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Local woman making waves in surf community through Latinx Surf Club, Women Who Surf

Costa Mesa resident Vanessa Yeager, 38, at Newport Beach.
Costa Mesa resident Vanessa Yeager surfs nearly every day at Newport Beach, often joining other local surfers she’s met through the online groups she’s created, Women Who Surf and the Latinx Surf Club.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

For Vanessa Yeager, surfing was more than a sport, it was a calling.

Growing up in Moreno Valley, she visited nearby Lake Perris with her family and often waterskied on weekends. She’d let go of the rope and ride in the boat’s wake to feel like she was surfing.

“I thought, man, if there were just waves, we could surf and not just waterski,” Yeager recalled.

There was something compelling about the surf culture, how it seemed to epitomize the California vibe. Enthralled by old TV shows and movies like “Beach Blanket Bingo,” she aspired to be the Latina version of Gidget.

Costa Mesa resident Vanessa Yeager, 38, rides a wave along the north side of Newport Beach Pier.
Costa Mesa resident Vanessa Yeager, 38, rides a wave along the north side of Newport Beach Pier during a morning surf session earlier this month.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

At 14, she and a friend took old boards out to San Clemente and tried to teach themselves. Their efforts, like their bodies, were unceremoniously tossed by wave after wave.

“It was a total disaster. We didn’t have any proper training,” said the Costa Mesa resident, now 38. “But even though it was a disaster, we loved it.”

Yeager moved to Newport Beach the December she turned 18. She enrolled in Orange Coast College and immediately signed up for a surfing class, the only formal instruction she would ever receive.

But for all her passion and persistence, there were roadblocks.

“There wasn’t ever as many women as there were men, and it was very apparent [surfing] was a male-dominated world,” she said. “Men weren’t as welcoming, especially if you were learning. That’s surfing culture, but it’s changing now.”

Costa Mesa resident Vanessa Yeager, center, with members of the Latinx Surf Club, a group she formed in 2017.
Costa Mesa resident Vanessa Yeager, center, with members of the Latinx Surf Club, a group she formed in 2017 to expand surfing opportunities to all.
(Courtesy of Vanessa Yeager)

Yeager is doing her best to help the change along. In 2014, she created the Facebook group “Women Who Surf,” for those who love the sport as much as she does. So far, the group comprises nearly 22,000 followers from across the globe.

“We are not supermodels. We’re moms. We have curves. We’re all different ages,” she said, challenging surf magazine stereotypes of bikini clad babes. “We don’t have to support these brands that aren’t supporting us. We can support each other.”

Aside from hosting local meetups, Women Who Surf is an international support group that encourages girls and women to do what they love without fear of reproach. At times, Yeager says, members play an advocacy role.

For example, when surf company O’Neill held a competition in Santa Cruz in October, members learned female entrants were competing for a top prize of $1,000, compared to the $10,000 offered male competitors.

Vanessa Yeager, far right, teaches a surf lesson in April. Yeager founded Women Who Surf and the Latinx Surf Club.
Vanessa Yeager, far right, teaches a surf lesson in April. Yeager founded Women Who Surf and the Latinx Surf Club to welcome more people into the sport.
(Courtesy of Vanessa Yeager)

Women Who Surf members stormed the internet and, in a matter of hours, O’Neill adjusted the women’s prize upward to $10,000.

“I see the power of the group,” Yeager said. “When 22,000 women who surf take a stand together, we can make ourselves heard.”

In 2017, she formed the Latinx Surf Club, because she wanted to create a community of people like her, who loved the sport but who didn’t often see themselves represented in surf culture.

Promoted through Facebook and Instagram, the group has become a burgeoning social club, whose 3,000 followers post pictures of Latinx surfers accomplishing great feats and who surf together regularly.

Members of Women Who Surf, a Facebook community started by Costa Mesa's Vanessa Yeager in 2014.
Members of Women Who Surf, a Facebook community started by Costa Mesa’s Vanessa Yeager in 2014.
(Courtesy of Vanessa Yeager)

“I feel like it’s because people want to see themselves as surfers,” Yeager said of the group’s popularity.

Among the club members is Costa Mesa resident Travis Martinez. The 25-year-old first got on a board in 2016 on a study abroad trip to South Africa but couldn’t get the hang of it. After a few unsuccessful attempts, in 2019, he began going out regularly with his brother-in-law, who introduced him to Yeager.

Right off the bat, the two hit it off. Martinez described Yeager like a cheerleader, always encouraging others.

“There are not a lot of people in the water who look like you, and it can be intimidating if you don’t know what you’re doing,” he said. “Having the support of a community like the Latinx Surf Club really encourages me to get out there and not be afraid of anyone looking at me or saying anything.”

Azalea Ugalde, 26, of Santa Ana, credits Yeager for helping her overcome her shyness and get up on the board after multiple unsuccessful attempts. Now, she surfs three times a week.

“I was really grateful Vanessa was there to teach me and help me get out. She was the main reason I kept going and am still out there,” Ugalde said. “She really puts no labels on anyone. She welcomes everyone — I really love that.”

From left, Travis Martinez, Alexandra Razo, Vanessa Yeager, Susan Loya, Azalea Ugalde and Cesar Venegas in Newport Beach.
Latinx Surf Club members, from left, Travis Martinez, Alexandra Razo, Vanessa Yeager, Susan Loya, Azalea Ugalde and Cesar Venegas pose for a group photo on Nov. 6 at the Newport Beach Pier.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

These days, Yeager’s days are packed. She teaches special education at Huntington Beach Union High School District Monday through Friday, works as a private certified surf coach on Saturdays and spends Sundays working at the Huntington Beach International Surfing Museum, where she’s also a board member.

Still, she surfs nearly every sunrise at Newport Beach, often with members of the groups she’s created. Together, they are the community that previously seemed to be missing.

“This is who I’ve always wanted to be,” she said. “I always joked I wanted to be the Mother Theresa of surfing. I think maybe because I felt alone surfing, being a woman and being a minority. I don’t feel alone anymore.”

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