CAPITOLA, CALIF. -- "Green is up!" It's a few minutes after 6 on a cold, clear winter Saturday morning and it's still pretty dark. But there's an orange glow on the eastern horizon, bright like a cosmic flare, and soon the sun will climb over the Santa Cruz Mountains and light up the Pacific Ocean.
"Black on a wave!" A young guy, suited up in neoprene and sitting on a surfboard in the water, is using what looks like an orange parking cone as a megaphone to shout out the identity of the contestants to the judges. Oops -- wipeout. Black off a wave.
It's hard to see exactly what's going on in the pre-dawn, but I know from looking at my schedule that it's the first 20-minute heat of the surfing contest, and that there are five young women, age 17 and under, in the icy water, each wearing a different colored nylon jersey over their wet suits and paddling for what little bumps of water come their way. Things are off to a really flat start, but that's not unusual. Waves on the day of any given competition are typically mediocre -- nature does what she wants when she wants to -- and champion surfers often get to be champions because they know how to shred in the smallest, crappiest conditions.
What's unusual is this: women and longboards. Even just a few years ago, seeing women in the water was an anomaly -- and longboards, well, they were totally uncool.
The Second Annual Capitola Women's Longboard Surfing Contest is being held at the one and only break in -- where else? -- Capitola, a small Northern California beach town, one over from Santa Cruz, about 100 miles south of San Francisco. Co-sponsored by the Capitola Chamber of Commerce and the West Wind Surf Club, it's an amateur contest that benefits the Surfer's Environmental Alliance, a nonprofit devoted to saving the California coastline from the likes of Big Oil, overdevelopment and golf, and the Women's Crisis Center, a local 24-hour shelter for abused women and children. Kicking off at 6 a.m. and ending at 5:20 p.m., just minutes before sundown, the contest is split into three divisions -- Juniors, Women and Masters -- with surfers ranging in age from 10 to over 40. This time there are 80 women competing, nearly twice as many as the last competition, and the entry roster has been filled for weeks now.
The sun rises and, in anticipation of the long day ahead, I walk back along the boardwalk to the beachside parking lot and retrieve an XXL thermos of hot coffee from the trunk of my car. I'm bundled up in polar fleece pants and jacket, covered with a Goretex shell, gloves and a floppy, fun-fur hat. All around me, though, are lots of half-naked girls with -- swear to god -- long, blond hair. They're doing the classic "surfer change": towel around the waist while you squeeze in or out of your wet suit. (Getting out of the suit is always worse, especially at this time of year: fingers too cold to work the zipper, teeth chattering, and you can't get your dry clothes on fast enough because they're sticking to your damp, saltwater-coated skin.) Suddenly I get this rush of wanting to know everything about these women. I feel like running up to every single one and asking her how long she's been surfing and who taught her and why she's into it. I mean, who are all these ballsy chicks who've got the nerve to do what I don't? Which is, surf competitively.
Two and a half years ago, at the age of 31, I went surfing for the first time at a break called Pleasure Point in Santa Cruz. A City Girl who sucks at all sports, I wasn't surprised when I didn't stand up and ride a wave that day. Or the next day. Or the next month. In fact, I spent more than a year in 54-degree water going over the falls and eating shit.
Initially, I stuck with it because I was in love: I met Mr. Right and followed him into the water. But soon, it became a love triangle: me, him and the sea. I was, as they say, stoked. I felt so alive in the ocean, and it connected me to the world in a way that shoe stores and cocktail parties didn't. Surfers always talk about the spirituality of the sport; they'll call someone who's fluid and graceful a "soul surfer." But the truth is, it's pretty hard to tangle with the waves and not feel soulful. The ocean is primal -- it's just as heavenly and hellish today as it was thousands of years ago -- and it continually reveals the essence of being to me, in the most primal way. I know how corny and New Age that must sound, but all I can say is that life takes on a new perspective when you're face-to-face with the beautiful violence of nature.
Yet despite all of the possibilities for personal growth that surfing offered me (not least of which were a hot set of triceps), I often felt this strange ambivalence about the whole business. "Ambivalent about surfing?" a friend repeated. She thought I was joking. "Don't you know how neurotic that sounds? It's like a really bad online pseudonym!"
Simply put, surfing fucked with my self-esteem. It took me forever to stand up and ride a wave, and I hated myself for it. Like a giant magnifying glass, surfing showed me every pockmark in my persona. I suffered vicious attacks of "I Suck" and "I Can't" and couldn't seem to disconnect my performance in the water from my self-worth. If I panicked, which wasn't uncommon, I'd get so angry at myself for panicking that I committed the worst offense -- crying in the water. Since I never met anyone else who felt depressed after a surf session, I often thought: Give it up. C'mon, did I really believe that I could learn to surf? It wasn't just the paddling-standing-riding skills that I worried about, it was the constant confrontations with fear. Fear of sharks, of drowning, of a cracked skull, of public humiliation (because no one learns to surf in private), of competing with men in an arena where I felt utterly vulnerable and, oh yeah, the biggie: fear of failure.
