Huntington Beach's Wahine Kai Women's Surf Club Makes the Waves a Safe Space
"Go! Go! Go! Go!"
For about an hour on an overcast Sunday morning, Cathy Young alternates between catching waves and shouting encouragement at her fellow Wahine Kai Women's Surf Club members. The action is pretty choppy right now, but even from hundreds of feet out, Young's powerful voice and booming laughter echo all the way to the shores of Bolsa Chica State Beach.
"You got it! You got it! You got it!"
The dozen or so ladies present look as if they're having more fun than the rest of the surfers, guys idling around and cursing the boring conditions that morning. The Wahine Kais are busy chatting about life, surfing and everything in between while they encourage one another to catch what few waves there are. And there are just as many members, from groms to vets, hanging out on the beachfront with varying sizes of surfboards, either gearing up for or winding down from a morning's worth of waves. It's not only a surfing session, but also a relaxation and social hour.
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Since its start in 2004, Wahine Kai—which loosely translates to "Women of the Sea" in Hawaiian—has been one of the biggest nonprofit organizations in women's surfing. Rich, working-class, young, grandmotherly, tall, short—the more than 130 members go on surfing trips together across the world and enjoy nights out on the town, but they also assist with programs such as Waves of Valor, which helps patients from the VA hospital in Long Beach get back into the water and surfing. And while it's rare if more than a few dozen Wahine Kai members gather on a beach at any given time, that's the whole point: The organization is a safe space for women to surf with one another and participate in a sport notorious for treating females as little better than something to fill a bikini or cook for the guys.
"In 1980, I started to surf, and I didn't see hardly any women in the water," Young says. "In high school, I had friends who told me, 'You know, the guys would like you better if you didn't surf'—but then it meant they didn't like me."
A native of Florida, Young says she always knew she wanted to check out the West Coast. "Moving to California was part of my destiny," Young says. "When I was a little kid, I told my mom that I was going to move to Southern California. When I was in high school, I wrote in my yearbook that in five years, I was going to be an artist living in Southern California, and in 10 years, I was going to be a famous artist living on the beach in Southern California.
Now 53, Young serves as the electrifying spearhead for the Huntington Beach-based chapter of Wahine Kai and the president of Wahine Kai International. Filled with energy, personality and a passion for outdoor activity, she shreds well enough to show up any of the twentysomethings in the water up and down the coast.
Though Young spends as much time in the ocean as she can, she has a full schedule away from the beach, too, with a career in the computer world (she earned a management-information systems degree from University of South Florida) and as the mom of two boys. "I joined the club after I had my kids," Young says. "I think it was, like, '05, and then I took over a couple of years later when we had, like, 40 people. Now we have 132, and each one of them has her various reasons to be in the club, but the big reason is just to have somebody to be out here with. It's so we're not out there by ourselves."
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Gearing up for a morning session
For much of the first few millennia of surfing's documented existence, sexism wasn't even a thought in the sport. According to legend, the Polynesian men and women of roughly 3,000 years ago realized it was way easier to ride waves back to shore after a long day of fishing than trying to swim through them. Over the next several hundred years, as travelers brought surfing to the islands of Hawaii, the artistic expression of riding waves and "becoming one with the liquid" evolved to feature more aerodynamic boards, which more skilled people would stand on. Everyone from kings and queens to kids and fishers partook in the tradition, pursuing larger waves—eventually making a challenge out of who could catch the biggest wave.
By the time Captain James Cook stumbled upon the islands toward the end of the 18th century, Polynesians throughout the Pacific were already masterful in their surfing prowess. It was the first time European Christianity had been introduced to the culture and the sport. "When the Christian settlers tried to colonize [the Polynesian] area, that's when they started poohpoohing women surfing," Young says. "In Hawaii, there was a female queen who had her own break just for herself, and people used to surf naked back then. Then when the Christians came along, they banned it. They banned all of the cultural stuff in that part of the world, and they didn't want the females surfing."
Young: Wahine Kai's leader
But such perceptions have changed. While the Gidget series brought the image of a girl on a surfboard into pop culture in the late 1950 and '60s, it wasn't until 1992, when Quiksilver debuted its Roxy brand and began sponsoring female surfers, that it gained wider popularity. (That said, the company's current Wikipedia entry points out that its "advertising tends to feature young women in bikinis instead of engaged in meaningful action-sports activities.") Even more headway was made with the 2002 film Blue Crush, which depicted female surfers as more than mere beach bunnies.
