The beach and the ocean are often the setting for Australian stories of teenage romance, reflection and sexuality. And understandably so! For many young Australians the coast is a place that is a central part of our world, our lives, our friendships, and can't really be separated from the ways we have grown up. My own teenage world was defined by the beach - I would walk home from school along its length, I would meet girlfriends for weekend sun-tanning sessions, I would retreat there when I was sad or confused, I would take afternoon walks to the headland with my mum, I would avoid the town beaches patrolled by the clubbies and their binoculars, I would go there for parties at night to play and explore and make mistakes (and jump in the salt water the next morning to clear my head of the hangover). I mapped my life by the sections along which my friends and I all lived - my beach, Kelly's beach, Lyn's beach, Joel's beach, the caravan park, Ren's beach, the creek, Jonah's beach - and over time I discovered my own boundaries of behaviour, risk and possibilities. My teenage years were spent in the sand and the water, and were a place and time of experience, emotion and discovery.
But surfing was never a part of this. I mean, it went on in the water as I lay on the sand and lots of my friends did it and my mum worked for the local surf company and I would read all the magazines and knew all the famous names and had access to boards and so on, but I never got around to actually going surfing. There’s a whole host of reasons for this, including being a self-conscious teenage girl and not having anyone close to me who was willing to help me, but the main reason I suppose I didn’t ever learn was because, at that time, girls just didn’t really surf. There were the odd local (and highly successful) exceptions to this rule, but they were exceptions. These girls were friends of mine and we hung out and socialised, but they just never really spoke about surfing with me and it remained something that they did with the boys. So it wasn't that I couldn't have surfed, it's just that I never would have.
And my experiences have been largely reflected in fictional literature and film about the coast and surfing in Australia in the 70s, 80s and 90s with books and films like Puberty Blues and Breath (and even last year’s Newcastle) clearly maintaining the line that boys surfed and girls didn’t, but with this situation obviously changing, so must the stories. And so they are.
The newly released Surf Ache by Gerry Bobsien is a stellar example of how things have changed, and continue to change, as more women and girls are surfing both in the water and in the corresponding literature. One of a growing number of teenage surf fictions aimed at young women, Bobsien's book is set in contemporary
Ultimately though, what is great about this book (and what brings me back to my original point!) is that this book doesn’t speak about Ella’s surfing experiences as if they were separate from surfing experiences more broadly. In other words, Ella is simply a surfer, not a girl-who-surfs. She is included unproblematically in the water and Bobsien never writes any kind of negative event based around Ella feeling excluded or badly treated just because she’s a chick. Ella certainly gets teased and embarrassed as she learns, but it’s because she’s inexperienced, not because she’s a chick. Ella and her friends admire Layne Beachley and Steph Gilmore and Occy and Mark Richards and don’t demarcate between their styles (although the obvious generational differences are interesting anyway!). There is no boys’ club that she is trying to access and in fact, her biggest competition as far as surfing goes is other women – they are her harshest critics and her greatest inspiration. But that doesn’t mean it’s a story of ‘girl power’ or sisterhood either. It’s just a story about young people surfing together, and the network of relationships that circulate around that. Ella is surfing for herself – not to make a statement, not to say anything, not to rebel.
And I am not saying that what Surf Ache presents is representative of everyone’s surfing stories, but I am saying that it is a changing approach to how we write about surfing in
In the end, that’s why I liked Surf Ache. Bobsien doesn't need to make an overarching critique or statement with this novel, because she writes the kind of contemporary surfing world and experiences that are in fact to be found in many surf breaks around Australia – urban, busy, complex and potential. Ella and her friends never question their participation as surfers, because they have no reason to. They are not confused about their access to the lineup.