Surfin' F-L-A

A group of intrepid wahines is trying to take charge of its sport

In the end, Falina won fourth place in the longboard competition, Jenni came in third, and Lauren finished second. Mimi Munro, an inductee into the East Coast Legends of Surfing Hall of Fame, took first place after riding an almost perfect wave all the way to the shore. She won $1,500 for her effort. Four-time world champ Frieda Zamba Shaw won the Queen of the Peak shortboard contest and its $5,000 purse.

Kristy lost money. She had paid $85 to compete and went home empty-handed. But she was philosophical. "That's the risk you take when you enter," she said. "It's kind of like gambling."

Steve Satterwhite
Top right, Parya Jatala runs into the surf on a frigid day at Boynton Beach. Top left, Kristy Murphy crouches on her longboard and, on the bottom, Jupiter surfer Kristy Murphy and the Siren longboard she helped design.
Top right, Parya Jatala runs into the surf on a frigid day at Boynton Beach. Top left, Kristy Murphy crouches on her longboard and, on the bottom, Jupiter surfer Kristy Murphy and the Siren longboard she helped design.

Women's surfing is riding a tidal wave of popularity. More than a hundred people entered the Queen of the Peak competition. Interest in the sport had been increasing steadily for years when the surfer-girl film Blue Crush was released to much hype last year and brought a frenzy of attention to the sport. Surfing camps for girls on both coasts were packed. Sports companies sponsored professional surfers. The cash prizes in women's contests and the number of contestants grew. The media take on the phenomenon was that surfer girls were no longer Bettys sitting on the beach watching the guys in the water. They had grabbed their boards and jumped on. Time magazine said in an article last year that half a million women and girls were surfing in the United States.

More recently, the fashion industry has followed the trend. Helmut Lang dubbed his Spring 2003 line "The Next Wave." In its February 2003 issue, Elle magazine did a spread titled "Blue Crush," predicting a surf-inspired spring and summer. Sales of women's surfing wear and boards is booming. Quiksilver Inc., a surfing-wear company based in Huntington Beach, California, predicts that its Roxy girl's brand, which did $210 million in sales in 2002, will outstrip the male line in two years.

And it isn't just surfers making and buying the stuff. Abercrombie & Fitch, which branched out into surfer fashion two years ago, predicts its surfing-themed Hollister line will account for 25 percent of revenue in two years.

The attention means more companies are sponsoring more girl surfers. The companies provide surfing wear -- board shorts, bathing suits, sunglasses -- and surfboards for professionals and amateurs. The firms pay contest entry fees or reimburse the women if they place in a contest. Top athletes like Layne Beachley, who is the face of Billabong Girls, are sought by companies because their radical board skills give cachet to the brand.

Still, only a handful of female professional surfers earn hefty salaries from contests and endorsements. And their earnings are anemic compared to those of men like Kelly Slater. Top-ranked men like Slater can rake in up to $1 million a year, whereas top-ranked women's earnings peak around $200,000.

Kristy rode the waves for two years in Palm Beach County and won the amateur East Coast Surfing Championship in the longboard division in 2001. Then, like many Florida surfers before her, she moved to California a year ago to test her skills. She began surfing professionally after moving to northern San Diego County and has done fairly well in local and national contests. She came in fifth overall, for instance, in the 2002 Margaritaville Series, a major longboard event. And she took second place in the senior division of the Roxy Wahine Classic in San Onofre, California, in 2002.

But she only earned $2,000 from surfing last year. She worked part-time as a waitress and as a telemarketer for an Internet company to make ends meet, even though she counts Ocean Pacific as a sponsor. But she now realizes that there just isn't enough money in the sport for her to support herself. "I moved out to California thinking I could focus on surfing," she says, "but I can't survive."

It's tough not only for unproven surfers like Kristy. Falina Spires is also struggling. In 2000, she helped launch the Elleven line of women's surfing clothing with fellow professional Prue Jeffries. The women assisted in designing the clothes and represented the owner, a California company called Bodywaves. Elleven paid Falina $2,000 a month, she says, until the line stopped production in February 2001.

To continue competing on the world circuit, Falina needs a steady sponsor willing to fund her. She has had media attention, appearing in Sports Illustrated for a segment on women athletes, yet she's having a hard time lining up a company. She's been meeting with potential backers but has not received the offer she wants. "I'm not going to take $400 a month," she vowed at the Queen of the Peak contest. "That wouldn't be fair to the other girls here. If I took $400, what does it mean they could expect?"

Falina may be somewhat of a victim of the commercialization of women's surfing. Although all the attention means that women are sought-after by sponsors and paid to appear in ads and that women's contests are funded better, some female surfers complain that companies increasingly favor women genetically gifted with surfer-babe looks over those who surf well. They want the emphasis on the authentic surfer and the money to go to developing the sport.

To Falina, Kristy, and Jenni, the surfer girl's allure is about taking risks, about dressing in skimpy bikinis because it feels good to be almost naked, not because men find it hot. Surfer girls aren't supposed to care whether their hair is wet and matted or a fingernail has chipped on the board. In Blue Crush, Jenni points out, one of the girls goaded the other by saying, "Don't be such a Barbie."

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