Even so, women continue to make up less than 20 percent of the surfing population, with the highest concentrations on the other side of the globe in Australia and New Zealand. In the United States, however, it remains a bro's club of snide remarks and outright misogyny: This year, during the World Surf League's XXL Big Waves awards ceremony in Anaheim, surf legend Greg "Da Bull" Noll drew hoots and hollers when he cracked a joke about cunnilingus—this, after a slew of women's champions explicitly talked about the challenges they've overcome in the sport.
"I grew up surfing in Maine and was the only woman in the water, and it was incredibly intimidating," says Wahine Kai founder Aimee Vlachos. "This was before you could walk into a surf shop and sign up for a camp or lesson. I was teaching myself, and it took two months for me to stand up on a board. The local surf-shop owner wouldn't help me pick out a board. He simply said, 'Girls don't surf'—and this was before there were women's wetsuits."
Vlachos figured Surf City, USA, would be more welcoming when she moved there in 2003. "I went out surfing [in Huntington Beach] and still felt intimidated by the men," she recalls. "I took a surf lesson from a man in Newport, and he yelled at me the entire time. I realized that it was still not the most supportive environment for women surfers."
Undeterred, Vlachos began working at HB Wahine, a surf shop dedicated to women. While there, the young surfer heard story after story from women who were experiencing the same prejudice; there was no support system or community available for female surfers. When she asked her boss for support, he deemed the new organization "wasn't conducive to his business," Vlachos claims.
So the club started meeting at her house in October 2004. "I wanted to create something so that women could come together," Vlachos says, "a network of surfers who supported each other in and out of the water."
Only a dozen women showed up to the first Wahine Kai meet-up. They rode some choppy waves for the evening and ate some local Mexican food—an inauspicious debut to what would become one of the largest women's surfing clubs in the world. Within its first year, Wahine Kai had already shown up on USA Network during a showing of Blue Crush, on Food Network's BBQ With Bobby Flay, and within the pages of Huntington Beach-based surfing website Surfline, where Vlachos had originally posted an ad asking other local women if they'd be interested in forming a surfing club.
When Vlachos moved back to Maine in 2006, Niki McDevitt—one of the women present at the inaugural Wahine Kai surf session—took over the leading role for the club's California chapter; Vlachos meanwhile founded an East Coast chapter out of Kennebunkport. A year later, McDevitt put the group into Young's hands, and it has since grown into an internationally recognized organization, with Vlachos as the executive director of Wahine Kai International.
Unlike many exclusive surf clubs, which have private clubhouses and brag about bogarting beaches as much as possible, Wahine Kai invites any woman interested in catching waves to join, regardless of age or experience. With an initial membership fee of $30 and a $15 annual renewal cost, most anyone who can afford a surfboard can foot the bill.
One of the nonprofit's main efforts is to make the surfing community a better, friendlier place for everyone. "I've never been a part of anything like Wahine Kai before," says Ohio native Karie Toporowski. "Everyone is always so welcoming and friendly. There's never any drama."
That friendliness extends beyond its own membership. A few weeks ago, Kimberly Roberts—co-editor of the Wahine Kai newsletter—was in the midst of her surfing session off the coast of Newport Beach when she noticed something big floating in the water not far from her location. After a moment, she realized it was the unconscious body of a fellow surfer—a man who would surely drown without someone there to save the day. Roberts dragged the man to shore.
Waiting for a wave
The Wahine Kai members, many of whom have taken surfing safety courses, are all fairly certain the guy survived—the unanimous belief is "We would've seen it in the news if he died!" But they also became concerned for Roberts' mental and emotional well-being after the potentially traumatic experience. "These girls were just an amazing support system," Roberts says. "One of them was with me in the water when it happened, but every day for the next week, I was getting text messages, Facebook messages and phone calls asking if I'm okay and how I'm doing, even though I was fine. Just them knowing how traumatic it could've been, it was amazing to have that support system of other women of all different ages to constantly be checking in on me was awesome."
The brush with death also served as a reminder for Wahine Kais to keep their basic medical information on them at all times. As with most surfers, the unconscious man didn't bring his wallet or ID with him into the ocean, so no one at the scene knew who to call other than the paramedics. To combat that, Young encourages club members to wear special waterproof bracelets with at least their name and an emergency contact on them. It's advice that many of the women follow and that Wahine Kai wants to see implemented on a bigger level. "The girls started getting these bracelets after we saw them online," Young says. "We try not to surf by ourselves, but sometimes you paddle out, and you can't find anyone. If you don't know somebody out there, nobody will know who you are unless you have one of these bracelets on."
