Waves lacking in power work for women. Really, though?

Fred Pawle, is a journalist with The Australian* and is well known amongst surfers for his contributions about surfing and surfing culture. He is a talented writer, a driven journalist, and his stories are engaging and often touch on difficult issues in surfing. I mean, he's a journalist, so that's kind of the deal. For me, one of his best pieces is about Matt Branson and homophobia in surfing. I abhor/ed Stab magazine - a publication that contributed to ongoing sexualisation of women, (especially athletes, entrenching the issues they face in obtaining sponsorship) and once ran a story that talked about "how to go from date to consensual rape". Truly, they did - but Pawle's profile on Branson was great.

He's spent a bunch of time up in Byron Bay recently, writing stories relating to the spate of shark attacks and the different community responses to them along the coast. Some of the responses differ hugely and they're causing a lot of controversy on the north coast.

One short piece Pawle produced from his time in Byron was about the opening of a photo exhibition by visiting photographer, Saskia Koerner. She is producing a series in which she photographs women who ride single fin longboards, in particular celebrating their femininity. Whether women who surf need their femininity celebrated is a whole other issue, but Keorner's photos are part of a current growth in how women are represented as surfers by female photographers and writers, which is cool.

Pawle met Koerner on the beach at The Pass, where she was photographing some women for the series and they got talking. He ended up writing a short piece on her and her the project, as well as on the number of women who surf at The Pass in Byron Bay. The Pass is an interesting place in that on many days, there are as many, if not more, women in the water as there are men. It's a highly photographed place, and as a result, there are a lot of images of women surfing there in the internet catalogue of women's surfing.

In promoting the opening of Koerner's exhibition in Byron Bay at the beginning of March - as part of the Byron Bay Surf Festival - he talked a lot about how many women are in the water, and included this total clunker of a line:

The wave works for women because it’s not overly powerful, but runs cleanly along the beach. “It’s a perfect running wave,” she says. “It’s not scary but it still has some power. You can do so much on it. The girls are just dancing on them.”

"Not overly powerful" waves "work" for women? What does this actually mean? That women don't like to paddle out at punchy beach breaks, at solid point breaks, at pumping reef breaks? Koerner clarifies that this is about a particular approach to a wave that links with a particular approach to surfing and self - in her project she identifies this as 'femininity'. But classing a wave as working for women because it lacks power, well, that's just lazy. It's lazy, generalising, and it's in the national broadsheet newspaper.

To be fair, The Pass is a long, peeling point break, that is most usually 1-3 foot, but can also hold bigger swells that come through during the year. But it's definitely not only popular with women. It's huge popularity and and over-crowding by women and men is easy to understand when you see how long, lovely and accessible the wave is, and how pretty the location. A local nickname is The Monkey's Arse, a name that reflects the chaotic mix of boards and boats and people - women and men, athletes and beginners, locals and non-locals, and so on.

And to be further fair, many of the women who surf there when it's small clear out when it gets bigger. But guess what? So do loads of the men. Some people stay and surf and love it, while others arrive, loathing the knee high peelers and crowds, but happy to take on the solid swells and the brutal sweep that accompanies them. Some women are happy and comfortable to take on even more. The film, It Ain't Pretty, explores women in that space, including the fights they have to surf those waves.

I get that this is one sentence in Pawle's short article, but given that article is also about femininity, I think the sentence is more than a throw away line. It belies the notion that women's surfing is still about small, peeling waves. And for many women it is about exactly that. Just like it is for many men. Not every one wants to push boundaries of wave riding, let alone their own capacities. But the idea that a wave is perfect for women because it lacks power is, well, belittling and not true.

*Note: The Australian is the only national newspaper here in Australia, and is part of News Ltd.


  1. This is an excellent example of how just a few words can create and expose entrenched social beliefs. You are fantastic!


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