Riding the Glass Wave

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When Lisa Orr-Donnelly began surfing in Santa Cruz in the 1970s, she said she was vastly outnumbered by males — about 25-to-1.

“There were about 20 girls in all of Santa Cruz who surfed at that time,” Orr-Donnelly said. “Maybe a couple dozen.”

Orr-Donnelly is one of several people who planned the Women on Waves amateur surfing competition at Capitola Beach on Saturday. Coordinated by Mermaid Series, an organization that plans all-female athletic events, Women on Waves invited females of all ages — from 13 to 60 and over — to compete.

The event included categories from Junior Girls, ages 13 to 15, to Legends, ages 60 and over, and even Menehune, which was not scored and allowed women and girls of any age to take to the water.

Jordan Renner, 13, competed in the novice category and said Saturday’s contest elevated her self-esteem.

“[Surfing] makes me feel better about myself because sometimes it feels like guys think they’re better than us, but I feel like it empowers us,” Renner said. “Making it an all-women competition is better for us to be competitive with each other and it helps us gain confidence.”

In the past, the contest’s proceeds went to female-focused organizations such as WomenCARE and Women’s Crisis Support-Defensa de Mujeres. But this year, the planning committee decided to put the money toward the local Barry Hamby Cabrillo College scholarship and its own Zeuf Hesson scholarship.

A member of the Santa Cruz West Wind Surf Club, Robin “Zeuf” Janiszeufski-Hesson, founded the competition in 1996. When she died from breast cancer last December, the Women on Waves planning committee started a scholarship in her honor. Since Women on Waves began 18 years ago, the contest raised over $48,000 for the Capitola and Santa Cruz communities.

“This time, we thought it would be really great to give back to the girls who have participated and have them still be involved,” Orr-Donnelly said.

Competitor Adelina Nohrnberg, 31, said the two scholarships invite women and girls to apply their experiences of surfing to other aspects of life.

“Being part of the surfing culture empowers girls to get better and try new things,” Norhnberg said.

Marisol Godinez, who has surfed for 10 years, served as head coordinator of the event and is a graphic designer for Mermaid Series. While she supports coed competitions, she thinks all-female events cultivate a stronger sense of alliance.

“Why all women? Because it creates a safe environment. It creates an atmosphere where everybody feels welcome,” Godinez said. “It’s your moment to shine and celebrate women in the water or during runs or triathlons. There are many other activities that are coed and that’s fine, it’s cool to participate in those, but there are certain days when we just want to support, inspire and motivate each other.”

Despite the large amount of encouragement from other women, female surfers face a number of obstacles. Godinez said societal expectations of beauty even find a way into the world of surfing and athletics.

“[Women] can feel intimidated because not everybody looks or performs like the media’s definition of an athlete or a surfer,” Godinez said. “Because we have the media feeding us the same message over and over, people may think, ‘If I don’t look like the runner in that picture, if I don’t look like the surfer in that picture, I’m not going to try that.’ But when you create all-women events, it makes it a little more welcoming because you show up and you see, ‘Wait a minute, everybody is like me.’”

Another potential force deterring more women from taking up surfing is the lack of equality with men, especially on the professional level.

In the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) 2014 Men’s World Tour, as of March, Gabriel Medina is in first place with 15,200 points and Carissa Moore is in first place in the ASP Women’s World Tour with 16,500 points. Although Moore has 1,300 more points than Medina, her tour earnings are $75,000 while his are $115,000.

There is still a great disparity in Santa Cruz’s numbers according to these ladies’ experiences, but women like Orr-Donnelly believe female surfers have made significant progress.

“With the surge of women surfers over the years, there are probably 3-to-10 or 4-to-10 now, if not more,” Orr-Donnelly said in regard to the 25-to-1 ratio from four decades ago.

With the help from members of the surfing industry and organizations such as Mermaid Series, something as simple as sportswear helps women and girls make incremental headway.

“[Surfing] has always been male-dominated, but lately, there are a lot more girls going out and trying new things,” Norhnberg said. “The wetsuits have been modified to fit a girl’s body, so that’s a big improvement in the surfing community and culture. It’s helping more girls and women get out there and have fun.”

Regardless of gender or skill level, Godinez said, surfing is a spiritual sport that does not discriminate against the kind of person standing on the board.

“You make a connection with the energy of the water. It’s a very spiritual sport in that sense, and it makes people happy,” Godinez said. “Some days you just get one wave and some days you get 10, but either way, you’re good. That’s all you need.”