.Why Capitola’s Women on Waves is More Than Just a Surf Contest

As a 40-something mother of two who didn’t start surfing until 33—pretty much as far from a pro as one can be—I cannot believe I’ve entered a contest. I’m noncompetitive by nature, reliably intermediate at best in all of my recreational pursuits. But in signing up, I’m now part of the inclusive, celebratory reach of Women and Waves (WOW). 

A day for women who range from novice to expert, 5 years old to elders, Women on Waves returns to Capitola on Saturday, Oct. 9, following the unforeseen global-scale success that came with going virtual last year. 

The event, presented by long-term sponsor Play Bigger, is both a celebration of waterwomen and a fundraiser around the theme of ocean conservation. Last year’s virtual WOW, themed “Sea Beauty,” was centered on representation, inclusion, and diversity in surfing. Funds raised were channeled into organizations such as Brown Girl Surf and Black Girls Surf. Continuing in this vein, 2021’s “Sea Kindness” environmental focus benefits Groundswell, a nonprofit devoted to coastal restoration. Groundswell’s efforts improve coastal habitat by “providing a home for native birds, insects and other wildlife,” says Restoration Ecologist and Program Director Allison Wickland. 

Aylana Zanville is one of the co-organizers who suddenly find Women on Waves with a global following. PHOTO: COURTESY OF AYLANA ZANVILLE

Contest With a Purpose

As WOW co-organizer, web and graphic designer and activist Marisol Godinez puts it, “Women on Waves was originally to empower women. Now we are in power, we have voices. We want to use them to deliver these different messages—underserved youth, diversity, ocean conservation. The event is evolving and morphing into something we haven’t seen.”

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Godinez sees WOW as a platform to amplify different messages on work that still needs to be done in the areas of social and environmental justice. “[Women on Waves] was a surf contest. Now it’s a surf contest with a purpose,” she says.

The competitive aspect of Women on Waves is secondary to celebrating and uplifting waterwomen, raising money for crucial causes, and making a positive impact on both the community and a global scale.

“It’s been a very important message the last couple of years,” Godinez says. “Where is the money going? Why are you doing this? It’s about female empowerment, but also helping.”

Groundswell’s Director Bill Henry appreciates the support that will be channeled into community-based coastal restoration projects. “What WOW will help do is support supplies that enable project leaders to impart more positive change on the coastal landscape,” he says. “The work we do is focused on nature and people together, knowing we all do better when surrounded by high biodiversity and healthy ecosystems. That’s core to our mission, trying to work in these places that people also interact with, integrating ecology into the everyday.” It’s perfectly aligned with WOW’s own mission, as participation in the surf contest will directly benefit the environment surfers so enjoy and rely on.

Going International

On a recent sunny Saturday late-afternoon, the team of WOW co-organizers Godinez; Aylana Zanville, purveyor of the women’s surf-swimwear line Ola Chica; Corey Grace, an environmental consultant; and the newest member of the leadership group, Nina Kelly, who has competed as a professional surfer, are gathered in the airy front room of Grace’s Eastside home, assembling what has come to be known as “WOW Kits”—totes, shirts, stickers and various surf paraphernalia with elegant designs by Godinez, which are shipped to virtual participants the world over. Last year, when Covid restrictions meant an in-person event would have been irresponsible, impossible or both, the team shifted WOW to a virtual event that took place on social media to raise awareness for the importance of diversity and inclusion in ocean spaces. They shipped hundreds of kits around the globe, including over 30 orders to Australia. The “winners” of WOW 2020—essentially a photo contest/celebration—were a Florida-based group, the Miami Water Women Collective, who had spelled out WOW with their surfboards in an aerial photo of their diverse array of members. Women from all over the U.S., England, South Africa and many other nations participated, resulting in an array of faces from all over the globe supporting diversity and enjoying water sports on the hashtags #surfingfordiversity, #seabeauty and #womenonwavessurfingday2020.

Last year’s necessary virtual move added an element that would never have been conceived of in the “before times”—remote participation. “We have this whole international community we can reach with this year’s theme of ocean conservation,” says Grace, who Zanville brought onto the WOW leadership committee in 2018. “It’s how we can deliver that same message outside of Santa Cruz and expand our reach.”

Now that the contest is returning in person, the digital element is being carried over for Women on Waves: Sea Kindness. The organizers have so far received over 70 international orders for WOW kits, in addition to the over 170 women who are participating in Capitola’s surf and open-swim events. “We would never have thought about doing this if it hadn’t been for last year’s re-envisioned event,” Zanville says. 

