alternative press serving the lower columbia pacific region

Spirit in the Waves – Women Who Surf The North Coast

Sydney Nelson rides the clear blue Pacific.

THE WATER is ice-crystal-blue and the waves are breaking hard against the rocky shore. It’s raining sideways, I am shivering under my wool hat and fleece jacket; the sky is a typical Oregon-coast-grey. I watch my husband, a black neoprene figure with a scruffy beard, balancing over the slippery rocks leading down to the ocean. There are a handful of other surfers already out there. They are harmoniously following an unspoken pattern of turn-taking as they paddle, one at a time, into the oncoming swells. Some are skillfully scaling down the face of these mountainous waves; others are being spit out from the barreling mouth, board soaring through the air, body dropping into the mass of turbulent white water at the bottom. Most of the black-suited bodies are masculine figures; but every once in awhile I detect a feminine silhouette gracefully gliding down the enormous face. I watch in awe, as my heart vicariously skips a beat, who is that?

Anyone who has visited our open beaches on a sunny, summer Saturday has witnessed how much joy the ocean can bring people of all ages. You can find people riding waves using everything from their own bodies to kayaks, but these “weekend warriors,” as passionate as they are about the ocean when they are on vacation, may not be aware of what surfing means to the year-round local surfer around here. While some were born and raised here, others migrated to our coastal towns years ago for the sole purpose of surfing. What most established local surfers would say they have found here is a tight-knit community of surfers, who protect what they love with a vengeance. Localism is heavy, especially in the winter months when the waves are large and the coveted surf spots are working. Given the intimidating conditions, one may assume that all of the year round ocean dwellers are men; that assumption is far from true.

There are many awe-inspiring female surfers in our community that, with steady commitment, charge our icy-cold waters year round. They are of all ages, walks of life, and skill level, but they are united by a common bond: a love for the ocean and the willingness to face whatever She throws their way.

I hail you back to that cold, rainy, winter day, when I stood watching a female figure gracefully cascade down the face of a giant wave. Who was that woman? Her name is Sydney Nelson.

Sydney Nelson
Seaside, Oregon

How long have you lived in Seaside?

I came to Seaside 16 years ago, planning to work, just for the summer, at Cleanline Surf Shop. I was living at Mount Hood at the time, but I fell in love with it here; all aspects: the beauty, the surfing, the community, and I never left.

How long have you been surfing?

18 years. I was a sponsored, competitive snowboarder for 15 years, but I got injured and couldn’t do it anymore. After that, I got serious about surfing.

Did you have a teacher, or are you self-taught?

I am self taught, I learned completely on my own. I was on a mission to learn and I was determined. The local guys befriended me when I moved here and we would all surf together. I’ve been obsessed with surfing for as long as I can remember. Even when I was living in Arizona as a kid, I knew surfing would become a huge part of my life, I just didn’t know when.

How long did you co-own the Seaside Surf Shop?

I co-owned Seaside Surf for 10 years, but it was time to make a change. Doing what I loved for a living was hard, it added an element of stress to my surfing and it was starting to change surfing for me.

How was your transition into the surfing community when you first moved here?

I got some grief, but I was determined, and you have to earn it. I understand the localism here, it’s necessary. I don’t think violent or destructive localism is necessary, but we’ve got to protect and respect this area, in all ways; picking up trash on the beach, shopping locally, and respecting the beauty of this place. All the locals are really good guys, with huge hearts, but this is where they were raised, it’s their backyard, and they want respect for their backyard.

Do you think that women treat each other differently than men treat each other in the ocean?

Women are much friendlier to each other. There are times when we are edgy, but for the most part we are more accepting by nature.

What role does surfing play in your life?

Surfing is my whole life. I plan my days around what the surf is doing. I can’t do anything with my day unless I know what the surf is doing.

What’s the one thing you would tell a woman interested in picking up surfing around here?

No matter what you think, or how un-cool it seems, do not start on a shortboard. Learn to surf on a longboard and your frustration level will be so much lower. Also, you’ve got to be a good swimmer, because you can’t just rely on a flotation device.

Born and raised in Cannon Beach, Julie Nelson has taken her love for surfing across the nations. For the last two years, she has dedicated her life to the non-profit humanitarian surf organization, Surfing the Nations. Now based in Wahiawa, Oahu, she travels around the world working with underprivileged children, forming relationships with them, and teaching them how to swim and surf. Here’s what she had to say about growing up as a female surfer in this area and how it’s evolved into what she is doing now.

Julie Nelson
Wahiawa, Oahu

How long have you been surfing?

10 years, I started when I was 14.

Who taught you?

I sort of taught myself, but I was always in the water with my dad; my dad is a natural fish and I’m a daddy’s girl, so I was always with him. My best friend, Micah Cerelli kept me surfing in High School, and Mark Mekenas (owner of Cannon Beach Surf Shop) poured the culture of surfing into my life, and that was really what led me to what I am doing now.

With both the extreme elements and the heavy localism of this area, have you always felt comfortable in the water?

Yes, because my dad had me in the water from day one, and that gave me a lot of confidence; the consistency of being in the water all my life took away the fear. I also always stuck with a crew that included guys; they would block for me, cheer me on, and make sure I made it out every time.

In what ways has surfing impacted the direction your life has gone?

It has allowed me to realize how far I can go using what God has given me. I’ve found that it’s hard to find a surfer that doesn’t believe in something bigger. Surfing opens your eyes to the power of creation; it makes you realize that there’s something greater.

