My blog has moved!

You should be automatically redirected in 5 seconds. If not, visit
and update your bookmarks.

Monday, May 19, 2008

The tide is turning

My feature on female surfers in today's Irish Examiner

It’s a sport that has long been associated with men, from the Beach Boys to Keanu Reeves in the movie Point Break, but a sea-change is taking place in the world of surfing: the ladies are taking over.

Hollywood starlets like Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Aniston are constantly being snapped with their boards in Hawaii and Malibu, but one need only travel along Ireland’s coastline to find an ever-growing group of women making waves in their own right.

Later this month, schoolgirl Ione Byrne, from Templeboy, Co Sligo, will fly the flag for Irish female surfers as part of the Denny Irish Junior Surf Team who are competing in the 2008 World Junior Surfing Championships in the south-west of France.

The 17-year-old, who will be competing in the under-18 girls category, has been surfing off the west coast since she was a toddler.

“My mum and dad started me surfing when I was 4 years of age,” Ione says. “I just stuck with it throughout the years. I was bodyboarding competitively until three years ago and then I changed to surfing and have been doing that since.”

However, fifth year student Ione reveals she was very often the only surfer – female or male – spotted on her local beach down through the years.

“There were very few people surfing in my area when I was growing up,” she tells me. “Even now, there are only about 10 girls competitively in Ireland in my age group.”

One of Ione’s mentors is Zoe Lally from the Irish Surf Association. Donegal native Zoe began surfing herself in 1986, the year after her home town of Rossnowlagh (home to Ireland’s first surf club) hosted the European Championships.

“There wouldn’t have been many people surfing at the time,” Zoe says. “Surfing arrived in Ireland in the 1960s and right away there was a core group of women surfers. There would have been a women’s division in the Irish nationals since the late 70s, but it was always just a handful of women compared to the numbers nowadays.

“For instance, last year at the Irish Junior Surf Championships we had as many U-12 girls taking part at U-12 boys, which was a first. It has just exploded in the last 10 years.”

As proof of this, up to 500 Irish women are expected to descend on Rossnowlagh from May 24-25 for the 7th Wet ‘n’ Wild weekend, an initiative supported by the Irish Sports Council where ladies of all ages and abilities can learn how to surf and bodyboard.

But what has fuelled this rise in female surfing in recent years? One key factor was fashion. Californian surfer Lisa Anderson, who became the first woman to ever grace the cover of Surfer magazine in the US in 1995, had insisted that the famous Quiksilver surf clothing brand make shorts for her rather than a bikini.

This was pivotal, says Zoe Lally. “Suddenly, rather than promoting women sitting on the beach in a bikini just looking pretty, the media and advertisers were showing women out on the water actively taking part,” she explains.

This is a view backed up by Louise Searle, editor of SurfGirl, a new magazine devoted solely to female surfers in the UK and Ireland which hits the stands this month (it had previously been just an insert in the men’s magazine Carve).

“It’s quite cold surfing around the Irish and British coastlines, so women weren’t really into it,” Louise explains. “Then surf fashion arrived, like the Roxy boardshorts, and girls felt more comfortable going into the sea because they didn’t have to wear bikinis.

“Wetsuits then improved so women could surf all year round. The mainstream appeal of brands like Roxy and Bilabong made surfing accessible, and so more girls got interested.”

Surfing in general is fast becoming big business here in Ireland. This September, the surf and music festival, Cois Fharraige, returns to the coast of Co Clare, following its phenomenal first outing last year.

Furthermore, Ireland’s attraction as a surfing destination has been bolstered by the documentary Wave Riders, which won the Audience Award at this year’s Dublin International Film Festival.

A key sequence in that film focused on the legendary “big wave” Aill na Searrach off the Cliffs of Moher, and last year, Donegal woman Easkey Britton became the first female surfer to ride the 15ft break.

“It was an amazing feeling, not like any I’ve experienced before,” explains Easkey, who recently won her fourth consecutive Irish National Surfing Championship title in Bundoran, and is also current British Pro-Tour Champ.

“Needless to say I’m eager to get out and try something like it again, but we just haven’t had that many big waves recently. I’m climbing up the walls waiting to get back out there again!”
Like Ione Byrne, 22-year-old Easkey has surfing in the blood. In the 1960s, her hotelier grandmother brought back a surfboard from California to hang as a novelty in her hotel in – where else? - Rossnowlagh.

However, Easkey’s dad and uncle soon claimed the board for themselves, kickstarting a life-long passion for surfing that has been passed on through different generations of the family (Easkey’s namesake is a wave in Sligo).

“Surfing wasn’t a huge thing for girls when I was growing up, partly because the equipment wasn’t really geared towards women or kids,” explains Easkey, an Environmental Science student at the University of Ulster.

“That’s all changed recently. It’s blown me away how fast it’s taken off here in Ireland. Now, down to wetsuit technology people can go out any time of the year.

“Also there are a lot more role models today for girls who want to take it up and there’s more support for them. I know a lot of female surfers from the northwest of the country and we really push one another when it comes to entering competitions. It has really helped us improve and reach a high standard.”

Easkey’s own female idol is the late Hawaiian surfer Rell Sunn, who broke new ground – or waves – for women surfers in the 1970s and 80s.

“She was a real embodiment of the aloha spirit of surfing,” Easkey says. “She was inspirational in terms of bringing kids into surfing and pushing the standards of women’s surfing at a time when they were getting little or no support.”

Easkey has adopted a similar coaching and nurturing role to young women surfers in her own right, including her younger sister, Becky-Finn, who placed fifth in the World Junior Championships in Portugal last year.

“Becky-Finn’s the first female longboarder in Ireland because there’s no women’s category for it here, so she basically competes with all the guys and does very well,” Easkey informs me proudly.

Easkey also features in this month’s edition of the aforementioned SurfGirl in a feature about surfing in the Caroline Islands off the coast of the Philippines.

“That’s one of the great things about surfing is that you can travel so much with it,” she says. “I’ve been to the Caroline Islands, Australia, Hawaii - all over. Each place offers something different, but I still love coming home every time. We definitely have world class waves, but the Atlantic Ocean is very unpredictable. For instance, there have been very few waves for the past few weeks.”

For now, however, Easkey is preparing for the World Surf Games, which will take place in Portugal in October. “I’m not that nervous about it,” she reveals. “I’ve set a series of smaller goals to reach in the run up to the event. I’m trying not to get in my head about it too much!”

Ireland’s top surfing spots:
*Cork: Beaches surrounding Clonakilty are most popular.
*Donegal: Rossnowlagh and Bundoran are the best known locations; also Inishowen, Fanad Head, Dunfanagh, Bloody Foreland and Dungloe.
*Sligo: The beach at Strandhill is the most popular; also Aughris, Easkey and Enniscrone.
*Claire: Lahinch is a surfer’s paradise.

*Jeffries Bay, Cape Town, South Africa: Offers some of the most consistent waves in the world.
*North Shore, Oahu, Hawaii: the birthplace of surfing with waves reaching 20-30 feet.
*Tamarindo, Costa Rica: Has become world-famous since surfing movie Endless Summer II was filmed there in 1994.

No comments: