Nick Carroll: The Awkward Truth About How Women Are Treated in the Surf

3 Nov 2020 82 Share

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer

Biba Turnbull gets shutdown at North Narrabeen. Photo: Matt Dunbar

Biba Turnbull gets shutdown at North Narrabeen. Photo: Matt Dunbar

COASTALWATCH | NICK CARROLL

It’s an awkward truth in today’s world that top Australian women surfers receive a fair bit of unwanted male attention.

Some of it is scary. Some of it’s dangerous.

This past month, a 66-year-old man named Squire Winter was convicted and fined $1000 in Tweed Heads Local Court after breaching a protection order taken out on behalf of seven time world champ Stephanie Gilmore.

Winter, who has a long history of violence, assault, and breaching similar orders involving other people, approached Steph at the WSL’s Tweed Coast Pro event, and was subsequently arrested for breach of the order, which had been taken out after he’d approached Gilmore several times earlier this year.

Steph has cause for concern in this department. In 2012 she was attacked by a homeless man with an iron bar outside her apartment. Her wrist was broken in the attack.

Then again, Steph might have been thinking about Jodie Cooper. Jodie, a pro surfing legend of the 1980s and ’90s, was attacked by a man in the surf at Lennox Head in 2018. The man, local surfer Mark Thomson, held her underwater so long she acted out drowning just to get free. Thomson was also convicted and given 300 hours of community service.

Steph Gilmore on her way to a perfect 10 point ride in Bali in 2019. Photo: WSL/Dorsey

Steph Gilmore on her way to a perfect 10 point ride in Bali in 2019. Photo: WSL/Dorsey

These events have had plenty of publicity. But they occur over the top of a background hum of women copping questionable treatment from men in lineups far and wide — treatment that may not turn violent, but feels as if it might.

Biba Turnbull isn’t what you’d call a shrinking violet. At 25 years of age, Biba is an accomplished athlete, an ex pro snowboarder who moved to Vermont, USA by herself as a teen to pursue her goals. Today she works for Surfing NSW in admin and team support. She comes across as a can-do human.

But when she contacted us back in June, she sounded pretty much at the end of her tether.

She’d just spent a weekend surfing the perfect winter waves at South Narrabeen. But in this case, “surfing” had meant that every wave she caught men would take from her.

They’d “look at me, make eye contact, then just drop in on me”. In other words: making the call that she, a mere “chick”, wasn’t going to make the wave, so why not.

It kept happening, wave after wave, for over an hour till she went in. Biba says she’s grown used to being ignored in her years of surfing, but at Narrabeen that day, something snapped. “I just felt disgusted,” she said. “It makes me ashamed to be part of the surfing community.”

They’d “look at me, make eye contact, then just drop in on me”. Biba Turnbull. Photo: Matt Dunbar

They’d “look at me, make eye contact, then just drop in on me”. Biba Turnbull. Photo: Matt Dunbar

Biba’s so not alone. A social media post she made following the incident was deluged with replies from other women surfers.

They’d been told, “Fuck you!” They’d been told women don’t belong in the water. They get what they call “free lessons all day” — men explaining to them what to do or how to behave, even if they’re better surfers than the men.

One comment: “I’m sick of hearing, ‘Oh I thought you wouldn’t make it.’”

Another: “He got so flustered, he spat in the water in front of my board.”

Another: “And the older men are the worst!”

Another, quoting a man who’d dropped in on her and didn’t like being called out on it: “What’s wrong with you, you must be on your period.”

Semi-rarely, they’d made a good place for themselves at a localised spot and surf on equal terms. But even then, they’ll pick up on differences in their treatment. “Been surfing a very busy and popular wave for 28 years,” said one. “The guys who I surf with regularly hoot me into waves. The random guys who show up just drop in blatantly. The random women who show up do not. I think that says it all.”

But too often it seems nastier stuff happens, as it did recently to Georgia Matts. Georgia, 27, a lifelong surfer from Coledale near Wollongong, is a bit like Biba — she’s used to it. But not long ago, she was surfing her home beach when a teenage boy dropped in on her, fell off, then called her a “stupid c—t”.

Biba Turnbull dropped in on yet again. Photo: Matt Dunbar

Biba Turnbull dropped in on yet again. Photo: Matt Dunbar

The boy was with his father at the time, but instead of straightening him out, Dad told Georgia, “He’s just a local boy.” 

“I yelled at him, ‘So you think it’s OK for your son to speak to women that way?’” Georgia told her local newspaper. “He just shook his head and drove away.”

Now, we all know surfing’s always had a primitive edge. There will be many men who’ve experienced aggression and hostility in one lineup or other. Many of them, schooled from childhood in masculine etiquette, will have stayed quiet and moved on, or tried to. Many will read the above and think something like, “Well, so what? I’ve seen worse.”

But it’s something to think about as we head into what will likely be the busiest surfing summer in generations.

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