The surfers had been in the water since before first light. The
Pacific was as gray as the sky above it. The air was still, and
the surf was glassy. On the sand was a girl, 15 years old, with
sun-bleached hair and a sunburned nose, waxing her board in
silence. Down the beach, a dog was barking. This was Saturday in
Southern California, at San Onofre State Park, at a famous surf
spot called Old Man's, a gentle break, a friendly beach.
At 7 a.m. the Roxy/Quiksilver Wahine Classic began.
One-hundred-and-forty surfers competed and all of them were
female. Two contestants discussed this fact in surfspeak:
"Hey, what up?"
"This is killer."
In mood, the Wahine Classic--wahine is Hawaiian for "woman"--was
a throwback. There was no purse; there was barely any
merchandise. The event's mellow announcer, Jim Irwin, had praise
for everybody who stood on a board, which included his wife and
daughter and granddaughter. Somebody was playing a ukulele.
(Ukulele is Hawaiian for "jumping flea.") In the parking lot
were campers and VW bugs and one old Chevy with a license plate
that read BUM. More than one bumper sticker urged PRAY FOR SURF.
Surfing women have always been on the fringes of their sport,
shoved off the face of the big waves and out of the prime time.
That's changing. There are now two women's surfing magazines,
Surfer Girl and Wahine. There are shops in Southern California,
such as Water Girl and Girl in the Curl, dedicated to women
surfers. On Saturday, at Old Man's, in waves that measured four
feet or so, women were the show. It was most excellent.
At 1:30 p.m., Kyla Langen, the 15-year-old with the sun-streaked
hair and sunburned nose, tossed her board into the water, tossed
herself on top of it and headed out. She was in the semifinals
for junior women. She had 15 minutes to catch three good waves
and impress the three judges with the length of her rides and
her maneuvers along the way. Her father, Richard, watched
nervously, digging his tanned feet ever deeper into the sand.
"Get outside," he whispered, but Kyla was too far outside, out
of position to catch the best waves. She didn't qualify for the
Along the beach several hundred people, most of them women,
watched the surfers, each of whom paid a $40 entrance fee and
competed in one of five age divisions, from Menehune (menehune
is Hawaiian for "child") to Grand Masters. The Menehunes were 13
and younger. The Grand Masters were 50 and older. They were the
picture of grace on their long boards, hanging five, hanging 10,
standing on moving water, beach-bound. The winners received leis
and beautiful wooden bowls and polite applause.
Shelley Merrick, 51, of Ventura, Calif., won the Grand Masters
division. She has been a competitive surfer since 1961 and she
had never before been in a surfing event for women only. Late in
the afternoon, with the air cooling and her hair still wet and a
modest luau breaking out around her, she radiated joy. "The
thing that was different," the grand master said, "was that
everywhere you looked you saw girls in the water with smiles on
their faces. Everyone was rooting for one another. Everyone just
seemed so happy."