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Legend has it that in 1915, Hawaiian surfing pioneer Duke Kahanamoku picked a local teenager from a crowd at a Sydney beach to ride tandem on a wave with him. Her name was Isabel Letham. Though some of the finer details of the story have since been disputed, Isabel went down in history as the first Australian to ride a surfboard. Of course, where Duke came from, women and men had been riding alongside each other for centuries.

In the decades that followed Isabel’s groundbreaking moment, surfing wasn’t an easy ride for women. They were all too often relegated to sit on the sand, Puberty Blues style, and watch while the guys showed them how it was done.

Surfing legend Pam Burridge, who won her first competition in 1977 and became the first Australian woman to win a world title in 1990, calls her era “the dark ages of surfing”.

“It was a pretty sexist time. You definitely got dropped in on. There was no surf clothing for girls. No wetsuits. Girls don’t surf – that was the mantra. There were only half a dozen surfers on the whole northern beaches of Sydney who were female,” she says, recalling her early surfing days in the 1970s.

“We weren’t fighting for equality, exactly. We were fighting to exist.”

1988 Surfest finals presentation, Pam Burridge. Photo: Fairfax Media
1988 Surfest finals presentation, Pam Burridge. Photo: Fairfax Media

How times change. In 2017, Australian women and girls are taking to the surf in record numbers. According to research by Roy Morgan, the number of female surfers in Australia jumped almost 20 per cent between 2010 and 2014, and women now outnumber men in the under-25 age group.

“Even in the past year or so there’s been more of a presence of girls in the water, so it’s less intimidating,” says Jess Barker, a 24-year-old yoga teacher, who began surfing in 2012. “Four years ago I was the only girl sometimes in a sea of 40 guys. It’s really cool now that a couple of my close girlfriends surf with me.”

Jess Laing, a former junior professional surfer and the subject of the 2010 surf film First Love, started a surf school called Girls on Board on Phillip Island about five years ago after noticing a growing number of girls keen to try the sport.

“I realised that there weren’t too many female coaches – just to give girls a bit of confidence to get out there and not be intimidated by the guys,” she says.

Jess’ classes attract mostly girls between the ages of 10 and 16, and she says most of her students continue surfing after they’ve learned the ropes from her.

“When I started surfing I was pretty young and there were pretty much only guys in the water. But that’s changing now,” she says. “The other day I went for a surf and I noticed there were more girls out there than guys, and to see that is really cool. I think it’s going to keep getting more and more popular with girls.”

Nikki Van Dijk prepares to enter the water prior to her semi final heat at the 2016 Swatch Women's Pro at Trestles at San Onofre State Beach, California. Photo: Joe Scarnici/Getty Images
Nikki Van Dijk prepares to enter the water prior to her semi final heat at the 2016 Swatch Women’s Pro at Trestles at San Onofre State Beach, California. Photo: Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

Many attribute the turning of the tide to the rise of formidable surfers such as Lisa Andersen and Layne Beachley, who burst onto the scene in the 1990s and inspired a generation of girls to take up the sport.

“Lisa was my idol,” says Nikki van Dijk, the current world No. 11 and a Phillip Island local.

“I’d watch every video she was in, everything she did. I was like, ‘I want to do it like Lisa’. It’s actually really funny now because we’re good friends and we see each other in the surf … To this day, she still doesn’t know how much I appreciate her as a surfer and as a person.”

About the same time that Lisa and Layne began making waves, amateur surfing started to become more inclusive. Until the early ’90s, Pam Burridge recalls that “boards were so short, so thin, so narrow that only Kelly Slater and his friends could ride them”.

The arrival of longboards and mini Malibus freed the way for all sorts of surfers. Where once it had been all about aggressive, masculine-style power surfing, surfers began to revere grace and elegance – where women often excel. No longer was it seen as negative to “surf like a girl”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the changes have helped spawn a new generation of female prodigies. At just 12 years old, Newcastle’s Sabre Norris is making international headlines, as one of the youngest people ever to win a wildcard entry into a World Surf League competition. Meanwhile, eight-year-old Quincy Symonds (aka The Flying Squirrel) from Tweed Heads, is already a YouTube hit, and has just won the 2017 Gold Coast Wahu Grom Comp. She is sponsored by the likes of Rip Curl and GoPro, to name a few.

