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Building a Surfing Sisterhood

We met Sally McGee on our trip to Northumberland, back in the Autumn of 2019. A prominent member of the East Coast surfing scene, she has forged her own path with her all female surf-school Yonder, encouraging more and more women to take up the craft of waveriding.

There are far fewer women out there surfing than men; you only have to look at the lineup. But why? Drawing on her own experiences and those of the women who have joined Yonder, Sally talks us through her surfing journey and why she believes some women benefit from having the support of a surfing sisterhood. 

Sally McGee emerges from the water after teaching a surf class with the girls from Yonder - Image Credit Tom Bing

My surfing journey is a fairly straightforward one; I feel privileged in that sense. Through my role as a surf instructor and coach, I am aware that my experience of becoming a surfer does not necessarily reflect that of others; in fact, that is one of the most beautiful things about surfing. Everybody develops a different relationship with it and the ocean and their motivations vary. For me, it has been at the centre of my life since I realised that it was possible to be a surfer on the east coast of England. That first winter of commitment to the North Sea sparked a deep rooted passion that has defined my life to this point; and will continue to define my life well into mine and my family's future. Some of my surfer friends just look forward to a dip once or twice a year and that’s fine too. Surfing is a personal journey and that fascinates me.

A young Sally McGee looks like she means business standing alongside her rugby teammates

I grew up in Bradford with two brothers. I played rugby from the age of eight with the boys and never questioned it. It was completely normal for me. I was the first girl to play rugby at our school and went down in the history books for it. My Dad proudly retells the story of his seven year old daughter asking a teenage boy hesitating on a rope swing into the river Wharf whether he was ‘going to go or not?’ before proceeding to push past him and jump off the swing into the cold, murky waters. For me, I didn’t even question it, it was my river, my rope swing.

I think the bottom line is that I wasn’t treated any differently to my brothers by my parents and I grew up with confidence and to absolutely adore the water and anything that involved being outside. I was a skinny kid with no boobs and constantly bruised legs. Body confidence was always a thing in the back of my mind and it was sometimes really hard to deal with. During those difficult teenage years I was labelled a ‘Tom Boy’ and usually became friends with boys as opposed to being the girlfriend. I tried not to let it bother me. Obviously, it did bother me in many ways, but the things I wanted to do were more important; confidence is key and I was privileged to have some. 

Before my teenage years no-one ever suggested to me that I couldn’t or shouldn’t do or be something because of my gender, but I know that this is not the case for every woman.

At the age of thirteen I was told that I had to quit the rugby team I’d played with for the past five years. I could no longer play with the boys and had to move on to find something new to do. I couldn’t join another team as ‘female only’ teams didn’t exist in my area at the time and to be honest, that thought had never even crossed my mind. It was an eye opener for me, I remember crying as I left the pitch for the last time and saying farewell to my childhood team mates. It didn’t make sense, I felt tougher than any of those lads but yeah, things were changing for me, I was becoming a teenager, my body was changing and ‘it just wasn’t right’ that I played with the boys anymore. This was RUFC rules at the time. So the thing that had occupied my time, the thing that occupied my families time, I could no longer do, because I was a girl. The act of surfing is, luckily, different. It’s an individual and very personal experience. Our surfing journey and how we enter that world is also very personal.

Sally McGee as a youngster at an early surf school lesson

I never questioned my right to surf, it was never even something I thought about, I didn’t ever think that it was an activity that only men did. Every single one of my role models at the start of my surfing journey were the people right in front of me in the line-up, encouraging and supporting me - and every single one of them was male. Starting out I was lucky to find the right crew and everyone can benefit from a small crew to keep motivated and inspired to surf. The surf community is supportive, end of. There are individual characters within the community that might not be so supportive but I do not personally believe that this has anything to do with gender, at least I hope not.

