It was a scene reminiscent of "Endless Summer": A beat-up Mitsubishi, with state-of-the-art surfboards strapped to its roof, cruising down the highway along the California coast. But the driver, sporting dark wraparound sunglasses and flip-flops, is not a bronzed, bare-chested surfer dude but rather a fun-loving mom in her 30s.
When Nancy Steele's eyes aren't fixed on the road ahead, they are scanning the shoreline to her right. She's not looking for the perfect waves, just swells big enough to test a surfing novice, another mom, visiting from New England.
Originally from Virginia, Nancy Steele is a runner, a former gymnast, and a stay-at-home mother with a 4-year-old son. When she moved to Santa Barbara eight years ago and married a fellow East Coaster, the concept of riding waves was as foreign to her as a California smoothie. But after her husband, Peck, gave her a surfboard for her 30th birthday confident that her grace, athleticism, and can-do spirit would be a perfect fit she knew she had to give it a try.
Now, at least twice a week, Ms. Steele drops off her son, Johno, at preschool, meets up with other surfing moms, and heads south from Santa Barbara toward Ventura. A few of their favorite surf spots include Eucalyptus Lane, C Street, and Rincon Beach, made legendary by the Beach Boys.
These 30- and 40-something moms can't imagine a week without surfing. It's a precious time, they say, to let go of adult responsibilities, wonder at the beauty of the natural world, test their physical limits, connect with kindred spirits, and feel like kids again. Overall, it's a great break from what they jokingly call the life of a "robo mom."
Even five years ago, Steele and her friends would have stood out like dolphins swimming among sharks. But in the past few years, the sight of women on waves, especially in waters off the California coast, has become as common as scuba divers off Cozumel.
"Surfing for women has exploded," says Paul West, president of the United States Surfing Federation.
In 1996, only 10 percent of the surfing population was female, according to Board-Trac, a social research firm in southern California. By 2001, that number had doubled. Today, of the 2.4 million surfers in the US, 484,000 are female. And by all accounts, many of these are women in their 30s, 40s, and 50s trying the sport for the first time.
Surfing classes are frequently geared to this set, including those at Surf Diva in La Jolla, Calif., the first surfing school for women. Surfing competitions are drawing women over 30 in record numbers. And as of last month, this age group even got its own magazine: Surf Life for Women.
The trend has also spurred changes in clothing and gear. Outfitters such as Quicksilver, Billabong, and Rusty have introduced women's clothing lines; wet-suit manufacturers have begun tailoring suits to women; and surfboard makers are adding soft foam cushion to the board's deck.
There's even a film about female surfers coming out next month. "Blue Crush" was filmed in Hawaii and features teenage girls, who are following close behind their older counterparts in the sport's shifting tide.
Gone are the days when women of any age sat on the beach in a bikini and gazed at their guys, says Anne Beasley, editor of Surf Life for Women.
But then, passivity isn't a word much associated with women and sports in general these days. Twenty-five years ago, Title IX helped kick off a revolution, opening doors to female athletes of all kinds. Since then, they have shattered gender barriers and earned respect in arenas from the soccer field to the hockey rink. They've even proven to be contenders in wrestling and boxing circles. It makes sense that surfing would be a part of this revolution, says Allyce Najimy, chief operating officer of the Center of Study for Sports in Society in Boston.
Surfing, many agree, is one of female athletes' last frontiers. Sure, Kathy Kohner, better known as her big-screen character "Gidget," was surfing with the guys nearly five decades ago.But the rest of the girls back then were mere accessories on the beach.
Ms. Beasley is ecstatic that those days are over. Women on both coasts, she has observed, have begun to "rip and rule a peak."
Each year she organizes the Wahine Championships, a surfing competition for women held in Wilmington, N.C. In 1997, 76 women competed. Last year, 250 signed up; most were in the 35 to 50 age range a group that has been officially named the "goddess division."
Thanks to such talents as Australian surfer Layne Beachley, world champion for the past four years, many women who surf recreationally have considered wetting their feet in the competitive world. "She has inspired women to get more aggressive," says Kathy Phillips, executive director of the Easter Surfing Association.
For plenty of other surfers, however, Steele among them, surfing is a community sport more than a competitive one. These women surf together and teach each other, giving the sport a more collaborative feel than it has had in the past, when some guys thought they "owned" a wave in more ways than one.
