But we remember.
We are the soul searchers. We travel to foreign countries with nothing but our backpacks and our boards. We dream of waves when we sleep, and smell of salt underneath our work clothes. We are the Silvana Limas, the Stephanie Gilmore, the Co Co Ho’s. We are the average, but extraordinary women, who do not need to be paddled around, do not need to be patronized, do not need to be protected. We are warm bodies and warrior hearts. We duck dive and turtle roll our way out into lineups.
We look for swell, and we are not afraid to play with the boys. Maybe, more importantly, we carry stories. Some of those stories are joyous, but some of those stories are scars.
Paddle into any lineup and talk with any water woman, you will hear stories of heartbreak and passion, stories of triumph over dark things, and of surf sessions that made a person feel alive.
Two stories that are especially poignant are that of Rachel Bobis from New York, and Maureen McNammara living in Maine. Rachel and Maureen are two women who have both struggled with love and loss, but have ultimately found sanctuary in the ocean.
The coast of Sumatra isn’t always kind.
No one knows this better than Rachel Bobis. In August of 2011, Rachel Bobis lost her husband on a surf trip in Indonesia.
Sumatra is a heavy wave. It’s a sweeping left set atop a gnarly reef. This reef is very shallow in spots. Rachel’s husband Danny would not be the only life claimed by this Indo wave.
Rachel didn’t go surfing the day her husband died. She had begun to bleed the night before, an early miscarriage. Isolated from any proper medical care, and surrounded by mostly men, Rachel didn’t have any support as she dealt with this miscarriage. Instead, she was stoic. Rachel sat on the beach, listening to music, lost in her thoughts. She watched her husband enter the water and begin to surf. There was no way for her to know that this would be the last time she would ever see Danny alive.
Danny was killed surfing. Although, the specifics of his death will never truly be known, Rachel believes he must have hit the reef. His body was found by a local fisherman four days after. Before he was found, Rachel tried desperately to search for his body in a country without the proper infrastructure to support a proficient rescue. She was grieving, bleeding, and powerless for four days as she looked for her lost love. The experience was harrowing.
How do you forgive the ocean after it has taken your heart?
“There will always be a small part of me that worries in the water. I’m not the same on big wave days. I will frantically scan the water for surf buddies if they drift.” Rachel talked about the bittersweet experience of surfing after her loss. Danny’s death will always be something she carries. But, Danny still inspires her too.
Rachel had an unsatisfying surf session one day. She was frustrated with herself. She went home, and spotted a board in the house. It had been Danny’s. Brand new. It still had a price tag on it. Rachel knew just what to do with the six foot one pin tail. She raced back out to get new fins and a leash. She hit the beach. She had a magical second session. “It was like Danny was surfing at my side. He always encouraged me to go after it.” She said, tears welling up in her eyes.
Today, Rachel lives not far from the beach break that was named in honor of her late husband. She has a growing business. She coaches young female surfers. She has fallen in love again. She did not, and will not, give up surfing. Even though she knows, more than most, what the ocean can take from you. She still believes in the power of all the ocean can give back.
The suicide rate for transgender people is 41 percent. Maureen McNamara believes that percentage is probably higher. Maureen is no stranger to the urge to end her life: she spent years flirting with suicide. Why? Maureen was born male, but for as long as she could remember, she knew she was a woman. It would take her 50 years to transition into the body, the gender, and the life that she knew should belong to her.
Maureen spent an inordinate amount of time denying who she was and what she wanted. This was due to fear; of coming out, of disappointing people, of not being accepted. Maureen spent years plotting her own death in her head. Why didn’t she do it? She had an inner reserve that was passionate and strong, and she had a surf board. Even in her darkest days, surfing was always there.
“I didn’t do drugs or alcohol.” She said. “This (surfing) was my escape. It quite literally saved my life. There were mornings when I would think about going to find a bridge to jump off. Then, I would see that there was a swell coming. I would reach for my board instead.”
Living as a male, Maureen married and had children. However, battling her repressed state, she struggled during those years to be the husband, father, and person that her family could love and admire. She became estranged from her children, and laments that her extended Irish family still struggles to forgive her for who she was before she transitioned, and to accept her for who she is now that she has flourished as a woman.
While her own family struggled to understand and support her, the surf community never blinked an eye. They took her in, and made her feel loved. “There are so many awkward stages when you transition, and some people avoid the things they did in their former lives to avoid that discomfort. I knew I couldn’t lose surfing.” She told me.
Maureen was afraid of what would happen when she paddled out into the lineup as a woman after decades of having earned her place there as a man.” Turns out, all Maureen’s fears were unfounded. She felt welcomed, supported, and loved each time she went out to catch a wave.
Maureen has certainly claimed her stake on her corner of Maine. Not only does she surf, but she has found love. Maureen recently eloped with a woman who fell in love with her after they exchanged comments and lengthy messages across the pages of Facebook. Their very first meeting was on a bridge. The very same place that she once envisioned plummeting from in her former life became the place where she pressed her tender forehead against another person’s and realized that she was seeing eye to eye with a soulmate.
These two stories are just mere snippets of the diversity of life experience that people bring with them to surfing. The ocean accepts it all. We empty ourselves on her shore, and we are made whole against the surging tides.
These two stories remind me of my own. I have suffered no loss. I have not struggled with my gender identity, but I can relate to these beautiful women and their experiences because we are bonded by our love of the ocean.
I sat on the shoreline in Montauk and watched the man I was dating as he surfed. He had grace, powerful shoulders, and a beautiful arching back. I envied the way he would fly.
“Come jump on my board.” He would always encourage. But, I was timid. What if I fell over? What if I looked silly? I didn’t want to be the only girl.
“I can’t surf,” I foolishly thought.
When I finally bought my own board, I used to carry it down to the break and just stare at the surfers from the sand. I was too intimidated to paddle out into a lineup filled with men, all of them more proficient then me. When I finally did paddle out, I would sit so far away from the peak, I might as well have stayed in the parking lot.
For months, I struggled through white water, to select the right wave, to angle my board and generate enough speed not to pearl. Once I started catching rides, I still had issues popping up. I lacked the quick reaction I saw in the fast charging short boarders. I was still afraid of looking foolish, that people would laugh. I was allowing my fears to dictate my experience.
Surfing as a woman can be intimidating. But, all of our stories need to serve as reminders that the ocean is where strong, beautiful women like us belong.
Tonight, the sun sunk into the horizon and the water lit up in hues of purple, and red. The moon hung full in the sky, and the smiles I beamed at all the surfers around me reminded me that I have arrived in a place of happiness and contentment. I was the only girl in the lineup, but gender didn’t matter.
I caught long rides that ended at the tip of the setting sun. I laughed aloud as I pushed effortless through the white water. I positioned myself alongside the guys. I had no fear. I was poised and ready to fly.
Water women are strong. There is no doubt. We are warriors on and off our boards. We have remarkable tales of loss, friendship, and inspiration. We are more than hard bodies. We are emblematic of what it means to live with passion, and grace, shredding up waves, and dancing all 10 toes on the nose. We should never doubt that sitting confidently next to to men in the lineup is where we all belong.
“It Ain’t Just About The Thongs!” is contributed by Kelly Russell and edited by Kelly Lin with love from www.SurfMeiMei.com
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