Quit now, I told myself, and spare yourself the inevitable ugly truth: You tried for months but you couldn't do it! My warped logic went like this: If I didn't believe I could ever do it in the first place, then I wouldn't be bummed out when it never happened.
It's amazing the things we do in spite of ourselves. One day my board slipped down the face of a wave and I went with it, standing up. Well, at least for a few seconds. It wasn't a long ride, just long enough to change the course of my own history. If I can do this, I can do anything. Of course, I'm always the first to forget my own mantra.
Three cars down from mine, a shivering girl with long, dark, wet hair is changing out of her wet suit.
"Did you surf in the first heat?" I ask. She nods. Not quite 16, Melissa Perez has been surfing only a year and this is her first contest. "What made you decide to enter?" I say. She points to her dad, rolls her eyes and smiles. Her father taught her how to surf, she tells me, and at his suggestion, she signed up.
"Our whole family surfs!" Dad proudly interjects as he straps Melissa's board onto the roof of their four-wheel-drive and gives it a hard slap.
Melissa speaks quietly and tends to look at the ground as she talks. But when she tells me that she learned to surf at Ocean Beach in San Francisco, a fierce beach break famous for monster waves and life-sucking currents, I'm struck by her confidence.
"Ocean Beach? Wow!"
Still, she seems unaware of her own mettle. "I go out on small days," she says shyly. "It's no big deal."
We talk and walk back into the action, stopping in front of a big brown bulletin board where the heat results get posted, and wait. About 10 feet ahead of us the boardwalk is blocked off, and only judges, press and miscellaneous VIPs are allowed behind the line. The five judges are nestled together at the dead end of the boardwalk, where the cement walkway juts out over the ocean and is enclosed by an L-shaped silver guardrail. Each 20-minute heat consists of five surfers going out to ride a maximum of five waves. They're scored on their three best waves, and the judges award points for skill, style and the length of the ride. The top three progress to the quarterfinals, semifinals and then, the moment of truth.
Finally, the results from the first heat go up on the board. I find Melissa's name and shout, "Look, you got five!" I'm excited, thinking it's five points, the highest score.
"Oh," Melissa's face drops. "Fifth. Last place."
I spend the next few seconds silently telling myself I'm an asshole. But what do I know about surfing contests? This is the first one I've ever been to.
Nine o'clock, heat nine, the throng thickens. As the temperature rises, I slowly shed my fleecy carapace until I'm in shorts and bare feet. The PA finally gets turned on, leaving the orange-parking-cone guy free to go. Surf tunes suddenly sail through the air -- there's something about hearing the theme from "Hawaii Five-O" at a surfing contest that makes you feel like you have arrived. Sponsor thank-yous, raffle winners and the names of the surfers in the Women's division (18-34) are being announced, but it's a female announcer with the look of Johnny Cash and the rhythm of Howard Cosell who's the real crowd-pleaser.
"OK, wave of the day and three gals paddling to get it. Oooh! Party wave! Everybody's on it. Next one, steep take-off to the left -- look out! Yeah, she's workin' it. Hope the judges can see that hangin' five action!" People squeal as one surfer hangs five toes off the nose of her board. The familiar call of "Outside!" -- meaning look out to sea, there's a set rolling in -- draws hoots and hollers. OK, so it's a smallset, but the fact that ridable waves keep rolling in at all is reason to cheer.
Twelve hours of anything can get monotonous, so I wander the length of the boardwalk and back, past the Surfer Girl magazine booth, where I load up on free Surfer Girl stickers, and through the tangle of toddlers in strollers, dogs off leash, six-packs of blond teenage girls and clusters of Capitola hipsters in silver-frame wrap sunglasses, striped knit caps, baggy pants and Ugg boots who clearly span several generations. I grab a day-glo orange flyer that reads: Grand Opening Celebration! Northern California's First Women's Surf Shop. "It's my daughter's store!" The woman who's passing them out is beaming. "Paradise Surf Shop! Come on by tomorrow!" Two surfers dripping salt water hug each other and high-five: "Did you see that bad-ass long wave I rode?"
Some of the women in this contest are local legends and others are no doubt on their way, but many have only been surfing for about a year. Either way, when I quiz them on their attraction to this competition, the answers are always the same: fun, friends and love of the ocean. More than once I hear someone shout, "Hey, we're all winners!" when I pass the crowd in front of the heat sheet board.
The hours melt into a singular blob of time. Somewhere around heat 24 I'm behind the VIP line, standing at the silver guardrail, looking through my binoculars at all the crazy lip movements surfers make when they're ripping, when I feel someone lean into me like an old friend and say, "Want one?" It's one of the women from the heat sheet tally table, holding out a bottle of spring water.
"Thanks." I smile. She returns the gesture and there's something about the shape of her mouth -- eye-teeth slightly protruding, sexy little overbite -- that reminds me of Cher.
"So," she adjusts her black sunglasses with one hand and pats her brown bobbed hair with the other, "what do you think of all this?"
