Colorful prayer flags flap in the wind by the municipal wharf on May 1. Elsa Rivera, clad in dress and lei, hula dances to Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
Then a group of women grab their surfboards and hit the water for a paddle-out ceremony. They form a circle and scatter flowers in the water.
The very first International Women’s Surf Month has begun.
One of the women going out is middle-school teacher Linda Goulet. She’s a stand-up paddleboarder who explores the calmer waters beyond the breakers, standing on her board and using a canoe-like paddle to push forward.
Goulet got into the sport three years ago when her partner, a former surfer, switched to paddleboarding due to a neck injury. He took her out on a moonlight paddle at Lovers Point. Since then, she’s been hooked. “I feel connected to all the elements,” she says. “The otters come up to you. It’s pretty magical.”
SUP-ers like her don’t usually cross-pollinate with traditional surfing communities, Goulet says. But Rivera and Dionne Ybarra, leaders of The Wahine Project, are bridging that divide.
Ybarra had been asking how her group could connect everyday women of all ages who surf. International Women’s Surf Month became her answer. She has been spreading the word through social media and encouraging women to share their stories via Twitter and Facebook, using the hashtag #womensurfmonth. Also in the mix are beach clean-ups, film screenings, surf clinics and a Surf + Social Good Summit in Bali, Indonesia.
“We wanted to be inspired by one another. To talk about why we come to the sea,” Ybarra says during the May 1 paddle-out. “It makes us feel free.”
Ybarra loves to surf, but she says it’s not always an accessible sport for women. “Many of them have the same fears,” she says. “Not wanting to go out by themselves, fear of the ocean, not knowing where to start.”
She hopes to change that.
Ybarra grew up the daughter of migrant farm workers in Salinas. Most people in her neighborhood, she says, never saw the ocean. Her mother took her to the beach in Moss Landing, but she never went in the water. “We went as spectators,” she says, “watching people, but not taking part in the activities.”
After moving to Pacific Grove, Ybarra had chances to borrow a board and try surfing – but she still felt too intimidated to try. But in 2009, she got a group of women together and hired an instructor for a group surf lesson. “The first time I popped up, I was ecstatic,” she recalls. “It was this breathtaking feeling of freedom and joy and accomplishment.”
Ybarra began The Wahine Project in 2010 to teach girls to surf. Wahine (pronounced wa-HEE-nee) means “girl” in Hawaiian. She says she chose to work with just girls, rather than boys, because they’re underserved in surfing and feel less intimidated together.
She reaches out beyond the “lettuce curtain” that separates the Salinas Valley from coastal communities to draw out a diverse group of girls.
Eleven-year-old Judy Molfino attended a Wahine summer camp in 2012. Her mother, Sallie Molfino, tells me she’s seen her daughter go from timid to self-assured through surfing. “It’s truly built up her self-confidence,” Sallie says. “Now she’s not a kid that says, ‘I can’t.’ She says, ‘I can.’”
Ybarra agrees to take me out on the water to see for myself.
It’s a cool, cloudy and windy morning on Casa Verde Beach. The ocean is restless, waves breaking close together in a rush to get to shore. The cold slices into my bare feet, and my first instinct is to retreat from the water. But I follow Ybarra onward, bracing against the energy of the waves.
They look even bigger over my shoulder when I’m on the board. The first one is on me in a second. And I’m not thinking, I’m acting: paddling, rising and trying to find my balance. I’m pitched overboard.
But soon the right wave comes. I get my feet under me, and this time I don’t topple.
For a moment, I could swear I’m Supergirl. I’m riding the wave’s momentum, the taste of brine on my lips and my arms out like wings. I’m surfing.
The sand brings the board to a sudden halt, and the ride’s over.
“You did it!” Ybarra cheers. Fellow surfers Erin Shea and Elsa Rivera cheer me on, too, and offer high-fives.
That’s what surfing and Women’s Surf Month is all about: coming together to encourage and lift each other up.
I leave the beach feeling unstoppable – at least, until the soreness hits. But no doubt it was worth it.