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Real Women Have Curls

Times Staff Writer

On a recent day when the swell was down, when the bigger and more powerful spots weren’t breaking, Strider Wasilewski strolled over to a fun little break called Pupukea, paddled out and enjoyed a surf session unlike any he had experienced.

“I got all-out Blue Crushed,” he said. “There were 30 girls in the water and they were calling me off waves. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, what am I going to do?’ ”

Wasilewski was referring to the recent Hollywood movie about a group of tough but sexy surfer girls living in a North Shore shack, conquering Hawaii’s world-famous Banzai Pipeline -- and their fears -- by dawn, working as hotel maids by day and partying by night.

The movie, which glamorized women’s surfing before mainstream audiences, appears to have had a tremendous impact on the beaches here, some of which suddenly have become overrun by women and even girls, who no longer seem as intimidated as they were. Including some, perhaps, who might be getting in over their heads.

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“More and more girls are starting to learn to surf, and it’s just taking some time for those girls to progress, but I do think ‘Blue Crush’ has made a difference in Hawaii,” said Holly Beck, 22, a burgeoning pro from Palos Verdes. “Last year there were very few girls who surfed Pipeline, like two or three, and now all of a sudden there are tons of them. People saw that movie and realized it’s possible, and now they’re going out in packs. Not when it’s big, but at least they’re taking a step in that direction.”

Beck was exaggerating somewhat. Pipeline is one of the most difficult and dangerous waves in the world and catching the better waves is a fiercely competitive game dominated by the more seasoned male surfers. But there are more women attempting Pipeline -- which has some of the regulars concerned -- and women are paddling out in packs at other breaks. And this in itself is a phenomenon.

“There’s a camaraderie in women’s surfing where they get a lot of enjoyment out of being in groups,” said Layne Beachley, 29, a five-time world champion from Australia. “They draw a lot of energy from each other so you’ll notice, when the girls are in the water, it feels like such high energy ... and they’re always laughing and giggling.

“We’re not testosterone-filled, we’re estrogen-filled. When you’re full of testosterone you’re full of tension and power and you’re always trying to override what’s going on, whereas estrogen fills you with calmness and you just go with the flow.”

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What all this means, of course, is that surfing has changed forever. With the change in scenery comes a vastly different dynamic, which may require time to get used to it.

“It’s bizarre because when I was a kid it just didn’t happen,” says Kelly Slater, 30, surfing’s living legend from Cocoa Beach, Fla. “Now it’s like every little girl has a longboard or a short board and sponsors and all the Roxy gear. But that’s good. I’d rather have girls in the water than guys.”

How much has the sport grown?

Of the estimated 2 million surfers in the United States, about 15% are women, according the Surf Industry Manufacturers Assn.'s most recent figures. Although official statistics are not available for decades past, when Slater was a kid, the percentage was much lower, probably in single digits.

Other countries with a surfing heritage are experiencing a similar phenomenon. A testament to the growth is the sale of girls’ and women’s surfing-related clothing and apparel. Sales have been increasing steadily for the last several years. Roxy, the leading brand, this year experienced a 20% jump worth about $40 million. The Huntington Beach-based company, which operates under the umbrella of industry giant Quiksilver, was launched in 1991. Sales that year were $1.1 million.

Roxy has been at the forefront since its beginning. In 1994 it signed a sponsorship deal with Lisa Andersen and things really took off. Andersen, 33, one of the world’s best female surfers, did more for the sport than any other individual -- and certainly more than any movie.

Following a legacy of women’s surfers that stretched from decades before, Andersen took the sport by storm beginning in the late 1980s, having moved from Florida to Huntington Beach, intent on winning a world title. She quickly rose through the ranks and ultimately reeled off four consecutive world championships, from 1994 to ’97.

She was different from other women in that she possessed the same competitive zeal and athleticism the top male surfers possessed. Yet, out of the water, the way she looked and carried herself showed it was OK to surf and still be a girl.

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Those she inspired can be found on every North Shore beach. Beck is among them. She started surfing at 15, as a member of the Palos Verdes Peninsula High School team -- without the blessing of her mother.

“My mom did not want me to be a surfer,” said Beck, 22, who surfs for Ocean Pacific. “She’s really old-fashioned. She was homecoming queen and head cheerleader and she thinks that surfing is for boys and that a girl’s place is on the beach in a bikini looking cute for the surfer boys, not out with the boys competing with them.”

Today, Beck is among those changing that thinking. A reigning amateur national champion, she postponed her surfing career to earn a degree in psychology -- in three years -- at UC San Diego. She turned pro at 20 and has been slowly moving up in the Assn. of Surfing Professionals’ World Qualifying Series tour with an ambition of landing a spot on the elite World Championship Tour.

“Now, not only is it acceptable, but it’s cool,” she added.

Women, indeed, have become an integral part of Hawaii’s North Shore winters, when the industry digs in to showcase and inspect talent, to produce ad campaigns to carry them through the year. All the surfwear companies with women’s lines bring their athletes, some of whom make better models than surfers.

Roxy maintains the most visible presence, having leased a sprawling yellow house on the beach at Sunset Point, overlooking surf spots Freddy’s and Velzyland. The women, who range in age from 18 to 24, live a dream lifestyle, surfing when the swell is up and going on photo shoots when it’s down. They’re given vintage beach-cruiser bicycles on which to get around. Most sleep upstairs in the “Barbie room,” which is painted pink and stacked with bunk beds.

“They get to style us out and then we just go do what we do. It’s cool how it works,” said Kassia Meador, 20, of Westlake Village.

These are the people selling the sport to future generations and “bringing a happy energy to the water,” Meador said.

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As for “Blue Crush,” its impact is seen as both positive and negative.

Wasilewski, captain of Quiksilver’s team of riders, is among those who blame the movie for sending too many inexperienced female surfers into the Pipeline lineup.

“It’s happened to me already,” he said. “I’ve been out there surfing and some girl has dropped in and landed right on me, and I was wearing a helmet that day for the first time ever -- and it cracked the helmet. That would have been my head. You can’t just paddle out to Pipeline.

“It took me 15 years just to go out there and sit at the peak [with the seasoned veterans]. And now they think they’re going to go out there and catch anything they want? I’ve seen them out there and they can’t even paddle. The lifeguards have to go pull them out of the water.”

Realizing he might be saying too much, Wasilewski paused and calmly added, “But, you know, it’s all good. I’d just hate to see somebody learn the hard way.”


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