A long-term goal of the WOW leaders is to inspire other iterations of the in-person contest around the world. Organizers in different cities and countries could utilize the theme and materials developed by the Santa Cruz WOW team to make Women on Waves an in-person event internationally.

I participated in last year’s Women on Waves as part of a small group of supportive women who paddled out together and caught many party waves at a friendly spot on the Eastside. Had it been a “regular” contest, I would have shied away, citing lack of impressive skill. (Little did I know, at the time, that there’s a novice division for that!) However, because WOW was in support of diversity and inclusion, and judgment-free, I signed up, and by the end of the day was so gleeful that I resolved to do the “live” Women on Waves when it was safe to return. 

Many surfers and non-surfers alike will participate in the open-water swim portion of WOW. “Last night I swam in the moonlight in the Irish sea,” longtime WOW participant Tamara McKinnon tells me from Ireland. With a group of women of all ages, McKinnon swam “past the end of the pier, laughing, complaining about the cold, admiring the reflection of the moon on the sea. My journey to celebrating my 60th birthday sea swimming in Ireland began with Women on Waves over 20 years ago.” McKinnon participated in the novice division and surprised herself with “how competitively I approached the event. All you need do is watch the event to see women pushing themselves to their highest level of competition.” 

This year, McKinnon will compete in the open-water swim for the first time. “I have added a new group of amazing women to my community. From the masters swim group led by Monterey Bay-crossing swimmer Kim Rutherford to the women here in Ireland who are committed to their daily ‘sea dip,’ my life has been changed in ways that I never could have dreamed, due in large part to the WOW community.”

Multi-year participant Niko Takaoka, who has “always placed” in the competition, per Godinez, is thrilled for the contest’s return. “Where else can you participate in a fun but competitive event and win a trophy and not feel bad about losing?” Takaoka says. “The fact that it raises money for our community and charities is an even better reason to participate. Not to mention, Capitola is so beautiful and usually has fun but gentle waves. I can’t wait!” 

But Takaoka wasn’t always a confident surfer. WOW had an integral role in her evolution as a waterwoman. “I started surfing later in life, and it was really intimidating at first,” she says. She entered her first WOW with low expectations and was even “a little scared.” (I could relate.) Ultimately the contest made Takaoka not only more comfortable in the water and with competitions, but helped create lifelong friendships. “It was such an amazing event that helped all of us get acquainted with each other,” she says.

Co-organizer Marisol Godinez says Women on Waves can leverage its power for positive change both inside the world of surfing and beyond. PHOTO: TARMO HANNULA

Wavy Herstory

Within weeks of registration opening, every category sold out save for the Menehunes (ages 5-9 noncompetitive surfers who can get pushed into waves) and the half- and full-mile open water swims. There’s ample stoke amongst the ladies of the waves to get back out in person to celebrate women in water. 

It’s been a long time in the making, with the pandemic only the most recent in a series of struggles to get to this point. While WOW’s reach is expanding well beyond Santa Cruz to convey important messages and fund high-stakes causes, the all-volunteer team that makes this event happen is evolving, too. 

The grassroots celebratory contest supporting the advancement of women in surfing that ultimately became what Women on Waves is today began in 1996. Sally Smith-Weymouth, then owner of Paradise Surf Shop, the first all-female surf shop in the area (now an online store), got involved a couple of years after WOW’s inception because she was a member of the West Wind Surf Club, which had been involved in starting it up.

“It was a bunch of guys, all guys, that started the club in the ’60s in Capitola,” she says.

And surfing was indeed a boys’ club at the time—just look at the surf-history photos around town for proof. The great irony in the history of Women on Waves is that it was founded by a man. “The person instrumental in starting WOW was Barry Hamby,” Smith-Weymouth says.  “Barry really wanted to have this showcase of women’s longboard surfing talent in Santa Cruz. Longboard contests were male-centric … the Santa Cruz Longboard Union and the Big Stick Surfing Association, women were part of contests but it was really focused on guys for the good timing, good waves. Barry thought Capitola would be a great venue because it’s not a very intimidating wave, it could have novice surfers. Any woman in Santa Cruz could come surfing, whether they were really good at longboarding or newer.” 

Along with Hamby was a key female founding member, Zeuf Hesson, who did the Girl in the Curl Wave Report on KPIG radio. “She was instrumental in getting it into the public sphere,” says Smith-Weymouth. 

