Stupid women (Always in the way)
I’ve been surfing again lately. Not as much as I’d like, but surfing. In fact, I managed to surf twice this week! Twice! Once down on the Gold Coast and on Sunday, up on the Sunshine Coast. To my shame, I still don’t know the coastlines of south east Queensland very well, so it’s always very hit and miss for me in terms of where I go and why. Since I surf so little at the moment, mostly I’m just happy to get in the water anyway.
In the past, I use to avoid the Gold Coast, because it has a reputation for a localised, aggressive, male-dominated, shortboard culture. There have been many surf reports of violence there over the years, and the things I’ve often read in surf media and research spaces have deepened these assumptions. When it’s come up as an option, the idea of surfing there made me nervous in advance. But I’ve surfed there a bit over the years – at Currumbin and Burleigh and Rainbow and Snapper and Duranbah – and I’ve never had any experiences to back this up. I’m on a longboard, I sit wide, and I don’t compete with the dominant crew, so all of that will have had some impact on how I get about in the water, and how others there treat me, and I can’t speak for what it would be link in the thick of things, but I’ve never been really shouted at or anything. Dropped in on and snaked, for sure, but I’ve never been frightened or intimidated by someone’s behaviour.
In comparison, the Sunshine Coast always struck me as much more laid back. I never felt nervous about surfing there. It’s got a strong longboard culture, and it seems like a very different kind of crew. Again, these were all assumptions based on, well, I can’t remember actually. Assumptions based on assumptions. But it’s my assumptions about the Sunshine Coast that have so consistently been proven not entirely correct. I've met some great people in the water on the Sunny Coast, but more than once I’ve felt unsafe surfing north of Brisbane, including at Noosa. Especially during the Noosa Surf Festival when some of the best, most media saturating longboarding crew have the lenses of some of the best, most media saturating surf photographers pointed at the pumping, peeling waves. I wouldn’t suggest we judge Noosa by the culture in the water during the chaos of the Festival though. Of course not! But even on mid-week small days, I’ve found the points can be needlessly aggressive, and that they have not always brought out the best in me either.
It's not just me though, and it's not just Noosa. There seems to be a strong culture of localism and rudeness (and more) in the waves around the Sunshine Coast that isn't new and which, I discovered on Sunday, is enduring.
On Sunday, I went surfing with a visiting friend up at Alexandra Headland. I've only surfed there once before, on a day that was pumping and lots of fun, but when I was hungover and had no right to be in the water, actually. But that day was friendly and folk in the water seemed nice enough. I was, of course, surfing wide, but that let me get waves that were solid and fun and still within my capacities. I remember being hooted and cheered on waves that day, and coming away feeling good about the place, wanting to surf there again. Until yesterday, my visits to Alex had seen me skunked on surf, so until Sunday, I hadn't surfed there again.
My friend and I arrived late morning - well after 11 - and parked and walked over the check out the surf. The Alexandra Headland Longboarding Club had a contest on, which was a bit of a drag, but that's okay. I'm in the Byron Bay Malibu Club that runs a monthly contests at Wategos, so I know how it can go. Wategos is insanely busy and it's impossible to clear folk out of the water for a local, low-stakes, social comp, so as long as you're not taking waves from the surfers in the heat, and that you're not being a dick about it, surfing in a comp area can be fine. We ended up taking to one of the men who seemed to be part of the comp (which seemed to be mostly grey-haired men and no women, but maybe the crew were different earlier), and asked him about it all, and he was encouraging that we stay, and that we get some waves and that "the comp will be over in an hour anyway". He seemed welcoming enough, so we decided to stay and surf there, rather than scope out down the coast, where he told us it would be busier anyway. He was nice, and directed us the easiest place to paddle out, and that with the high tide the rocks on the inside were covered so don't worry about them.
We made it out into the surf, which wasn't terrible, and sat wide, away from the comp surfers. Where we were sitting, there weren't a bunch of options as it really was breaking better along where the comp was being held, of course, but an occasional wide one would come through. We got very few waves, but we did a lot of paddling around, and the waves we got were fun enough. In all honesty, I got about two closeouts for every wave that held up, but that was fun too. In it's own way.
I did a lot of looking about as I sat in between waves, and noticed that, for the first time in as long as I can remember, my friend and I were the only women out! I'm so used to women being a common sight in any lineup I surf, so it really struck me. My friend, who has Japanese heritage, also noticed how white it was. She's visiting from the USA and is really blown away by how white surfing in Australia is. But we sat, and we waited, and we stayed out of the way, and we watched the comp surfers dominate, which was fine. I dropped in on no-one and no-one dropped in on me either (although, admittedly, considering that I was on the outside, dropping in would have been tough - lol).