As my surfing progressed and I started to travel to more respected spots and venture off the beaches. With this, my experience, like everybody else's, started to change gradually. There’s no denying that my female presence is noticed in a male dominated line up, especially in more critical and competitive waves. Everyone, male or female, has to prove themselves in a line up; you miss the wave, you get to the back of the queue. You mess up a drop and it shows weakness. Although my peers are supportive, the surf world is a lot less ‘chill’ than many are led to believe. It’s pretty cut throat; get to the back of the line or maybe don’t surf here. To be honest, that has never really bothered me, there are rules and attitudes in place for a reason; there's a food chain, we all have or place in it, but we can move up the chain as we gain experience. Respect buys respect in surfing. Everyone is in the same position, male or female.

Sally McGee surfing in Marocco tucking into a green water barrel

But let’s talk about the issue that actually really interests me and was a huge motivator for starting my all-female surf school, Yonder. Why are there more males in the water, in particular 'out back', than females and why didn’t I have any local female role models to look up to when I started surfing? And still to this day, when I surf the reefs or heavier spots locally or travel to surf, I am either the only female in the line-up, or in a very small minority.

There is no denying that lower female participation in ‘sporting’ activities is a fact, but it is definitely not a reality isolated only to the surfing world. It’s not hard to find the research. Poor participation by women in sporting activities is a very real issue with clear defining reasons which are complex, far reaching and deeply embedded in society. For some women who want to do something, they are simply going to do it. But for many others, it’s just not that simple. To get good at surfing it takes real commitment and dedication; the wipeouts, the many wipeouts and mustering the motivation to get in during the cold months when the surf is good is hard for everyone. Then there's the in between bit, the bit between white water and 'outback' the bit that ends so many peoples surfing journey, but with a little bit of support could be a life changer.

Sally McGee getting changed into her Finisterre wetsuit on a dark morning - Image Credit Tom Bing

You have the teenage girls (and the evidence is sadly overwhelming) that feel that participating in sport is ‘unfeminine,’ and wish to avoid anything that might be even slightly embarrassing. There’s the mums, the typical primary caregivers that are struggling to find childcare or justify time spent on hobbies. Then there’s associations with competition (often linked back to bad experiences at school) that cause many people to switch off when it comes to sporting activities. And then there are those that think they are too old to start something new, too unfit to even try. Those that are absolutely terrified by the prospect of wearing a skin tight wetsuit, so strong is the feeling of body shame. This is not to say that anyone else in the water would even care or notice, in fact I'm sure they wouldn't but that doesn't negate from the fact that it is an issue, an issue often perceived to be perpetuated by surf media.

Confidence is key, but equally, representation and influence from peers is vital. In that sense there is a lot to be said for the mindset of ‘I will if you will’. Seeing other women do something opens it up for others to follow and providing a supportive women-only environment has been proven time and time again to do just that. Not just in surfing. My good friends at VC London are making incredible waves in the motorcycle and motorsports world through their work with women. There is nowhere with more hype than the girls skateboard movements that are using social media to build communities which are growing exponentially. This is all through positivity, not through man-hating or at the exclusion of men. The brands are slowly starting to catch on and change their storytelling of female involvement in sports.

Sally McGee surfing in the cold waters of the North East

Social confidence is another barrier cited by the research, one that is certainly not isolated to women, but if we are thinking about why there are less women in the water catching waves than men, then this is an important one. Research by Sporting England shows that women are often put off by the idea of having to ‘confront’ these activities on their own. Concerns about ability are definitely very real issues women who have been previously very sporty can worry about ability and failure to live up to expectations, in terms of performance. I get enquiries all the time and the simple matter is for some women knowing that you are learning amongst other women will break down this particular barrier and the truth is that the motivations that keep women participating are often different to those which caused them to start. Surfing is so often a personal pursuit, but one that you would like to do with at least one other person. Starting out and finding that person or crew can be hard, especially in an increasingly individualistic society.

