Dropping In

sunde white writes and illustrates her experience with localism and sexism while surfing


I recently went down to Southern California for a short surf vacation. We went to the same town we’ve been going to for years because it’s charming, has good waves and as far as I can tell seems to have friendly people.  The water is warmer than up north and the waves are cruisy no matter how big they get and we stay at a place that allows dogs, so it’s perfect.

But this year I had the lamest locals only/ lady hating club experiences I have had in years. First of all, for people who have no idea about surf culture, the stereotype that surfers are super mellow is not true.  We are all out to get as many waves as possible every time we go out.  But waves are a limited resource which means fierce competition for each wave that creates a very intense and intimidating vibe.  If you’re a woman it’s even worse.

This leads to the “Locals Only” mind set where if the local surfers don’t recognize you they’ll gang up and snake your waves till you get out of the water.  It’s stupid and I find it abhorrent and immature, selfish and spoiled.  Like, wow!  You were lucky enough to be born at a surf break and you had a stable enough life that you lived in one place your whole life and never have to suffer the difficulty of moving and, on top of everything else, the place you were born is beautiful, wealthy and has beautiful weather and waves.  I guess local guys are pissed about their good fortune or something because as a response to their excellent luck in life, they bully, threaten and sometimes physically accost people so they leave “their” beach and never come back, thus keeping more waves for themselves.  Cool, huh?

Also, I guess things have changed supposedly or whatever, but there are still a ton of alpha males brimming with misogyny out there in the water.  I consider it a great success that instead of picking fights with me to intimidate me out of the water and paddling around me to steal my waves, men now just politely ignore me or sometimes make subdued conversation.  Compared to what used to happen, I’ll take it!

I admit I’m a bit scarred from a thousand bad experiences of being the only woman in the line up being paddled up on aggressively and yelled at by big dudes with diminished frontal lobes.  I  just keep to myself out there now.  Even if someone drops in front of me, ruining my wave, I keep quiet and paddle back out to get another wave.  Calling a man off a wave almost always starts an altercation. Most men just can’t handle it, in my experience.   Anyway, I’m old now so I pretty much get left alone and am allowed to get my waves in a generally pleasant surf environment.

I haven’t experienced a man being so violent and aggressive towards me in the water EVER like what happened last week at my vacation spot.  The waves were okay, like maybe three or four feet, but kind of junky and not worth fighting about by any means.  I had my quirky little potato chip board that’s super short, chubby and wide, bright yellow and zips around like a magical little rocket.  But it’s a new style of board that I just started fiddling with in the past couple of months so it’s still kind of an experiment every time I surf it.  I took it out that morning because it has so much surface area that it can still pick up the slow, sluggish waves that the longboarders around me were getting but it’s like 4 feet shorter.

It was pretty early and not that crowded because the water temp had plunged over night.  So Britt and I were getting our waves and doing what we always do when we surf together, drifting off to our own peaks that are the right fit for us based on what boards we have.  He was sitting outside of where I was and was one peak over because he uses a bigger board so he saw the whole incident from the back of the wave.

I took off on a nice right and my little board was zipping me down the wave just as it was designed to when I see a big longboard drop right in front of me, blocking my path across the face.  When I tried to turn to straighten out towards shore to avoid him, my board slipped out and I wiped out.  The surfer on the longboard finally decided to turn his board into the face of the wave and cruise off.

As usual I said nothing and paddled back out for another wave.  Suddenly I hear the guy that stole my wave shouting at me.

“What are you retarded???” He screamed as he paddled up to me.  “You’re such a fucking retard, what the fuck are you even doing out here??? Why are you even here, crashing on waves?  You can’t even fucking surf, get the fuck out of here you fucking retard.”

I was actually shocked that he was attacking me over an incident that he caused.  “What?? Actually I was on that wave and you dropped in on me.”  I told him.  He had paddled past me now and was screaming for all his friends in the line up to hear.  So they’d know that I’m a weirdo bad surfer that they all need to gang up on and not let me get any waves so I melt into a puddle of anxiety and paddle back to the beach in shame.  But I’ve been surfing over 30 years now.  Sorry bro, but you’re not going to say I was in the wrong when you were.

