When Captain Cook wrote the first European account of Hawaii in 1778, he noted seeing a chiefess who “paddled her board through heavy surf to catch and ride the rolling waves,” before observing that women were just as ready as men “to place themselves on the summit of the largest surge.” If surfing started out with faultless feminist credentials — the ancient Maui Princess Kelea was said to be the greatest surfer on the islands — things got a little muddier when surf culture took off in the 20th century. Despite trailblazers like Linda Benson — the first woman to surf Waimea Bay, Hawaii’s legendary big wave spot, in 1959 — women were often meant to sit on the beach while the men chased monster waves and formed surfer gangs à la Point Break.
Thankfully, things are changing, and nowhere is that more apparent than in Australia, where a third of the country’s two million surfers are women (compared with 15 percent in the U.S.), and where women’s surfing has not only spawned an independent industry but also a unique culture — of salty-haired freedom, careless femininity and a visual language that’s more arthouse than extreme.
Few have captured this ethos better than 24-year-old Australian photographer Cait Miers, who grew up surfing off Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, south of Melbourne. Her latest book, Washed Elegance, captures the dreamy vibe of days spent riding the ocean. “On a wave you are just in the moment,” she says. “It’s like meditating. Your mind is blank, and there’s a sense of freedom.” According to Liz Davison, editor-in-chief of Sunshine Surf Girls, Australia’s only surfing magazine for women, surfing fits into the vogue for yoga and mindfulness, even as more young female surfers are gaining monster social media followings. “It’s outdoors, it gets you active and interacting with others, and it’s great for your mental health,” she says. “For the vast majority of women — those who aren’t competitive surfers — surfing is as much about the lifestyle as it is about the act of surfing itself.”
Things weren’t always so sweet. Australia’s pioneering female surfer, Isabel Letham, born in Sydney in 1899, was denied membership to the Manly Surf Life Saving Club because of her gender. When she died in 1995, such discriminatory rules no longer existed. And yet the underlying idea that surfing is a pursuit for men endured. “When I grew up, it was very male-driven, and the whole board-rider experience was masculine and almost aggressive,” says Jon Laurenson, publisher of Australian travel and lifestyle magazine The Summersite, which has a particularly sun-kissed take on surf culture. Women, he adds, “weren’t encouraged — it was more, ‘Come to the beach and look good.’” Those who did surf were dubbed “butch.”
But women have, over the decades, made the sport their own. Byron Bay, a hippie haven a few hours south of Brisbane, famous for its warm waters and relaxed outlook, has become “the epicenter of a new Aussie surf girl culture,” says Laurenson. If you want to find the modern Aussie surfer girl, you’ll find her here, where Laurenson says “the women in the water outnumber the guys.”
“There’s definitely been an increase,” agrees Louise Searle, editor of the U.K.-based SurfGirl magazine. “There are more surf schools, surf camps and tailored surf holidays geared towards girls.” For Miers, tapping into the aesthetics of surfing is about “embracing my feminine side and being proud of being a woman.” Washed Elegance, she says, “is about femininity in the water.”
If the new surf culture is as much about soulfulness as it is catching barrels, it doesn’t hurt that Aussie women are leading the way in competitive surfing. The growing clout of pro female surfers — such as Stephanie Gilmore, six-time world champion, and Tyler Wright, this year’s champion — has raised the profile of the sport. And while prize money for women still lags behind, there has been a dramatic rise in sponsorship deals for female surfers.
There has also been a boom in boutique-y female surf fashion, from board shorts to funky wetsuits. For Miers, this is particularly noticeable. As a teenage surfer, she was often called a tomboy. Now, though, “it’s becoming more and more acceptable for girls just to go out and surf well — and guys respect that.”
Undeniably, there is still an aspect to it all that’s about looking good — take Australian pro Ellie-Jean Coffey , who has 600,000 Instagram followers, and ranked sixth on a Playboy list of Hottest Surfer Babes on Instagram in 2015 — but for the true surfer girl, it’s about feeling good first, and looking good a distant second.
“When you’re surfing you can escape the stresses on land because you have to be present,” says Davison. “We’re all just on the lookout for that perfect wave.”