In Southern California, surf culture is becoming more inclusive

Organizations are working to bring girls, women, and surfers of color to the sandy breaks and consistent swells of these famed beaches.

Surfing, like so many outdoor pursuits, has surged during the pandemic, as more people have picked up longboards and signed up for lessons. Many of these new surfers are kids or teenagers, such as Caitlin Simmers, 16, an Oceanside, California, local who has been quickly moving up the competitive ranks of the sport.

“During the pandemic, [surfing] was one of the only things you could do, so now there’s more people in the water,” says Caitlin’s mom, Ali Simmers.

With sandy breaks, beachside parks, and tide pools for smaller children to explore—not to mention fewer crowds and consistent swells in the winter—Southern California is an ideal place for families to learn to surf year-round. And the presence there of a growing number of young surfers mastering the waves serves as inspiration.

“When you see someone similar to you, whether it’s the same gender, age, the same color skin—someone who mirrors who you are or who you want to be—it inspires you to follow in their footsteps,” says Huntington Beach surf instructor Rocky McKinnon of McKinnon Surf and SUP Lessons, which offers adaptive surf programs for all ages and ability levels.

“What happens is that the next generation … takes the sport to the next level,” McKinnon says. It “maybe starts with this little enclave of women who make it happen, and girls see that. Instead of hanging out on the beach, more and more say, ‘I want to catch waves, too.’”

When local Vanessa Yeager launched the Facebook group Surf Mamas seven years ago, it was a local meetup for a handful of young mothers interested in rotating wave-catching with beach-bound babysitting duties. Renamed Women Who Surf, the group now counts more than 21,000 members from all around the world.

“To this day, surfing is still male dominated, but I see more girls here, especially on the weekends, and I love it. You smile at each other and feel the camaraderie,” Yeager says.

Broadening surfing’s appeal

Numerous organizations across the California coastline have been working to diversify the sport and make it more inviting for newcomers, especially children. Based in Los Angeles, the non-profit Surf Bus Foundation has been introducing inner-city youth to surfing every summer since 2003. Visiting families have become the most regular clientele for surf lessons at Oceanside’s Whitlock Surf Experience and at North County Surf Academy, which specializes in 90-minute, family-friendly lessons.

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When Nicole Peterson and her family began visiting Encinitas, California, from Park City, Utah, she and her husband put their kids in surf camps at Eli Howard, which offers year-round surf lessons seven days a week.

“None of us knew how to surf when we started going down there,” Peterson says. “There’s so many lessons and summer camp opportunities at all the beaches. We had the girls in those for five or six years. We’d drop them off at 9 [a.m.], pick them up at noon. It worked out great for everyone.”

These days the Peterson family, which now includes 16- and 14-year-old girls, hits the beach together, even if they’re not riding the same waves.

“Our younger one would rather go mess around on her boogie board,” Peterson says. “It doesn’t matter how big the waves are, she’ll put on her flippers and paddle out with all of the surfers or put on snorkel and mask and look for fish. You can park a vehicle and stay parked, go surfing, pedal around on a bike, look for shells in tide pools, walk to shops, whatever.”

At Newport Beach, female-owned and operated Endless Sun Surf School offers women-only surf camps, individual and family private lessons, and children’s after-school surf programs. It was here that owner Amy Reda learned to surf at the age of 8. As she excelled in the sport, she became accustomed to being one of very few women hitting the break every morning.

“For sure, growing up surfing as a kid and a teenager and looking around, I was almost always the only girl,” Reda says.

However, tides are changing on the south coast, even in Orange County, which is rooted in military history and more traditionally defined gender roles than elsewhere in coastal California.

While an early morning on the break still finds female surfers often outnumbered by males, demographics may be shifting.

“In our after-school classes, there are two classes where there are way more girls than boys,” Reda says. “With the times right now, girls are totally supported to surf. I think, too, being a female owner of a business helps people feel comfortable. They want their daughter to go here to learn.”

The world of surf

Not only are more young girls learning to surf in California, but they’re getting really good at it.

In 2021, a 15-year-old Caitlin Simmers became the second youngest surfer ever to win the U.S. Open of Surfing at Huntington Beach. “I used to be…one of the girls watching,” says Simmers. “It’s weird to be the one signing autographs now.”

(Women lead the way in the world’s next great surf spot.)

Fans might get a chance to meet Simmers at events like the Super Girl Surf Pro competition, a family-friendly annual festival that launched in Oceanside in 2007 and draws hundreds of female surfers from around the world.

“One thing to remember is that each town and beach has its own vibe,” says Peterson. “If Huntington is not your scene, five miles down the road is another beach, and that vibe might be more of what you’re into.”

Peterson consults the Surfline app to check conditions at various beaches when her family visits. When families are not getting their feet wet, literally, they can soak up Southern California’s surf scene at the California Surf Museum, which features a special exhibit on Simmers and a comprehensive display of surfboards over the decades.

Dana Point not only offers a friendly vibe and gentle breaks, it’s also home to a dedicated Baby Beach as well as the Ocean Institute, with tide pool hikes every weekend and year-round oceanography learning opportunities.

Most of all, Southern California quite literally provides softer entryways into the sport of surfing.

“When I’ve traveled to big waves in other places, it’s on the reef, which is more scary,” says Caitlin Simmers. “Here, you know if you fall, you’ll fall on the sand.”

Shauna Farnell is a Colorado-based freelance writer with high hopes of becoming a better surfer, but is more often found riding a board on frozen water. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

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