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20 May

Wave Wahines

by Sam Bleakley

Surfing for everyone

During the first flowering of Polynesian stand-up surf culture in the Hawaiian Islands from the fourth century until European colonialism in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, surfing was for everyone: girls, mothers, grandmothers, kings, queens and warriors. In a brilliant chapter called ‘The Abundant Roots of Women Surfing’ in her book She Surf, Lauren Hill explains that historians of Ancient Polynesia acknowledge that it was however female surfers who were celebrated most widely for their poise, grace and skill as waveriders. And the very word to describe this Polynesian art of surfing, ‘he’e nalu’, is a feminine word meaning ‘wave sliding’ and evoking that balanced and beautiful relationship between water, board and rider.

Sadly as Hawaiian surfing was both supressed by Christian missionaries, then popularised in the emerging tourism market as an activity for wealthy beach goers to consume, the female identity of surfing was overshadowed by a toxic culture of masculinity at the beaches where surfing gained momentum in the 1960s across the Pacific and the Atlantic. Thankfully this has changed considerably, and female surfing is now more vibrant and impactful than ever across many beach cultures around the world. But still in far too many surfing line-ups it remains rare to see women riding waves, and there is a huge need for girl surfers to learn and develop confidence amongst a dedicated group of ladies only, rather than amidst surf breaks over-crowded with men and behavioural barriers of intimidation and competitiveness.


It is into this context that Yvette Curtis founded the groundbreaking Waves Wahines in 2016 in North Devon with top British surfer Karma Worthington. Yvette explains how, “we created Wave Wahines when my eldest daughter wanted to surf more, but when we searched the local area we could not find something she was comfortable with. We tried to find a local surf club or school that could help her. But I struggled to find a club that wasn’t competitive, expensive and full of boys. She needed a group that had a more nurturing environment, and I’m a personal trainer by trade so I set out to start something for the girls in our area who find themselves in the same position.” 

Yvette continues, “so Wave Wahines started as a surf club for girls to provide a fun, non-competitive and affordable route into surf lessons. The problem is surfing can be expensive and lessons can range between £35 and £45 per hour, which is a lot if you’re on a single-household income or have more than one child. In contrast a two-hour surf lesson for an 8-16-year-old through Wave Wahines only costs £10, which removes financial barriers and allows more kids from different backgrounds the chance to surf. And then over the years we grew to run sessions for women too. What started as an encouraging surf school developed into so much more, including working alongside local charity, North Devon Against Domestic Abuse, to provide surf therapy sessions for women in refuge. We received training to deliver surf therapy programs to their women as they come to terms with the trauma associated with domestic and sexual violence.” 


‘Wahine’ is the Maori and Polynesian word for ‘woman’, and in surf culture it has long been used as a celebratory term for girl and young women surfers. Traditionally the Wahine Maori are known as the ‘pillars of communities’ and noted as teachers, leaders and healers. And ancient Hawaiian wahines were revered for both their surfing skills, spiritual roles and close connection and affinity to the landscape and coastal waters. Yvette’s initiative follows this powerful tradition of surf instruction embedded in a wider sense of pride and ambition for young women. And this extends out of the water and across summers and winters, where skateboarding, film nights, swim training, gym sessions and trampolining are added to beach-based activities.


Although the joys of surfing are at the forefront, in forming an all-women activity Wave Wahines is challenging some unjust issues head-on in a future-facing way. Across all aspect of society it is vital that we put lots of energy into the burning issue of full equity and equality of opportunity for all. Girls need a safe environment of other women’s support in an era where trolling, sexual predation, social media shaming and other activities are an unfortunate part of growing up (and often manipulated by men). Girls need to talk to trusted elders about first periods (read ‘Let’s Talk Periods’ on the Wave Wahines blog) and budding sexuality, and about gender identification and identity issues. Then we plug into the wider world of gender flux, ethnicity and colour, disability and opportunity and mental health. Waves Wahines is certainly engaging wholeheartedly with this demand for equity. And their constitution rightly puts inclusion, equity and equality of opportunity at the heart of all activities.

Yvette writes a brilliant blog for the Wave Wahines website exploring so many of these topics. A key theme is about ‘changing the narrative’ in surfing to create new stories and role models. “Wave Wahines began as a way of getting young women into surfing in an environment that was supportive and inclusive,” says Yvette, “and most importantly to show them they don’t have to live up to any images of female surfers to get in a wetsuit and on a board. We work so hard to show girls and young women that we are all different and that’s what makes us special, that’s what makes us powerful, and that’s what makes us us. We are enough. As a community, we should be focusing on empowering the girls of today as they grow into the women of tomorrow by showing them there is another way.” 

And this extends much further, explored in Yvette’s blog feature on ‘The Colour of Surfing’ and her drive to challenge the lack of diversity in surfing. “I am a woman of colour from a diverse community,” says Yvette, “working deeply within the surf culture, but there still remains a lack of diversity and inclusion within surfing governing bodies and talent pathways in water sports. So I find it a very personal and difficult conversation to have with people who keep telling me how inclusive surfing is. At the moment it’s only inclusive if you’re a white male, or white pretty blonde female sadly. So we work super hard to crush those stereotypes. I want to help positive change from the inside and make a brighter future for all surf communities.”

Yvette’s philosophy of spreading the stoke is a great way forward, and her outstanding work has now been recognised internationally as she was recently shortlisted for the Womens Sports Alliance Inspiration of the Year award. “I screamed when I heard who I was shortlisted with,” said Yvette, who is the only grassroots-led nominee in her category, and shares the nomination alongside Simone Biles, record-breaking USA gymnast, and Alice Dearing, the first black woman to swim for Team GB.