“You fucking bitch!”  he screamed. “You fucking retarded bitch.  What are you fucking talking about?  You were going the wrong way and then threw your board at me.  Why’d you fucking throw your board at me?  You are such a fucking bitch!”

The thing about my new board is that it doesn’t have a center fin, just two on each side so it’s skatey and slippery and fast as hell but it’s not a high performance board that you could crank a turn out of the blue while flying down the line, there’s no center fin to pick into the water and propel you in a different direction. Instead, when the guy dropped in on me I tried to turn to avoid him but my board slipped out instead of turning straight.

“Why would I throw my board at you and get it smashed?  I wiped out because you dropped in on me.”  I repeated.

My brain began to slow down.  I became very calm which happens to me sometimes during altercations.  Everything he said felt like it came out of his mouth in slow motion and I could look at it and turn it around in my brain and take my time before I answered him.  He began using literally every trope that an abusive man tries to throw at a woman to diminish her.  He began saying all the things that women hear throughout our lives on TV, by bosses, in the political arena, at school.  He literally used all of them during the altercation.

He started in with the retarded bit again but I interrupted him. “It’s not cool to try to insult me by using that word.  It’s a horrible word.”

He stopped using that word and locked back into the fucking bitch rant.  Then he Hillaried me.  Yep, he started to attack my voice.

“God, your voice is hideous!”  He made little beak motions with his hands and waved them in the air.  “Your voice is horrible it’s like a bunch of screeching seagulls.  Caw Caw caw caw!!!”

He was far from me now.  I knew he was trying to gather the power of his bros so they’d start ganging up, but to their credit they stayed out of it.  People were staring at us now because when there’s a confrontation in the water it makes both people look like crazy assholes and I’m very aware of this.  But I knew that I had the right to tell him he dropped in on me and it was my right to defend myself. But I wasn’t going to get triggered by this guy.  I just kept repeating every so often, when he went back onto the topic of surfing, that HE had dropped in on ME. And that’s all.

“Why are you even fucking out here?”  He repeated.  “Go back to Sacramento.”   These guys always claim you are from an inland town that you have never been to and then tell you to go back there.

“I’m so sick of you fucking travelers coming here into our line up. “  He continued.  “Get the fuck out of here.  You’re not gonna catch one more fucking wave out here.  I’m going to drop in on every fucking wave you get.”

“That’s fine, I guess there’s nothing I can do about that.”  I told him, trying to stay still and calm.

But he couldn’t stay on the topic of surfing for long.   He paddled back over to me, I pictured smoke coming out of his ears because I hadn’t conceded yet.  He tried the next trope designed to shame women.

“Wow, look at you, out here all by yourself.  It’s so sad that no one’s with you.  You must have some home life.  It must be a real mess with how stubborn you are.”

I didn’t say anything but thought about how Britt was keeping watch quietly on the next peak and that he adores me.

“Sorry you’re so fucking miserable at home, that you’re all by yourself.”  As if that’s a bad thing, I thought to myself.

I could see that this guy was not winding down and had practically left his body in his rage.  All women know that this is a dangerous moment.  It’s a moment where many women have been killed or seriously injured.  I remained sitting on my board, looking out at the horizon, hoping he’d tire himself out but he just kept on.

He caught a wave, which I thought might settle him down and he could move on, these things happen in the water sometimes, let’s just move on.  I turned to see him paddling back up to me.  He had a wry smile, like how I picture a serial killer would smile as he tortured his victim.

His tone changed the slightest for a split second to almost admiration and humor.  Where, if he wasn’t who he was, we could have made a joke about it and moved on.  “You’re really stubborn you know that?”  But then the moment to neutralize the situation passed in a split second as his anger flooded his brain again just looking at me.

“You’re one stubborn bitch.  You fucking bitch.”  He had paddled up about two feet away from me now and was sitting on his board.  I looked at his face and his shoulder length brown hair and realized he looked like my brother.  That familiarity shocked me but then calmed me for some reason.

Through clinched teeth he goes, “If you were a man I’d fucking beat your face in.” He bent down and with both hands began scooping water and splashing it onto my face.  I wiped the water out of my eyes so I could see him.  The danger was becoming palpable.  I pictured him grabbing me, pulling me off my board and holding me under water.

