Saving Grace

Rob Gilley on the beauty of sharing the lineup with the fairer sex

| posted on October 03, 2012

More women in lineups could change the makeup of the entire surf industry.

Rob Gilley

Previously in denial about his photographic past, Rob Gilley now rummages through his trove of mediocrity.

Historically speaking, I think it’s a pretty open-and-shut case that Bethany Hamilton is the most inspirational surfer of the new millennium. What the indomitable Ms. Hamilton has been able to do in the wake of losing her arm is nothing short of heroic. That Bethany has been able to teach herself to paddle-out, duck-dive, surf, and compete on a world-class level without the use of an arm is nothing short of chicken-skin inducing. Mind-boggling. Tear welling.

Her feat is so great, in fact, that you could also argue by extension that Bethany Hamilton is the most influential surfer of the millennium. The mainstream coverage of her heroism and the popularity of Soul Surfer helped catalyze a palpable gender shift that is sending more and more young girls over a metaphoric and literal ledge. Lineups, more than ever, are becoming increasingly populated with the fairer sex.

And I, for one, welcome this shift with enthusiasm.

For years and years lineups have been the near-exclusive territory of males, and it’s always the same story: when a set of quality waves appear, alpha males bark, the pack gnash their teeth and the rest scramble for the carcass. A testosterone-filled petulance fills the air. Civility and graciousness fly out the window.

Introduce a female into the equation, however, and things can change in a hurry. Dominant males suddenly pause, and the pack, out of nowhere, becomes more polite. If you watch carefully, you can literally see some guys sit up on their boards and tilt their heads like a vapid Scooby-Doo, not quite sure what to think.

I’ve even noticed this at my local spot which is far from being a snake pit, but where the subtle rules of the male food chain still apply: We stake out our territory, eyeball our brethren with suspicion, streak for the horizon with the hope of arriving first at our prey, and then claim our property with a shout (it’s pretty weird now that I think about it). When a female paddles out, though, some of these guys suddenly become magnanimous gentlemen (“Please go ahead, I insist…No, no, I wouldn’t dream of it…It’s your turn…Be my guest…”).

And this courteousness is especially visible if the female happens to be our “local” striking Brazilian bodyboarder.

Most women and girls bring something more than beauty and a sociological/psychological shift to a lineup, however. They bring understanding. They bring grace. They bring joy.

To a pack of posturing men they bring the rarest commodity of all: they bring smiles.

More than anything else, women seem to understand how great surfing is—what an incredible gift it is—and you can see it on their faces when they paddle out. You can hear it their speech, and you can see it in their camaraderie with each other. You could make a strong argument that more than men, women surfers seem to get it.

This recognition of the essence of surfing may lead to a more lucrative future for the entire surf industry as well. As large fashion and beauty product corporations inevitably sniff around the edges of the evergreen coolness and increased female attraction to the surfing lifestyle, it’s just a matter of time before some of them dive in headfirst. And just one of these woman-oriented fashion juggernauts has the ad dollars and sponsorship funds and marketing budgets to saturate the entire surf world like a hundred-year Kauaian rainstorm.

This potential capital downpour would be laced with irony because there are currently male surfers who grumble about some of the sponsorship salaries garnered by the top women pros, and the notion that women may hold the golden ticket after all would be, in more ways than one, poetic justice.

So the next time you paddle out when the surf is firing, I want you to think about trying to tackle the conditions without the use of one of your arms, and recognize the incredible accomplishments of Bethany Hamilton.

And if a girl happens to paddle out, I want you to think long and hard before you snake the living daylights out of her.


    Aloha Rob, this article & general observation is way C()()L!! Women’s Surfing has created new, outstanding performance levels of this great sport/activity!! Some of the World Tour heats I’ve seen in recent years have progressively raised the bar of high performance! I clearly remember being on the Nth Shore many years ago, & even then, a certain World title holder being ‘coached’ by another young female charger to conquer OTW, a gutsy wave. I was pretty impressed by this & realised then, that women’s Surfing had hit technical highs! Great work Rob Mahalo to all female surfers, from the Japanese girls in my street who surf Burleigh point, to all the World Pro tour chargers! Bethany Hamilton must be the most inspirational SURFER. Legend status!

  • Nancy Spooner Bsharah

    THAT is an awesome article. I obviously do not know what an all-male line up is like, but I do know that I am almost always impressed with the manners of the men I meet on the water. Even on those breaks where it is supposed to be very territorial, I have always felt welcomed. Thanks guys!

  • bob

    Wonderful article, and thank you for reminding us of the miracle that Bethany Hamilton is. With one wave of her hand she has woken the soul of us all as she surely is the noble queen of the world of surfing. But she is much more than that.

  • Kooks McGee

    I have never seen this, alpha’s still snap at lesser males, girls get burned more and constantly back paddled more than guys. But girls do break the ice easier, but very few change anything in a line up. Lest we forget it was a woman who brought us out of the garden of eden and the second coming of Eve was named Gidget.

  • Caitie Hartman

    Great piece, Rob! Thoroughly enjoyed this. It’s comforting to know that the rising, varied populations of surfers are now being acknowledged, and even better, they are acknowledged in an ‘aloha’, positive fashion. Kudos to the women who are reinventing different aspects of the tradition, and kudos to you for your gift.

  • Windy WInd

    I have great appreciation for your article, Rob. Thank you! Women have had a tough time over the years maintaining our spot in the line ups. More recently, I have felt more welcome in line ups which is great. Thankfully, women’s wetsuits have improved and become more fashionable and functioning so that we can surf just as good as the men. I love surfing around men because it challenges me to charge harder. Thank you for this.

  • shea

    Women deserve more waves than men. From what I’ve seen the majority of them are surfing for all the right reasons and are truly humbled by and humbled in the line ups around the world. One nice girl can paddle out and everyone starts smiling again. Smile when you surf, it makes the experience more rewarding

  • p. claire

    glad to see that you are seeing what we, as women, have already figured out. hopefully, our vibe will spread through the line-up and break down the testosterone level.

  • wretched writer for dollars

    Askew and twisted to sell more articles and keep a job(as well as gaining more approval and likeness from the opposite sex).
    Women have more entitlement issues in the water because of articles like this than the worst local that befriends them and makes the girl think she is insta-local.
    Please stop with the nonsense like this. Remind EVERYONE including women that regardless if you got a penis or not your hierarchy doesnt change. You dont get to the front of the line at DMV cause you got tits and no one SHOULD smile longer or wider at you because you do. This article represents Reverse Sexism at its worse. The over 40 womens NOVICE surfer movement are the biggest violators. They bully young males harder than anyone all the while grossly encouraging young girls to snake and hassle. Rob stop ignoring the facts. Bliss will never overcome reality except on paper…

  • WYSK

    Great piece Rob!

    Would love for you and your readers to check out our interview with Easkey Britton, Ireland’s top female surfer, who just became THE FIRST WOMAN TO SURF IN IRAN.

    More than making history, Easkey is using her love of surfing to bring hope and inspiration to women and girls worlds apart. That is quite a gift.

  • s4p

    meh… it depends on where you are… and who they are. I know some great women and some not so great so just like the bros, I take em on an individual basis. There are a few women claimers at my home break who think they know the right guys and flash stink eye to people they don’t even know. And of course they get schooled as the very same (local) guys they try to diss take off deeper and catch more waves than they (and their so called crew) ever could.