"The whole vibe has changed," says Steele. "People are less territorial, more friendly, and generally supportive of newcomers."
For the most part, she says, men welcome women into the "lineup," but sometimes only after they prove that they can rip on waves. Until then, women often work hard to gain approval and avoid being "dropped in on," or cut off.
Mingling can help. When she started surfing two years ago, Ilene Hancey, a friend of Steele's, would paddle over and introduce herself to nearby surfers. This helped relieve tension, she says.
Juggling several responsibilities that of wife, mother, and the owner of a thriving real estate business Ms. Hancey felt cheated of time for herself. While vacationing in Hawaii, she observed a surfing class for women, and knew then that she'd found a way to nurture her soul, to bring more balance into her life, and to experience the joy of getting out on the water.
Hancey was further inspired by the video "Surfing for Life," which is about older surfers, and an article that appeared in Longboard magazine about Eve Fletcher, a 70-year-old woman who has been surfing for 40 years.
Surfing encompasses so many emotions, she says. "It's fun, scary, and spiritual all at once." When she's out on the water, "it's the only time," she adds, "when I'm not a wife, a mom, or a business owner. I'm just Ilene surfing."
Earlier this month, she gave birth to her second child. So it's been almost a year since she's surfed. But she has set a goal of Sept. 1 to don a wet suit once again.
Ms. Hancey insists that surfing makes her a better person. "I feel better physically and mentally, I can tackle more, and I have more energy." Her husband, who doesn't surf, is all for it. "He sees the smile it puts on my face."
Hancey's older son, Austin, is 5, and Steele's just turned 4. But both boys boogie board in "knee slappers," or small waves. And their moms are looking forward to the time when they can all surf together.
Their friend Fran Lantz, on the other hand, has given up hope that her son, Preston, who is 9, will become interested in surfing.
At first, Ms. Lantz couldn't conceive of a child not wanting to surf. It was her dream when growing up in Pennsylvania. Not until she was 36 and living in California, however, did she go after that dream. A fellow mom had given her a nudge a year before when she threw her a surfing birthday party with a group of women and well-known Santa Barbara instructor Davey Smith.
"I got up on the board right away," she recalls. "I was secretly so proud of myself." Afterward, she enrolled in Mr. Smith's six-week class for moms. Even for natural athletes like Lantz, mastering the sport can take a couple of years. Not only does it require balance, strength, and stamina, but one also has to learn how to read waves, currents, and weather conditions.
The resurgence of the easier-to-master long board, Smith says, has had an impact on growing interest among women. Hugely popular in the 1960s but later replaced by short boards, it has made a comeback in recent years. Surfing is also a relatively inexpensive sport, Smith adds. One can find a quality board for $400 and a wet suit for $200. Both should last for a few years.
Smith especially enjoys teaching moms because they are so enthusiastic. Surfing demands total concentration,and they relish this enforced break from the minutiae of daily life.
Or, as Steele puts it: "Having a family to take care of, you can easily become consumed by duty, duty, duty. But when you can let go of all that by getting out on the water, sometimes with dolphins popping out of nearby waves, you get so in touch with your spirit."
For Steele and her friends, surfing isn't about huge waves and an adrenaline rush. Sure, it's a thrill to ride the crest of a big wave, and to her husband's delight, she does it effortlessly.But the zen of surfing for these moms is in letting go.
"Sometimes I go out when the waves are teeny-tiny," says Steele, "just so I can just paddle around and relax."
In southern California, where surfing is as much a part of the lifestyle as driving cool cars, surf classes include lessons on lingo as well as on form and technique. That way, when someone "snakes" a wave on you, your board gets "caddied" by another surfer, or you find yourself getting "tubed," you'll be able to talk the talk. This list of terms was provided by Surf Diva school for women in La Jolla, Calif.
Hanging 10: Placing all 10 toes over the nose (tip) of the board while balancing over the most critical part of the wave.
Tubed/barreled: Getting so deep inside a wave that the top portion tunnels over you as you shoot through the curl.
Pearling: Nosediving down the front of the wave, as if heading for the bottom of the ocean. Hence, "looking for pearls."
Riding the face: Gliding along parallel to the beach on the smooth, unbroken surface of the wave.
Caddy a board: To retrieve another surfer's wayward board.
Tailgating: Paddling out directly behind another surfer.
Snaking a wave: Cutting in front of another surfer who nabbed the wave you want.
Tea parties: When you are doing more talking than surfing.