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After a decade of steady growth, Wahine Kai is more about the intangible network and sense of community than the actual number of members in any given chapter. Although the Coalition of Surfing Clubs represents about 50 of the most prominent clubs around the world, only a few of them—including San Diego Surf Ladies and Women of the Water—are exclusively for women. Wahine Kai doesn't belong to the coalition because it doesn't seem necessary, as it doesn't enter competitions. The group is more concerned with teaching newbies how to surf and enjoying one another's company.
With everyone maintaining their own busy schedules, it can be daunting to find something that works with the ever-expanding calendar posted in Wahine Kai's private Facebook group; many end up surfing on their own or in small groups outside of the major sessions, which the club tries to host about once a week. Laura Klees, the activities director for Wahine Kai, spends much of her time traveling while she rents out her home to vacationers. Angel Yap uses surfing with her Wahine Kai sisters to get away from the stress of working as a doctor.
"I have three kids, so I'm usually out here at 6 in the morning and home by 8, so my husband can go to work and I can take care of the kids," says Pam Knoll, a Wahine Kai member for three years. "I just love being in the water. There's something calming and de-stressing about it. You don't think about anything else."
Hanna Kubiak works in a field that's literally out of this world. "I work for Virgin Galactic on the LauncherOne program, so I sell rides to space," Kubiak says. "It's my dream job, and I just moved here to California for it. Meeting this group of women has really been phenomenal because they're just cool surfer chicks and everyone loves getting out in the water. It can be a little intimidating if it's a bunch of guys out there, so having familiar faces around you is great."
For those who have kids and can't necessarily schedule their surfing around naptime, Wahine Kai has Surf Mamas, a branch of the club with active groups in Huntington Beach, San Diego, South Bay and beyond that allows mothers to trade surfing time with beachside babysitting. The women also make time to hang out together, whether it's at the beach, over a few drinks or at a charity event.
"I was just looking for people to paddle out and surf with, but I found a family," says Toporowski. "Everybody's super-supportive, and we do a lot of social activities in and out of the water. . . . I was never in a sorority in college, but I think this is the closest I'm going to get to that."
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Holly Beck looks out at the ocean as her almost-2-year-old daughter Luna digs in the sand. The pro surfer and model doesn't get into the water quite as often as she used to; her focus has shifted to her family, building ecofriendly sustainable habitats in Nicaragua, and generally making the world a better place.
With the impending birth of her second child, Beck only spends about 30 minutes in the water with her Wahine Kai crew. "I just think [Wahine Kai] is really cool," Beck says. "I learned to surf in the late '90s, and back then, there were hardly any girls surfing. My mom told me that surfing was for boys, and it was definitely something that intimidated me to go out into the water as the only girl. I just think it's the coolest thing ever to have these women's surf clubs popping up."
The Palos Verdes native has seen how the competitive scene has grown for women over the years. Some of surfing's biggest governing bodies, such as the World Surf League and English Surfing Federation, are becoming athletic trendsetters by offering more parity in prize money for male and female divisions. With one of sport's biggest events—the U.S. Open of Surfing—beginning Monday in Huntington Beach, Beck believes women's surfing is at an all-time high.
"It's great to see the high level of surfing [at the U.S. Open]," Beck says. "I know the past few years, the level of competition here has been very high, which is a little different than when I was competing in it. I think it's inspiring for girls of all ages to come down and see the very best girls in the world surf the waves that they surf on a daily basis."
While Beck won't be competing in the event, Santa Ana's Courtney Conlogue will. The 23-year-old just starred in ESPN the Magazine's Body Issue, and she's currently among the favorites to win the U.S Open. Though she previously won the women's division in 2009, she's looking to cement her dominance over the field with another win this year, her best professional year to date.
But this morning belongs to Beck. Just moments after paddling out to meet her friends, a small swell rolls in, and the 30-weeks'-pregnant Beck catches her first wave of the day. Most of the other surfers watch her shoot off to the left, away from the pack. While many are struggling to catch anything that morning, Beck makes cruising halfway down the beach look effortless—something to be shared with the future surfer inside Beck.