot done from Senegal. You can bring the world together.

Our discussion centers on the recent paddle outs taking place in Southern California and across the globe, memorials that aim to honor George Floyd and others who have died at the hands of a world that weighs worth based on race and judges circumstance based on fear.

For the uninitiated, a paddle out is as it sounds. Surfers paddle out, form a circle and splash water up to the heavens, often calling out the name of the fallen. It’s simple. It’s poignant.

“It's a beautiful ceremony,” Harper said. “Leis and flowers, prayers and thoughts. Say the name. Splash the water. Blow the conch if you have a shell. Call the surfers into the water. And it's a beautiful ceremony.”

What started as a single paddle out event in Santa Monica has turned into an ongoing series of celebrations the world over. 

Places like Australia, New Zealand, New York, Guam and Indonesia have thrown their boards into the water to support the Black Lives Matter movement and honor George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many others.

Start Paddling

Harper was in contact with Anthony Gordon of California Mermaid Photography, and the idea of getting a paddle out together came up.

It was important to Harper, who would organize the subsequent events from Senegal, that they were done with the right intent.

“The paddle out is a gorgeous ceremony in the passing of a loved one,” she said. “So I wanted to make sure that that intent was there and it was going to be passed on in a way that was respectful.”

The very first paddle out took place in Santa Monica on May 29, which led to an immediate outpouring from all over the world, surfers clamoring to show support that would culminate on June 5’s worldwide paddle out.

The May 29 event was a special occasion, taking place in a hallowed portion of Santa Monica.

Harper explained that she, “wanted to make sure this had layers.”

The first paddle out kicked off at Tower 20, which is situated at a place referred to as Inkwell Beach, a portion of beach near Bay Street that was segregated for the early part of the 20 century.

It was also an area frequented by surfer Nick Gabaldon, a man of Latino and African-American descent who lost his life while surfing near a Malibu pier on June 5, 1951.

Almost 70 years later and the world would paddle out in a remarkable show of solidarity. 

“Had he not hit a pier in Malibu in 1951, surfing would not look the way it looks today,” Harper said of Gabaldon.

Going World Wide

The May 29 paddle out to honor George Floyd went off better than expected. Over 200 surfers paid their respects and many more filed onto social media to ask to be involved.

A second date, June 5, was added.

“I put the flier back on my page again,” Harper explained. “And at that time, I woke up the next day to about two hundred emails. And people all over the world wanted to do this on the exact same day that we did.”

The BGS founder wanted to make sure the next one involved everyone who wanted to be involved and that the world linked simultaneously.

This meant coordinating with far-off places like Guam and getting in touch with a little girl in Cornwall, England, who wanted to participate despite the local beach being shuttered due to COVID restrictions. It also meant discovering fun little quirks such as New Zealand having different time zones.

The day finally comes and Harper had quite the wake-up call as Indonesia chimed in early in the morning with pictures of their paddle out.

“I just absolutely have to have coffee in the morning,” Harper said. “And before I even had my coffee, I had a good cry because I realized (what) was going on. If Indonesia could do it, before I even woke up, then this thing was going to take off worldwide really quick.”

And it did. Beaches all over the world welcomed surfers who entered the water as one and united in a common voice to send George Floyd home. Send Breonna Taylor home. Send so many we’ve lost to a better place.

Changing The World

Harper promises that the paddle outs will not stop. One originally planned for the Fourth of July weekend has been moved to July 11 as beaches are closed in Santa Monica due to COVID closures.

So Harper continues to push forward with the movement, bringing people together because a lot has already changed.

“The important part of all of this was (bringing) in the surf industry, because when you're in this industry, there's separate lives,” Harper said. “It's predominately white. When you have that type of culture, they tend to be extremely nonchalant about what happens in the inner cities and whatever's happening with people of color, because that's just not something that they have to deal with.”

Look at a surf magazine over the last 30 years and you see a common thread, similar faces. When that happens, your sport suffers from a lack of diversity, a lack of depth to your voice, lack of empathy for others’ life stories.

“They don't have to get up in the morning to worry about police violence or police brutality or being randomly killed by white supremacists,” Harper said. “And so tying this into this surf industry was probably the most important and the most impactful because professional surfing has not had people of color dominating since...never.”

On the paddle outs and the recent protests taking place around the world, Harper said, “This one feels definitely different. I've been around a long time and this one feels real.”

You only need to consider the support she received recently from the World Surf League, an organization she has consistently worked with to garner change and nurture diversity.

Recently she received the kind of message she's been waiting over a decade to receive, a WSL Instagram post that is undeniable, a firm backing of the Black Lives Matter Movement and a promise to “build a diverse and inclusive work environment” and “advance equality and inclusion.”

Harper was with two of her kids she is training when she read the Instagram post. They were riding in a taxi in Senegal, a world away from Santa Monica where she has helped so many come together for a common goal.

“And I just I had these two little boys in my car within the taxi and all I could do was stare out the window because I didn't want to cry in front of them,” she recalled. “I've been literally working on this for 17 years, you know, just trying to negotiate. Let's do this and let's do that and really trying to focus and put a plan together that was going to be feasible for surfing so we could break that chain of the next generation just serving the predominately white male audience.”

Harper is pleased with the outpouring from the surf community. A sport ordinarily more concerned with environmental issues than black lives is finally listening.

“Did the paddle outs have meaning?” She wonders. “Yes. Can we change the world? We did. Did we honor George in the right way? Of course, we did. That's the best way you possibly could honor anybody is to change some behavior."

The world stands committed to opening their ears and their hearts to pain that has been affecting a portion of its community for far too long.

And administrators who mold and shape the sport have promised to do better, be better.

“When you hear it from the league itself, when you hear it from the professional league and you hear it from the people that make the decisions within the league, then you know that you have a responsibility not only to yourself but the next generation to see that through,” Harper said of the result of the paddle outs.

As for the momentum. The goal is to move forward, always.

“Right now the pendulum is moving forward and you just have to put yourself together and then go with it.”

Comments (1)
No. 1-1

What an amazing story!