Quincy namechecks current women’s world champion Tyler Wright, six-time world champion Stephanie Gilmore and “the Maui boys” among her idols – Tyler because she “charges” and “is really strong”. Her mother Kim says Olympic skier Lydia Lassila is another inspiration, “because she’s not happy to settle for being one of the best girls – she just wants to be one of the best skiers ever, taking away the male or female”.

Quincy is thinking big for the future. “I want to make it on to the world tour,” she says. “I want to get barrelled at Teahupo’o. I want to do a backflip with an extra spin.”

Her dreams are certainly more possible now than ever before. While women of all ages and abilities are signing up for surf retreats and surf schools across the country, the female pros just keep getting better.

“Guys used to say, ‘That’s big for a chick’, but now they say, ‘That’s big’, full stop,” says Nikki van Dijk. “Steph Gilmore and Carissa Moore could probably surf a guy’s heat and win it. And that’s huge.”

Women are also getting fiercer and more aggressive in the surf, executing aerials and manoeuvres traditionally attempted only by men, as well as charging big waves.

Last year Hawaiian Keala Kennelly became the first woman to win Barrel of the Year (an open-gender event held at Tahiti’s Teahupo’o that judges the best ride in the tube of a wave) and women were allowed to compete at Hawaii’s Jaws – recognised as the biggest wave in the world – for the first time.

Lauren Enever. Photo: Pat Stacy
Lauren Enever. Photo: Pat Stacy

Laura Enever, 25, was one of two Australian women to compete at the inaugural women’s Jaws, where waves can be up to nine metres high. “It was pretty wild,” she says. “I think women are pushing and empowering each other to do things we never really thought we could do.”

After years riding in the wake of the boys, the pro girls say they still have a way to go before they are treated equally. While the World Surf League now holds women’s competitions in the same locations as the men’s, the women claim they often have to compete in less desirable conditions (smaller, messier waves) on contest days, meaning less opportunity to perform at their best.

“We’ll be in France or something and it’s a guys’ and girls’ event and it’s pumping, and it’s like, the guys are obviously going to be on,” Nikki says. “But why are the guys obviously going to be on? Why do we have second choice of who’s going to run?”

Fewer opportunities to perform at their best means less chance of securing sponsorship. And without sponsorship surfers struggle to fund their travel to the far-flung destinations where competitions take place.

At the same time, some of the female pros lament that when they do work with sponsors, the focus is often on what they look like in a bikini, rather than their performance. Some pros have taken matters into their own hands, looking beyond major surf labels for sponsorship – Sally Fitzgibbons, for example, is sponsored by Samsung, Piping Hot, Canon, Novotel, FCS Fins, JS Surfboards, Land Rover and Coco Joy coconut products.

“I think the sexualisation in the sport was pushing a few buttons,” Laura Enever says. “I never want a young girl to think she has to look good in a bikini to be a professional surfer … I don’t want them to think they need to look a certain way to become their best.”

On the plus side, the WSL has invested an unprecedented amount of money into the women’s sport, and women at the elite level now receive the same prize money as the men. In fact, 2016 women’s world champion Tyler Wright was on track to earn more last year than men’s champion John John Florence, before being narrowly pipped at the end of the season.

Tyler Wright of Australia surfs during the Round 3 of the Oi Rio Pro on May 16, 2015 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
Tyler Wright of Australia surfs during the Round 3 of the Oi Rio Pro on May 16, 2015 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Though there’s still a way to go, professional surfing is now a more viable option for women. “The money helps develop the talent,” Pam Burridge says. “Women can be fully professional. They’re paid to surf, and paid to train. It’s going to elevate the sport a lot.”

Like the women of ancient Hawaii who, according to historian Matt Warshaw, “often carried off the highest honours” in surfing competitions, today’s female surfers are reclaiming their position in the water. And they’re showing no signs of slowing down.

“I think that girls have realised that we can do it,” Nikki van Dijk says. “They can’t stop us. Who can stop us from getting better?”