I think for a second. "It makes me want to cry but in a good way, you know?" All the women, the water, the tremendous community spirit, the air of confidence -- it all fills me with such an inexplicable sense of joy that it inevitably leads to a giant boo-hoo, I explain. She reaches over and gives my hand a little squeeze.
"Why are there so many girls who surf around Santa Cruz, anyway?" I ask.
She sweeps her arm through the air like a spokesmodel revealing a game-show prize. "The ocean is their front yard; it's what's going on." The details come out rapid-fire: The girls start young, get hooked, teach their girlfriends, their sisters, and they all go out together, all the time. "Plus, everybody knows everybody here and there's a long history of famous surfing families in Santa Cruz." She lowers her voice. "Look, these people don't have a lot of money. What they have is a sense of commitment. God, we were so poor --" Suddenly she turns around and shouts, "What?" and lets out an excited squeak. Then, to me: "Oh, I gotta go see how my kid did!"
"Wait. What's your name?" I feel like I've been left holding one glass slipper.
"Not telling." She takes off her sunglasses and gets right in my face. "I hate the media," she says with a wink.
My secret source, however, eagerly sidles up next to me during the next heat.
"OK, see her with the camera? That's Rosemary Reimers Rice. Amazing photographer. She's almost 60. Still surfs. Married to Johnny Rice, the surfboard shaper. And him?" She points to a white-haired man with a leathery brown face. "Malibu Enforcer. Didja ever see 'Big Wednesday'? No? Well, the Gary Busey character is based on him. Oh!" She pokes me. "There's Rita! Can you believe she's still in chemo?" she says, as if I too have known Rita as long as she has. "Go Rita!" she yells, waving her fists in the air.
Out in the water, it's the Masters (35 and over) semifinals and Rita Collins Micuda, a slight woman with an orange-yellow buzz cut, is dropping in on a wave. "She had some kind of cancer but seems to be totally recovering now. A real survivor."
Rita, however, isn't the only survivor. Later I learn that my secret source is Donna Pitts, whose 19-year-old daughter, Beth, an accomplished surfer and lifeguard, died while surfing at Steamer Lane in November 1995. According to the papers, Beth Pitts fell off her board, hit her head on a submerged rock and was knocked unconscious. In memoriam, hundreds of surfers paddled out and joined hands and made a human circle in the water while Beth's ashes were sprinkled into the ocean. Now, two years later, Donna Pitts is standing at the rail and rooting for everyone, including her daughters Pam, 17, and Miranda, 19, who are surfing in today's contest.
"There's Jane McKenzie!" She points. "Jane of the Lane -- you have to talk to Jane."
Jane exits the water to shouts of congratulations. At first I'm a bit intimidated by her look -- jet-black hair, intense eyes, sharp face -- and her reputation. In her early 40s, she's been surfing here for 35 years and earned the title "Jane of the Lane" for her prowess at Steamer Lane, a point break known for serious waves and macho attitudes. When I introduce myself, though, she is nothing but supercool and gracious.
Since this is a women's longboard contest, I ask her what it's been like to be a woman in a traditionally male-dominated arena.
"The ocean doesn't care what kind of genitals you have. And if you ask any man -- well, any man you'd actually want to have in your life -- if he wants to see more women in the water, he would say yes. In fact, this very contest was created by men who wanted to celebrate women being in the water."
I mention how pleased I am, being a spineless wreck when it comes to any sort of athletic competition, that the main vibe here today is fun rather than a cut-throat stampede for the brass ring.
"Don't be fooled," she says with a wicked grin. "There are a lot of competitive women out there today." Yet in the next breath, she tells me this: "There was a woman in my heat who was a little nervous; it was her first competition and she was having trouble catching waves. So I said, 'Why don't I push you into one of the waves?' And I immediately thought, 'God, should I have even said that?' But she agreed. So when the time came, I paddled beside her, gave her a little push and off she went."
Like clockwork, the last heat wraps at 5:20 p.m., but the winners are not announced until we get to the spaghetti dinner and awards ceremony at the Jade Street Community Center, a no-frills hall filled with round tables and folding chairs. There are 18 winners, six women from each division. But this, of course, is only the official list.
I came to this contest expecting localism and a heavy dose of too-cool attitude that supposedly goes hand-in-hand with surfing contests, and to a large degree, surf culture itself. Instead I met women who pushed each other into waves and taught each other how to ride and who drew on the power of the ocean when death stared them in the face. I came believing that everyone would be a better surfer than me. And most of them were -- but a few were actually worse. Never in a million years, I told myself at 6 o'clock that morning, would I have the guts to sign up. By the end of the day, I found myself looking around for the dotted line.
To say the contest was not about winning simply isn't true. Winning feels great -- and you get prizes and prestige to boot. (And had this been a pro contest offering big prize money, "winning" would no doubt be more narrowly defined.) The truth is, rather, that this competition wasn't about losing -- it was about loving to surf and giving it all you've got.