Others had different experiences, and I heard some altercations between surfers - words exchanged about who'd had right of way, with one guy on an old mal reprimanding someone for being in his way, which was a problem for him because old mals are had to control. Actually, most of the altercations did seem to be about someone being in someone else's way. A guy next to me commented on the aggression of the surfers, and questioned why they got to have right of way and run a comp there, and that they only seemed to ever run a comp when the conditions were good. I sort of shrugged and said that it was unlikely and that was only once a month that they would run contests. The guys certainly weren't friendly though. One guy paddled out in red, and as he passed me I wished him luck, but he didn't turn his head or acknowledge me. He was so close though, and he definitely heard me. Whatever, mate.
The heats continued to change and new surfers in red, blue, yellow and white rashees replaced the previous ones. One guy in a white rashee got a nice waves and raced off and away, and as I turned my head to look back at the sea I heard shouting back down the line, where he'd headed. There was shouting that sounded not like cheering or hooting, but yelling and anger. I asked the guy next to me, 'Is there fighting?" to which he shrugged and answered something like "Probably". I looked back to see what was going on, and could see the white shirted competitor talking at some women who were just paddling out. His words were muffled by the moving wind and water, but I head "woman!" shouted as he paddled back towards the takeoff point. I saw the women talking to each other in the water in a way that seemed to me like checking in and de-briefing. I wasn't sure what had happened, but as they made their way to me I wanted to make sure they were okay too.
There were three women paddling out. "Was that guy yelling at you?" I asked. They nodded. "Did he call you, 'woman'"? He called me 'stupid woman'", one of them replied. She paddled off, but he friend stayed to tell me, "He said she was in his way, but she was nowhere near him!"
I felt my chest contract in the way it does when I see this stuff play out. I looked up at the headland, where the tents and judges for the comp were sat, looking out to sea, wondering if they'd seen and heard this happen? Wondering if they cared?
I kept talking to two of the women for a while, making sure I thought it wasn't okay, that it was sill behaviour to be so rude towards them as they just paddled out, that even if she was in the way, so what, everyone gets in the way from time to time. We chatted for a while and it was nice to be able to support them.
A little while later I paddled for a wave. With the changing tide, they'd become fat in front and harder to paddle onto. But as I pulled through the water, gaining speed, I saw the white rashee guy in front of me, right in the path of where I was paddling. He did nothing, just cruising back through the water. As I floated over the back of the wave, letting it pass, he was almost beside me and I couldn't help myself but say, "Sorry. Was I in your way?" He scowled and carried on paddling out.
After that, I floated down the beach a bit more. I didn't want any part of what was going on, and knew that I'd made myself visible to him by being a smart-arse, which could not bode well.
The waves were coming though more consistently, and more close-out-edly, but it was fun! As I paddled back after one wave, I was next to a young guy on a fish or something, and he commented on how it was closing out along that bit. I laughed and agreed heartily. I also explained why I was surfing, there - to get away from the comp guys. I told him what had happened, how he called someone a "stupid woman".
"Yeah. These guys are like that. They're really local. They surf here every day, so they're really full on about the break."
I suggested to him that it wasn't just here they were so awful, that they might behave like that if they surfed other places, but he shook his head. "Nah. They don't surf anywhere else. They only surf here. Every day." I told him how I knew people who surfed the same place every day in Byron too, and how they found a way to be, if not always welcoming to visitors, to accommodate them. They know the place best so they get more waves anyway. The young man told me that these guys were well known to be pretty horrible and unlikeable. I said they were awful. We'd paddled back over towards the main break, so we parted ways - I stayed on the outside, while he headed to the peaky inside. I couldn't stop thinking about that man being so rude to those women, and when looked back up at the tents, I decided tI would say something to them if I went in. Not to have a go, but to let them know what had happened. I had few expectations of it having any effect, but I've heard that, in the past, members of my own club have been kicked out for horrible behaviour in the surf.
Waves came and went and I got some and missed some and got some and missed some, but I was having fun. I talked again to the women from earlier and told them that I do research about women and surfing and so I get particularly bristly about it when I see it out in the water. They were really nice. Another woman paddled out in a small bikini, and as she paddled past commented on the tone of the crew we were avoiding, and that "Oh well, you've just got to get amongst it anyway". She's right. In a way. But as I suggested the other day, I don't want to play their game by their rules. I don't want to get waves by being complicit in a lineup that carries on traditions of exclusion and aggression. I don't like who it turns me into. If she can avoid that, then great. But I don't want to be part of it.
I stayed wide, and kept talking to the women I'd befriended, but as a wave came I started to paddle. It formed up and I jumped to my feet speeding along to get through a crumbly section, turning back into the pocket, and heading back along the face. I'd not had many waves that formed up this well, but I was also aware that they were running in towards the rocky inside. As the face started to form up again in a way that suggested a close out, I heard a man yelling at me form the inside. He was yelling at me, his face angry, but I didn't know what it was about. I got a fright and changed my thinking, looking differently at the wave and missing the moment I was going to kick off. As the face started to collapse, I lost my board into the white wash, failing to catch it, but managing to grab the legrope and pull it back before it got too far.