Both Hamby and Hesson have since passed away, but their legacies live on in the evolution of WOW, which returned after a few years suffering the impact of Hamby and Hesson’s loss. “In 2006 nobody was stepping up to run the event,” Smith-Weymouth explains. “Barry had passed away, he wasn’t there to motivate the guys, they stopped holding regular meetings. The stoke for the event was there but nobody wanted to step up and run it, so I said, ‘I’ll do it.’ I did it on my own at that point. I ended up calling all the people who had been judges and tabulators and getting them to do it again. That’s when I met Marisol Godinez. Her Mermaid series triathlons took over and she and her partner ran it. We pulled together a group of volunteers from West Wind who were still up for doing the organization aspect of the event. In 2015, we did that. After that I told Marisol, ‘I can’t do it anymore. Find someone to help run it.’” 

That was when Zanville “stepped up and ran the whole thing” in 2018. “I showed up as a sponsor with a booth. She and Marisol worked together and put on a great event. Aylana was super excited about it, she’s got the energy, she and Marisol meshed and have carried it on.” 

Zanville brought Grace onboard and then this year, Kelly. Zanville met the WOW team’s newest member through the Santa Cruz Longboard Union, the same club that has been around since the ‘60s, now with more female representation and presence. 

As is clear from these four strong women spearheading it all, giving days, weeks, and months of their time despite busy careers, families and obligations to not just make the event happen, but make it global and make it mean something more than a one-day contest—the current incarnation of WOW is thriving.

Progressive Surfing

Women on Waves has grown beyond a one-day event in many ways, and it’s making waves in the Santa Cruz surf community. This past summer, Zanville created bright red-and-pink “WOW bracelets” to wear out in the lineup along with a surf event to launch the trend-with-a-purpose. This purpose ties in with WOW’s inclusive theme: wearing a bracelet is meant to show you are a safe person in the water, a friendly ally, so others can paddle over and say hi, make friends, create community. Another side to the bracelets is to do something about the sad reality of harassment and misogyny in surf lineups—a bracelet-wearer can be counted on for women experiencing negativity or harassment, someone to paddle over to for safety and help in getting out of any such situation. The bracelets, a solution to creating camaraderie where doubt would have previously existed, are beginning to appear on women in the waves. Some wear multiple bracelets at a time, handing them out to other women they meet while surfing.

On another recent dawn patrol weekend morning, bracelets peppered the lineup with bright, colorful flashes as wrists speed-blurred by. Probably not coincidentally, nearly the entire lineup for over an hour was also nearly entirely comprised of Dawn Patrol surfboards. 

It wouldn’t be a spontaneous bracelet morning without Carl Gooding, a home/garage-based shaper in the area, who recalls his eldest daughter Anna surfing in Women on Waves as one of the ways he connected with Godinez, whose artistic custom boards he shapes. “They asked if I’d make a board [for WOW],” he says. Dawn Patrol has contributed a longboard annually to raffle off at the contest since 2015.

“This is me paying it back and paying it forward,” he says, as we switch boards in the lineup so that I can try out a green longboard he recently shaped. “Surfing has given me a lot and [shaping a board for Women on Waves] is me giving back.”

Smith-Weymouth, who was instrumental in starting WOW, sees how all the hard work of volunteers, sponsors and other allies over many years is starting to pay off. “I’m seeing younger women doing exactly what I’ve wanted to do, and at that point in time didn’t have the energy to put into it,” she says. “They’re doing it. It’s fantastic. I had a feeling of letting down the community when I left the business, then coming back to various surf contests around town, meeting fantastic women who are into promoting women’s surfing, getting brown and black girls into the water, doing the things I wanted to, that evolved anyway. We planted the seed in getting focused on women in the water and shops that carry women’s wetsuits, catering to women that were more than just having girls’ stuff in a corner in the back. Not only are we focusing on women in the water, but diversity and inclusion as well. I feel good about the stuff we did in the late ’90s and early 2000s, that it’s come this far.”

Now that this year’s big day is coming up fast, I’m excited but nervous, just as Takaoka said she felt when she first started doing WOW. I have been “training” between first-grade and preschool drop-offs, work, pickups, and the second shift of parenting as the sun goes down, driving to Capitola for dawn patrols and at odd hours with the blue-and-yellow noserider Gooding’s daughter lent me for the contest strapped atop my Mini Cooper. I decided to take the competition seriously, because I tend to shrug things off to stave away the notion of failure. But at Women on Waves, as I’ve learned from hearing these stories and telling them, failure is an impossibility.


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Liza Monroy
Liza Monroy
Liza Monroy is the author of the essay collection Seeing As Your Shoes Are Soon To Be On Fire, the memoir The Marriage Act, and Mexican High, a novel. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, LA Times, Washington Post, O, Longreads, and Marie Claire, among other publications. She loves living in downtown Santa Cruz.
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