When he threw water on me it seemed to trigger a few of the men in the line up.  It seemed to make them uncomfortable.  They had turned towards us now.  No one knew I had Britt out there.  I knew he’d be there in a second if anything happened but we have a deal.  I handle my own battles and he doesn’t get involved and I don’t involve him.  We both know that when there is an agro man ‘roiding out, inserting a man that looks like he could possibly  be a UFC fighter only escalates everything and it turns into a “You want a piece of me bro?” situation very quickly.  I have no interest in Britt having to get into a crazy altercation with some psycho to protect my honor.  If I need help he’ll jump in but I really don’t need him getting hurt, hurting someone or getting charged with assault.

So Britt stayed back but it helped me knowing he was there.  The line up of men had begun to tighten up closer to us.  It seemed like some of the guys had begun to paddle a bit closer to us while still sitting on their boards.  A low key way to check on the situation

When he threw the water at me I knew he was very close to touching me.  I had to say something.

“So you’re going to be violent to a woman in public?  You really think that’s a good idea?”

He looked at me shocked and incredulous.  “I would never be violent towards a woman!!”  He said that to me, a woman he was being violent to, with zero irony. Then the genius says, “If you were a man I would have already beat your face in.”


I guess he was finally tired and exasperated, like a baby after a tantrum.  He began to paddle off and shouted over his shoulder, “You have bug eyes, you ugly bitch!  Go back to Iowa!”  I thought about how my eyes are my best feature and I drove through Iowa once on the way to New York, beautiful farm land with huge windmills.

He went and joined his boys at the peak.  I wasn’t sure if they were going to pile on but they didn’t seem interested.  A left came to me and I grabbed it, surfing it well, doing a high cut back so I surfed the rest of the wave going right, taking me right passed the psycho.  Sometimes the best way to just shut these guys up is to surf well enough that it’s a bit embarrassing for them to attack you.  I was lucky and grabbed a couple more waves and he and his crowd drifted down away from me.  I kept my eye on him just in case.  I finally saw him take one in and climb the stairs up to the parking lot.

Even though I was cold, I stayed out in the water for a lot longer.  I didn’t need him waiting for me in the parking lot.  I didn’t want him to see where I was staying.  I began thinking of safety solutions.  If he’s up there and starts something I’ll need to wave at a stranger in the parking lot and pretend like we know each other and then whisper for them to call the cops, that I need help.

Or as I’m walking to my rental,  if he shows up, I’ll have to walk to a stranger’s home and ring the bell and loudly pretend like I live there and hope he goes away. You know, just the usual how to not get murdered by an angry man stuff.

Britt was waiting for me on the beach.  I told him to switch boards with me since my bright yellow one is so obvious I wanted to blend in just in case.  On high alert, I walked up the stairs to the parking lot.  The guy was gone.  I never saw him again.

I didn’t surf the next day because it was flat but honestly I was very affected by what had happened.  It brought up all my feelings of always being an outsider, never a local, always a weirdo and don’t get me started on cultural misogyny that is like a hot ember burning in  my brain at all times.  Plus, the little vacation town was soiled to me now.  It grossed me out and made me paranoid being there, wondering which resident felt the same way as that guy but just wasn’t saying it.

Two days later an amazing swell came in and Britt and I could surf at the steeper break where the longboarders don’t go.  It was big and I noticed a teenaged girl drifting around not really taking off on anything ‘cause it was maybe a bit outside of her comfort level.  I kept my eye on her because I wasn’t sure if she was alone but it turned out she was with her three male friends and one female friend.  The girl friend was a great surfer and kept grabbing waves on the inside to the supportive hoots and hollers of her guy friends.

When the inexperienced girl started to paddle for a wave all her guy friends turned to cheer her on.  “Ya Darcy, you got it!”  they yelled.  She missed the wave but paddled more inside to sit with them where they chatted and caught waves and cheered each other on.

Maybe this generation will be better, I thought.  Maybe there’s hope after all.

I don’t know, I’m pretty jaded about it right now though.