I don't know what happened next, but I know he had more of a go at me - that I was scary and that I was going to hit him and that he was worried because I couldn't turn - and I know that I said that was not true and that I wasn't going to hit him and that the behaviour o f him and his mates was awful. And he told me that there was a comp on and I told him that yeah, I surf in comps at Wategoes where there are many, many more people in the water than this, so I know what it's like, but that I wasn't in his way, and he told me that I should just get out of his way and that they only ran the comp once a month and get out the way (again) because they only had six minutes left! And then I told him that their behaviour and attitude was disgusting, yelling at women in the water who weren't even in their way, they were disgusting men. We weren't yelling at each other, but our words were firm and I felt awful and upset and decided I was done, so I started to paddle in.
I paddled across to the beach and went in, but felt embarrassed doing so. Was I so thin-skinned? I was upset, but I wasn't furious.
The thing was, he was yelling at me from the water for being in the wrong place on the wave and not seeing him while I was on the wave, but just a while before, the guy in the white rashee who was on the wave was yelling at women in the water for being int he wrong place. The consistent accusations despite the reversal of positions was hypocritical and lame.
Stupid women. Always, stupid women, in the wrong place, whether on a wave or paddling out.
I rinsed off under a shower, and then walked up the hill towards the comp tents. I put my board in the shade and walked to the men bringing the tents down. I walked over smiling - I had no intention of yelling - and when they saw me coming and turned their backs on me and made it clear they weren't interested. I stood there waiting til they turned. And explained my positioned.
"Hey, look, I'm from Byron and I'm in the mal club down there, and we have monthly comps at Wategoes, so I know what it's like to have a comp in a busy spot and that it's very frustrating, but that I'd see none of the guys yelling at some women and that he'd called them "stupid women" and that that was not okay and beyond what should be deemed acceptable and that I'd just been yelled at by someone too." They replied with "Yeah right", and some mumbling that was a bit dismissive an a lot of exchanged smirks, and none of them fully turned around to look at or acknowledge me. "I just thought, that maybe you could say something to the members about that kind of behaviour? They they can't be yelling at people who have done nothing wrong." Again, I didn't yell, and I was weirdly calm about it all, but it as clear that they didn't care. I looked at them once more before leaving.
"I guess I just won't be surfing here again, which might be a god outcome for you, but I think that's pretty terrible."
I walked down the hill so they could talk about me out of my hearing, and stood the fenceline watching the water and awaiting my friend. The young guy I'd met in the water came up, smiling, and we talked again about the lineup. He nodded at my story of talking to the guys, and assured it that they wouldn't change, but that not everywhere was like that, just here, that these guys had been surfing here a long time and that they felt really entitled to waves here and that everyone around here got the same treatment. He said that as a grom they used to surf the inside and just ignore the guys when they yelled at them. He also told me that there was a council by-law that ruled comps got precedence in lineups, something I should look up and check in on. He also told me that despite my assumption, they actually do run their contest in line with conditions, and that there did seem to have been a number of contest running on weekends. I don't know what to think about that.
"I live just up there," he pointed along the coast to the north, "but I'm down in Byron a but, so maybe I'll see you out in the surf", he smiled as he ran off. I do hope so.
As my friend came and joined me, and we walked to the shower talking about what had happened, the guy who'd had a go at me in the water walked past at a respectful distance. He'd just come in from the water and was dripping wet, walking back to the comp crew. He called out to me, "Sorry about that. I just thought you were going to hit me. Sorry about that." He looked a bit hang-dog about it, and I was sure he was sincere, but I didn't have it in me to say "That's okay!" and smile, the way I knew I was meant to. I could see that he felt pretty bad about it - having someone paddle in because you're rude to them isn't a great feeling - but I didn't feel like it was my job to absolve him at that point. I was still too bummed about it all.
Of course, I know, and as the young men I met in the surf was a smiling reminder of, #notallmen are horrible in the surf, and that #notalllocalsurfers are aggressive. These men are likely lovely to their loved ones, and we've not always our best selves in the surf. I'll never deny this 'not always our best selves' applies to me too, but as I modify this, as I try to do better and better and get less and less frustrated, I find it harder and harder to manage my emotional responses to seeing pointless aggression in the water. Especially by men who've had the most access to waves at any one spot.
I love my home break too, and I hate that my access to waves is now mitigated by hordes of tourists, visitors and newcomers to surfing. But I have to balance this against my politics, which is that I don't get to decide who surfs and who gets waves. If I really believe that, if I really believe that surfing cultures need to change, then I don't get to be pissed off about the way more people can mean fewer waves for me. Instead, if I want to surf busy breaks, even if they're places I've been visiting my whole life, I need to find new ways to negotiate that. I don't own the beach, the surf, the waves, and even if I'd like it if I got certain breaks to myself sometimes, well, bad luck.
The sad thing is that those men at Alex Headland are killing their own club with this kind of behaviour, because no-one new will join and be part of it. Instead, their club, which Luke told me they claim to be one of, if not the, oldest in Australia, will die with them and their exclusionary localism. And that is a bummer.