March is Women’s History Month, a time to celebrate the impacts women have made to our communities and societies. These impacts are as varied as a field of wildflowers and just as beautiful and precious. History has deigned to record some names while others are remembered only by loved ones, family and friends, for those contributions, while not noteworthy to historians, are just as important to the individuals affected. With all of this reflecting I began to wonder about the role women have played in the years with regards to surfing, a sport that is typically identified as a male dominated activity.
Surfing history takes us back in time to the 17th century and there is evidence men, women and children all surfed together as a family activity in the Hawaiian and Polynesian Islands. Mamala was a demi-god or kapua in Polynesian culture and was recognized as a skilled surfer taking many different forms including that of a beautiful female or a combination of half shark and half woman. There are also stories of a mythical princess from Maui named Princess Kelea who was described as the best surfer in the Hawaiian Islands. In 1905, the oldest known surfboard was found in the burial cave of Princess Kaneamuna and it is believed the surfboard belonged to the Princess and entombed with her.
Fast forward to 1885 and Princess Ka’iulani demonstrated her skill on a surfboard not only to her fellow Hawaiians but to the English as well when she surfed the English Channel. From there we meet Isabel Letham, a 15-year-old Australian girl who was proficient at swimming and bodysurfing. Duke Kahanamoku taught to her ride a surfboard in the early 1900’s at Freshwater Beach and she is considered to be the first Australian, female or male, to have surfed a surfboard. Since then names like Marge Calhoun, Mary Ann Hawkins, Kathy Kohner (better known as Gidget) Rell Sunn (Hawaii’s first lifeguard), Linda Merrill, Lisa Anderson, Layne Beachley, Bethany Hamilton, and many others have continued to pursue the magic of riding a surfboard as it runs along the face of a wave. Some have their names recorded in the history books for their impact on the sport of surfing, others, their names remembered and treasured by loved ones, family and friends for their daily actions and contributions. And for us, we recognize and thank all of them, past and present, for all the paths they have blazed and all the love they have shared.