Women of all ages and occupations fearlessly plunge their surfboards into the cold, frothing surf off the Sonoma Coast and brave strong rip currents, inconsistent swells and quickly changing conditions to catch a few, imperfect waves.
But only a handful of them head out on a regular basis despite the tidal-like pull of work and family and the difficulty of finding a window in which conditions are just right. They do it on sunny fall days, when the waves provide a nice, glassy shoulder, as well as on stormy winter days, when their hunt for big swells takes them up and down the coast.
“There are a couple hundred men and maybe 15 women, and out of those, only six or seven women are hard core,” said Caroline “Cea” Higgins of Bodega Bay, a longtime ocean lover and swimmer who has two children and studies law online. She also serves as the coordinator of the local chapter of Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit, grassroots ocean environmental organization.
“We have family and jobs, so it’s hard to find the time and match it to the conditions,” she said.
Surfing off the North Coast is challenging for both sexes. It lies within the “Red Triangle,” the feeding grounds of the Great White Shark, and requires a high level of perseverance and physical fitness, especially in the winter when the water is colder, the waves bigger and the rip currents stronger.
“It’s there to be discovered for those who have the brass ovaries or the balls to stick with it,” Higgins said. “The reason you go out on a bad day is so that when it does get good, you’re ready.”
Adds Heather Hyde, a competitive surfer who lives in Santa Rosa, “It’s super demanding athletically. I’ve had triathletes tell me it’s the hardest thing they’ve ever done ... so it impresses me when women are out here, surfing through the winter and handling the conditions.”
Higgins, 52, got started surfing in her 40s, after a scary accident that trapped her beneath her kayak.
“I decided I didn’t want to be trapped again,” she said. “Someone brought me out here (to Salmon Creek) eight years ago and gave me a small board, and I got slammed .... but I loved it. And I said, ‘I have got to figure it out.’”
It took Higgins a long time to stand up, but she loved about ruggedness of the North Coast and refused to go to easier surf spots near Doran Beach or Bolinas. She just continued to get beat up until she mastered the art of catching the waves and reading the conditions.
“This is pretty open ocean, and if it gets to be large and too difficult to get out, I don’t go,” she said. “At my age, it’s about knowing that I can surf into my 70s and 80s and knowing I can stay in shape ... It’s fun to get the salt in your nose and be with the seals and get knocked around.”
Women who don’t want to go through that steep learning curve can still enjoy the exhilarating power and breathtaking beauty of the North Coast beaches on body boards. About a dozen members of the Sonoma County Surfer Girls regularly slip into wetsuits and fins and take their boards to Bodega Bay, paddling out at Salmon Creek Beach in the fall or Doran Beach in the winter.