The Women in the Waves

Tal Saporta ready to surf the waves. Photo by Eli Jules.

Tal Saporta ready to surf the waves. Photo by Eli Jules.

Carrying a surfboard just as tall as herself, the New York yogi embarked on her hour and a half journey early on a weekday winter morning through three boroughs to the last stop on the A train, the Rockaways. 

Rockaway Beach, Queens is home to multiple surf clubs and beach bars. In the summer, it also attracts , sun screen-plastered New Yorkers trying to escape the heat. But, during the winter months, the beach is mostly deserted, except for handfuls of die hard surfers, riding the waves that are product of nor’easters.

Tal Saporta, 28, is one of them. She makes her journey twice per week at a minimum, no matter how cold it gets. Saporta is an ex-Israeli Championship surfer turned yoga instructor from Tel Aviv.

“I heard there were waves in New York, but it was better than I expected,” she said. 

The Rockaways is home to more female surfers, like Saporta, than most places, according to those in the New York surf community. Simply put, that means the area has a larger female presence in the water than the typical male to female surfer ratio at other beaches; although, the number of men still outnumber the number of women. 

The exact number of female surfers in the United States is almost impossible to gauge, as is the number of surfers around the world. Frankly, no one has fully looked into gathering a complete, accurate count. The International Surfing Association, the world governing authority for surfing as recognized by the International Olympic Committee, has come close. In 2012, the most recent year with available data, it calculated there are approximately 35 million surfers around the world, with only 20 percent of them women. A report done by Surf-First and the Surfrider Foundation, a non profit group dedicated to preserving the world’s oceans and beaches, also conducted a survey in 2011, which showed men comprised 90 percent of the surfer population.

Championship prizes for surfers reflected the male bias. Women were awarded about half of what men got when they won competitions. Saporta says there is a logic to this imbalance — men need to pass more heats, or levels in the competition, to be considered in the finals, while as women are required to just go through one or two. Essentially, this means men need to compete against more people. Sponsors therefore flocked to the men who were dominating the competitions. 

But this year, things are about to change. The World Surf League, the premier organization that organizes the annual tour of professional surf competitions around the world, recently announced equal pay for male and female athletes in the 2019 competition season.

“Right now, it’s much more developed and people are getting more support,” said Saporta, whose lack of sponsors and prize money forced her to take side jobs as a yoga instructor and personal trainer. “Back then, when I was getting into that, not many women were getting into that.”

Tal Saporta. Photo by Astrid.

Tal Saporta. Photo by Astrid.

Saporta began surfing at the age of 15 after discovering the hobby during summer camp. At the time, her passion was handball. “I was always competing, playing with the boys,” she said.

It didn’t take long for her to take her fighting spirit to the waves. Within a year, Saporta was competing in Israel, and by 18 she’d won her first Israeli surf championship. However, lack of support led her to quit five years ago. Eventually, she came to the United States at her husband’s request so he could pursue his career in 2017. She shifted her primary focus to teaching yoga. But she never let go of her passion for the waves. 

This season the tides are turning for female surfers like Saporta. Not just because of the surfer league’s leveling of prize money, but because more female surfers are joining the sport. Saporta speculates that it’s because girls are learning the sport at younger and younger ages.

“I started when I was 15, that’s late,” she said. “I had a dream to be the best surfer in the world but it’s too late. Right now, they start when they are like four or five.”

Benita Hussain surfing in New York. Photo by Deborah Altman.

Benita Hussain surfing in New York. Photo by Deborah Altman.

Benita Hussain, another female surfer, certainly sees the draw of bringing them into the waves earlier. She says she is considering getting her three-year-old son into surfing, once he finishes swim lessons.

She started surfing on the Jersey shore at the age of 30 when a now ex-boyfriend convinced her to try it, , even later than Saporta began.  Since, she’s surfed in over 10 countries. 

Hussain’s surfer journey is even more unusual: A lawyer by training and now working in environmental health policy, Hussain didn’t even learn to swim until the age of 20. Her family didn’t engage in any water related sports.

Since being introduced to East Coast surfing, Hussain said she’s found many other female surfers, particularly mothers, who have become a part of her surf community in what is an individual sport. Being part of a tight knit group helps though, she says, especially because there is lingering “machismo” in the water. She says she and her female surfer colleagues are often on the receiving end of  cat calls and disparaging comments, like, “little girl, get out of the water.” 

The animosity between the groups can even become dangerous. Surfer etiquette requires keeping a safe distance between each other in the water. Alpha males trying to prove their dominance in the waves cut female surfers off, she says, some times causing accidents or injuries in the water. 

“You rely on the herd to know the rules,” said Hussain. 

Regardless, she doesn’t plan to stop surfing anytime soon. It means too much to her, mostly because it gets her outdoors.

“It’s so hard to find nature in New York,” said Hussain. “Tehe easiest nature to find [here] is the ocean.”

She also uses surfing as a meditative practice, she says, to escape the “high octane lifestyle that New York offers. You need something equally high octane to release.”

Eventually, she says, it’s just impossible to imagine living without it. “Surfing is really not a hobby,” said Hussain. “It’s like an organizing principle of your life.”