Surfing is a common language no matter what culture I am in. It’s an instant connection with people who don’t’ speak the same language as I, and that serves to further our relationship. Surfing has allowed me to reach the nations, the surf board is simply a means of my day, but the culture is what makes me who I am.

Do you have a surfing mentor?

I’ve had several at different times in my life. When I was learning how to surf, it was my friend Micah; she always pushed my skills. Later, it was Mark Mekenas, who helped to develop the professional side of my surfing. I began teaching lessons for him at Cannon Beach Surf, when I was 15, and now I am the department head of the Surfing the Nations Surf Department. Right now my mentor is Charis Ifland. She influences me in every way: skills, passion and professionalism.

Do you see yourself ending up back here on the Oregon coast?

Yes, definitely. Growing up on the Oregon coast is the best blessing, but also a curse, because you can never stay away.

My next interviewee, Beth (Gergick) Catt, is as dedicated as they come. She is 7 months pregnant and still riding waves. Originally from Florida, she spent time in both California and Portland, before moving to the Oregon coast 5 1/2 years ago to surf our much colder Pacific Ocean breaks.

Beth (Gergick) Catt
Seaside, Oregon

How long have you been surfing?

I started 19 years ago in Florida.

Did you move to Seaside for the surf?

Yes, I was living in Portland and driving to the coast every week to surf. I decided that I needed to just move to the ocean.

Have you been surfing consistently throughout your pregnancy?

Yes, but I have to be more cautious now of what conditions I go out in. I also have had to alter my paddling position. I have to bend my knees and put my butt up in the air to take the pressure off the baby. (Beth gets down on the floor to demonstrate and it’s quite entertaining.)

Who taught you how to surf?

Ever since I was a little girl I had been drawn to surf culture. Growing up in Florida I was always playing in the ocean and I have always felt really connected to the ocean. My brother surfed and I begged him to take me out but it never really happened.

At the end of High School I decided to stop waiting around for someone to teach me, so I bought a board and went out on shore-pound waves, clueless about what I was doing. My friend, Joanna, was my only friend who would do it with me, we were addicted. Finally, my friend, Shawnie, started taking me out to the official local breaks at New Smyrna Beach Inlet.

How was your transition into the local surf community when you moved to Seaside?

To this day, I feel extremely lucky that I had an easy transition. People have been nothing but welcoming and supportive in the water. At times I had to make the first effort with some of the women in the ocean to show that there was no competition with me and that it was all about camaraderie. I was always just so stoked to be surfing with other women. I use to feel like I had to prove myself up and down the Oregon coast, and it was actually pretty freeing for me when I surrendered that ego and just surfed when and where I wanted. I got better and started having that fun stoked feeling again that I originally had when I first started surfing. I have a humble respect for the women around here that I see charging bigger surf than I am comfortable with.

What role does surfing play in your life?

Surfing has changed the whole course of my life. I have only allowed myself to live in places where I could be near the ocean, which has shut out many opportunities, but opened up many opportunities as well. Surfing has taken me through Central and South America, to Indonesia, Canada and Mexico; a lot of that traveling was by myself. It has thrown me into new cultures, which in turn has molded me into a much more open-minded person. It has changed what’s important to me. I would much rather live in a shack near the ocean than a mansion in Ohio…no offense to Ohio.

I had the realization one day that I use the same words to describe God, Love and the Ocean.  I need them, I crave them, I am in awe of them, but I know that if I don’t respect them, I am in trouble.

Judi Lampi began swimming competitively when she was 14 years old. She’s a two-time All American Swimmer, with 4 years of collegiate swimming under her belt, and over 15 years of competitive swimming through Masters Swimming Club. She began surfing a year and half ago. At 53, she refers to herself as an “advanced beginner.” To say she’s inspiring would be an understatement. I had the privilege of sitting down with Judi to talk about what inspired her to start surfing, how it has impacted her life, and what her future goals are as she continues to pursue this enlivening sport.

Judi Lampi
Warrenton, Oregon

How long have you lived in Warrenton?

I moved here from Portland 9 years ago.

What inspired you to start surfing?

When I moved here in 2003, I took part in Northwest Women’s Surf Camp with Lexi Hallahan and I really enjoyed it, but I didn’t get passionate about it yet. A friend of mine started surfing and he and I got into it together a year and a half ago. We would go 2-3 times a week. We hired Lexi and did semi-private lessons with 2-3 people. Then my friend moved away and I started surfing by myself. I hired Lexi for private lessons; she’s my “surf coach.”

In what ways has surfing impacted your life?

It has put excitement back into my life; it energizes me and gives me something to look forward to. I have lost 27 pounds since I started surfing and now that I feel energized, I want to be in better shape. I started taking a yoga class and that has really helped with my balance. Surfing has inspired me to be a healthier person; when you are on the beach and in the water, you feel good about yourself.

As a new surfer, how have you been treated by other surfers in the water?

Everyone is really nice. They answer questions for me and I get to visit with some really interesting people in the parking lots. Now that I have been surfing for awhile, I find that I start to see the same people. They recognize me and say hello; that’s really nice when you are surfing alone.

How has your history of competitive swimming influenced your surfing?

It has given me a lot of confidence in my swimming abilities when I surf, but I know that I still have to respect the ocean.

What are your personal surfing goals right now?

I still have a lot of work to do, especially dropping into waves. I am out past the break now and learning how to angle my board on my drop. I am focusing on turning my board into waves and riding down the line. With Lexi’s guidance, I set goals for myself and once I achieve those goals and gain the confidence I need, I tackle the next ones. One thing that I really want to learn more about is how wind direction and tides affect the swell.

Do you see yourself surfing for the rest of your life?

Yes, definitely.

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