When Lexie Hallahan started bodyboarding in Seaside in 1989, she remembers being one of four other women regulars in the water. It seemed to her like nearly all the surfers on the Oregon Coast were men.
These days, there are many women in the lineup at local surf spots like the Cove in Seaside and Short Sand Beach at Oswald West State Park.
While women have been an important part of surfing’s international growth, both on the professional stage and in popular culture, they still feel the influence of the sport’s historically male focus.
Local surfers credit Hallahan and others for shrugging off barriers and carving out space for women.
Hallahan put together her first all-women surf camp more than a decade ago. That first weekend, she watched as 16 women transformed from hesitant to confident in the waves. She estimates she has since taught more than 700 women to surf.
“I got a full-on epiphany out in the water,” said Hallahan, who teaches at the Seaside-based Northwest Women’s Surf Camps. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m supposed to be teaching women to surf. This is my calling.’”
Surf spots can be unwelcoming for newcomers, especially for inexperienced surfers, and some women say they feel a little extra pressure to prove themselves.
“You have to go out there and catch a wave and surf it well, the first wave, or sometimes they’ll think you can’t surf,” said Brianna Ortega, a surfer in Seaside. “If you’re just sitting out there, they’ll assume you can’t surf. As a woman, not just for me but for everyone, you really have to prove yourself.”
Aiden Herth, a surfing coach at Hallahan’s camps, grew up surfing on Long Island, New York, where she said she rarely saw a woman with her in the water. She has noticed more women in the water on the West Coast, but still sees some difficulties.
“I’ve had tons of guys cut my line off,” she said.
Ortega is doing her part to change the way women surfers are portrayed in the media. The women stars of the World Surf League are recognized as elite athletes, and advertisers have long seen the potential of marketing surf apparel to women, but there are still stereotypes of women in bikinis posing with surfboards on the beach instead of out on the waves.
Ortega’s new magazine, Sea Together, aims to bring the global community of women surfers together and present their experiences through creative writing and interviews.
“I’m putting all of my frustrations into this, and doing a positive thing,” she said.
She raised over $10,000 through Kickstarter for the magazine’s production and received donated writing, photography and interviews from world-class surfers like Carissa Moore of Hawaii. Emi Koch, a surfer from California who founded a nonprofit that uses surfing to teach ecological awareness, sent Ortega seashells from Indonesia as a sign of appreciation.
Sea Together’s first 100-page issue will be released at a launch party on Aug. 6 at Leeward Surf in Portland.
“We want to take the negative and turn it into something positive,” Ortega said. “Otherwise we’re not going to move forward or make any progress.”
The surf spots on the North Coast, where the water is cold and rugged, can be challenging. Hallahan remembers the days when there were no cold-water wetsuits made for women because manufacturers thought there were not enough women who wanted to paddle out.
When Hallahan first launched her surf camps, she hoped to create a women’s surf community that would stick.
“I can confidently say that it’s at a point now where it will continue to grow and there will always be women surfing on the Oregon Coast,” she said.