WELLFLEET — On a drab, rainy Friday in July some 20 hardy waterwomen gathered on Marconi Beach. Mothers and daughters, friends, first-timers, and one reporter milled around on the sand, clad in neoprene, assessing the waves.
The women’s surf meetup was something Katy Weeks had been looking forward to for years — a “sort of female takeover” of a sport that, although more open than it was when she first started practicing it 24 years ago, is “male dominated, still.”
Weeks, who lives in Wellfleet and started her Sugar Surf surfing school here in 2011, organized the gathering first “to get women out there,” she said. And for beginners, Weeks wanted to “break the intimidation of paddling out on your own.”
Though she’s been around surfing her whole life, she said, she didn’t take it up herself until she was 17. Now 41, she spends winters traveling around the world — Indonesia, Central and South America, Hawaii — to surf. She said she’s often the only woman on the beach.
Weeks recently opened a shop in Eastham, Sugar Shack, which provides boards and wetsuits for those who need them. There is a suggested donation of $80 to cover costs and pay instructors. “In a perfect world, it’ll be free — eventually,” Weeks said.
We headed up the beach and plopped our boards down near a sandbar. There, a couple of Sugar Surf instructors (all five are women) split us into two groups: first-timers and beginners, and those with more experience.
I sorted myself into the latter group, although the eight-foot fun-size board I brought with me this summer is getting less use than I’d like. I learned to surf on Long Island, where I’m from. In high school, surf club was a choice for athletics, so I got thrown into waves at Ocean Road in Bridgehampton weekdays after school.
Waiting to paddle out, Erin Gates, a special education teacher at Stony Brook Elementary School in Brewster, said she started surfing in her late 40s. Gates lives in Wellfleet and told me there are a fair number of women in the local surfing community here. “Everybody kind of cheers each other on,” she said.
Even so, she had looked forward to this event.
Summer Sorenson, 17, of Northampton, spends her summers in Wellfleet and started surfing four years ago. She just bought a mini-longboard last summer and has been working on her board-riding skills.
“The other day when I was out, I got a little intimidated by the male energy,” Sorenson said.
“Male shortboarder energy,” someone added with a laugh.
Then it was time to get into the water. I paddled straight toward a seal, its long face peeking out of the water, and tried not to think about what its presence might imply. The water was freezing cold. Weeks told us that a southerly wind over the previous few days had been skimming off the warmer water at the surface. She estimated the water temperature was between 55 and 58 degrees Fahrenheit. I regretted leaving my booties in the car.
When the whole group made it out, the wave felt as crowded as one in Malibu, but a lot friendlier. The waves were small, just a couple of feet high, and a bit crumbly (meaning they were breaking gently, and were sort of slow), but they started to break more cleanly as we got closer to low tide. There was advice and encouragement all around.
I struck out a few times before coming a bit more inside, that is, moving closer to the beach, and finally landing a few rides. At which point, I confess, I started to neglect my reporting duties and became hyper-focused on getting into waves.
It had been a long time since I’d had a good session, and once I shook off the rust, everything else went away as I scanned the horizon for a wave, picked out what looked promising, and paddled after the best ones. Surfing is an odd mix of meditative and adrenaline-producing.
A few friendly male interlopers — and later, a surf instructor with his lesson — did hang out on one side of our group, but the crowd in the surf was all women. It was my first time being in the gender majority of the lineup, and it felt super supportive. But maybe more important was the sense of community it provided: as I write this, I’m making plans with friends go out and surf because the forecast is looking great, and I’m including a new surf buddy I met that day.
That was one of Weeks’s goals, she told me: to help female surfers make connections and find potential new surf buddies. “Seeing other women exchange numbers and make friends — for me my mission was accomplished,” she said.
Weeks has two women’s surf group meetups planned for August, and, encouraged by the presence of so many locals, she’s thinking, why not continue into fall?