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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, July 30, 2002

Waves provide a refuge from expectations and responsibilities

 •  Previous 'About Men/Women'

By Keiko Ohnuma
Advertiser Staff Writer

It's my standard quip when the surf break gets crowded: There should be a quota on guys out here.

At a certain point — say 20 guys to every chick — the new arrivals should have to bring their girlfriend or mother in tow.

But I've started to notice that being one of the lone seals in a tank full of sharks might carry advantages. That helps to explain why so many women wear those bikinis you have to find before surfacing to breathe, and the boardflower bouquets at breaks that can be like soggy singles bars in the summertime, like Tonggs, or Rock Piles on a slow day.

My surf look had always seemed to me about as flattering as running shorts or biking Lycra: You're wet as a rat and surf like a kook. What is sexy about that? Even I couldn't help but notice, though, that being a kooky woman in a pack of guys can give you certain privileges. You get away with a lot.

For instance, no one but the crudest boor is going to expose his lower nature by yelling at you for dropping in — or do more than grunt in helpless aggravation as you flap around in the direct path of a wave he's set to carve. He is not going to slash your tires, or your board, or your face.

In fact, surfing may be one of the only arenas in sports where the code of chivalry still pertains.

And that calls forth a certain uncustomary reciprocal gallantry from us women.

Paddling up fresh at a new break, you're more likely than not to let the biggest, oldest, meanest-looking longboarder in the pack tell you which waves to take. ("Paddle! Paddle! Paddle!" etc.)

You are not about to escape once braddah explains that THIS is the choice spot to sit, next to him, for as long he's out there — at least if you plan on coming back. If a shark arrives, or you suddenly stop breathing, that guy is going to save your life. (Probably not if you lose your board, though. You gotta learn to swim for those.)

Even when the men aren't being chivalrous, the world of surfing operates by rules that can give a girl a new sense of freedom. It's kind of like when women go shopping: They're out there to do one thing, and they're focused on it. I suddenly find myself out in the wilderness with several dozen guys who are quite happy to let me do my own thing, and be focused on it, too — at least until I'm distracted by a thought, a face or a fish.

The fact is, I rarely share their state of Zen-like focus. When I surf, I am actually thinking about conversations I've had, what I have to do this week, where I'm going in life, or whatever else is calling me in to shore. That's why I will probably never be a great surfer — because catching waves is only part of what I do out there (a very small part, as those who know me will testify).

I think that's precisely why so few women surf much past their mid-20s. It's rare for us to be able to clear that space in our lives amid the constant call to care for and communicate. It's harder to feel our wildness — like the joy of boys yelping at the ocean.

The world of the water is full of people you see only when they are most happy and free of real-world responsibilities. That's what makes it, for the few of us, a secret privilege, a rare indulgence. It's a place where you can actually forget for a few hours what it is to be a woman, and just be a child again.