Through Yonder, many of the women that joined the school now meet regularly together, it’s not necessarily about getting as many waves as possible it’s about making friends, sharing experiences and motivating each other. Having a surfing buddy, for most of us, is key to making sure you continue and improve. These crews encourage and support each other to get that wetsuit on in the cold and get in the water. For a number of the mums, having a date in the diary and a lesson booked in feels a little more of an acceptable sell to their partners or whoever they are planning on asking to look after their kids, more so in those early days than just saying ‘I'm going for a surf.’ There is a very real fear of being judged. Especially for mothers with young children. The complexities around this notion are again apparent when you look into it.

Sally McGee holding up her son Billy - Image Credit James Norman

As a new mum, this resonates with me. We might say that we have no time to commit to getting in the water and surfing, as this is a more acceptable barrier, but the real concern is perhaps the worry that spending time on exercise or anything that doesn’t involve the family might be perceived as self-indulgent and could imply that we are neglecting our domestic and maternal duties. It’s a sad but real truth.

For me personally, I don’t view surfing as a sport; more of an artform or practice. A release that is closely related to my sanity. But let’s refer to it as a sport for arguments sake. For many women and men, to refer to the act of participating in ’sport’ itself holds baggage. Sport often has associations with being competitive, aggressive and unfeminine; this is not a barrier for some women, but for many others it is. This is perhaps a wider social issue. For many, these negative associations can link back to experiences in school or childhood, during those difficult adolescent years. Perhaps the fact that for many women growing up, being a professional athlete was not something recognised as an attainable career. A brief look into gender pay disparity in sports can give an insight into why that might be the case.

The beauty of surfing is that it can be competitive if you want, but it’s also a very personal act. I don’t have the stats but it has to be close to less than 1% of the surfing population who do it competitively. For many of the girls I am teaching, the appeal of surfing is the personal challenge, alongside its relationship with nature and the social aspect. For many, it’s about health and wellbeing, be that mental health or physical health. There is no arguing that the health and social benefits of surfing are powerful and wide ranging.

This is why it’s important to try and remember that not everyone wants to be the next big thing in surfing. Many will fall in love with it and hold it central to their lives, but might never experience the machismo and competitive reef breaks. That’s fine, in fact, it might even be advisable. After all, fun and wellbeing are key. Why should it matter how your personal journey started so long as it did? I’m still earning my stripes with surfing, I’ve put the years in, had the hold downs, the knock backs, the reef cuts, bruises, heartbreaks and too many beautiful moments to count. I’ve chased waves around the globe as well as at home. I’ve done it alone, with my husband and with the masses.

Yonder was a way for me to try to create just one other pathway in the local area for some people to start to get the same enjoyment as I do from the sea. I recognised the physical and mental health benefits of the ocean and wanted to create something that I felt might go some way to breaking down some of the barriers and giving others opportunities. I’m still learning how to break down the barriers and create a positive and active community around surfing; not just for women, but for their partners, kids, friends and the wider community.

I believe that my role, outside of my own personal surfing experience, is to try to create a positive image of female cold water surfing, and invite others to experience that stoke, together. Ultimately, we all surf alone. Yonder isn’t about sectioning off parts of the beach and reserving them for women; it's about empowering women to join a positive community with a confidence they might not have on their own. East coast surf legend Steve ‘Crabbie’ Crawford said recently “Over the past 15 years I’ve given thousands of women surf lessons, but few take it up full time, well done Sal for breaking a rubbish mould and making a new one. Girls becoming part of our North East surf culture benefits us all”.

I founded Yonder to offer just one different path into surfing; a path which appeals to many women of all ages, backgrounds and experiences. With Yonder we strive to equip women with the knowledge they need to become independent surfers, forecasting, safety, etiquette and advice on equipment. When I head out for my early morning fix at the local beachbreak before I teach a lesson, I often see a small crew of dedicated ladies waving at me in the water. That was an extremely rare sight just a couple of years ago. Those who come through Yonder and decide to take it further are starting to see the rewards of their hard work; making connections, making memories and seeing the myriad of wonderful benefits the sea offers us.

Sally Mcgee walking down the beach for a surf check on a summer's day - Image Credit Tom Bing

Words by Sally McGee 
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