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.
They get the same thrill that surfers get from catching a wave, only intensified because they’re riding just inches away from the churning energy of the water.
“I think it’s a way to feel empowered,” said 50-year-old Sherri Costa of Forestville, who started a Facebook group for body boarders four years ago. “It’s a way to just forget about stuff ... With our surf group, it feels like you’re part of a big group, and you can connect and just have fun.”
There were no other women in the water when Hyde started surfing on the Sonoma Coast in 1994. She caught the surfing bug when she was 10, during a trip to Hawaii on which she met Al Gallant, one of Southern California’s surfing pioneers of the 1940s who also was her mother’s godfather.
“He was a big inspiration to me, and it totally shaped my life,” said Hyde of Santa Rosa, now 36. “I competed for years all over the world, and was on the World Qualifying Series for a year when I was 20.”
Earlier this month, she competed in the Longboard Invitational in Malibu.
Over the years, Hyde has watched the growth of a sport that began in the 1980s with the genesis of the surf ’n’ skateboard culture.
“Surfing and skating are both sports that go hand in hand,” she said. “If the surf conditions aren’t good, you can skate, and it helps your surfing.”
In the late ‘90s, surfing continued to evolve as big wave surfing gained momentum around the world, including at the annual Mavericks surf contest held off Half Moon Bay. It captured people’s attention and amped up the excitement for the sport.
“Surf schools were starting to pop up, and there was a push for women surfing,” she said. “Then recognition started coming from big companies. You get women excited about the surf, and then you get women excited about buying clothes.”
After teaching surfing in Australia and at kids’ camps in Sonoma County, Hyde moved to Costa Rica to work at a surf camp and yoga retreat for women.
“I ran the surf school for seven years, and my son was born in 2005,” she said. “I surfed during the entire pregnancy.”
Hyde and her son, Oliver, moved back to Sonoma County in 2010 when he was ready to enter elementary school. She now works as a marine surveyor for her family business, K.D. Moore Associates, but still finds time to surf on weekends.
When she’s in the water, Hyde tends to be assertive, but she also tries to educate new surfers on proper surfing etiquette and she still enjoys teaching the sport to friends and to kids.
“It’s a pretty selfish sport,” she said. “But as a teacher, you’re sharing it with others. I love watching people learn and get excited about it.”
Like most of the other women surfing today, she now enjoys the camaraderie of male surfers, even when they’re fighting for the same waves.
“When I started surfing, I got a bunch of crap from the guys: ‘You can’t surf out here, you’re just getting in the way,’” she recalled. “But I wasn’t afraid to try and compete with the boys ... Women are definitely more accepted in the water now.”
Staff writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 521-5287 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @dianepete56.