For Michelle Shearer, surfing has always felt a bit like walking into a mechanics workshop, all tits and arse calendars and seedy boys’ club jokes. When a chance encounter with three older women from her local north coast break wiped out this stance, she was inspired to make a film about the qualities that they brought to the lineup. Marg, 64, Sally, 58, and Carol, 50, are happy, confident, soulful and still shredding. So why haven’t you heard of them?

Words & Photography by Carly Lorente // Illustration by Teash & Gaz

It’s 5.30am at Marg Bryant’s Lennox Head home and oddly, not a knitting needle or bingo card in sight. Marg doesn’t roll over and open the Magicseaweed app on her iPhone in bed, nor does she take a cheeky selfie and post it on Instagram titled ‘too early to surf.’ Instead, Marg has left the plain old-fashioned window open in the bedroom that she shares with her husband of 44 years, and simply watches the curtains to see if it’s blowing northerly or from the south. Like many of us dotted around the Pacific, whether we be male or female, youthful or aged, mal rider or shortboarder, sponsored or not, surfing is the first thing she thinks of when she opens her eyes of a morning. The trio from the film, Women Who Run With the Tides, belong to a school of their own. One where wax is traded for wisdom, wrinkles are known as happy lines, and your feet are free to dance on the nose like nobody is watching. For Sally, “surfing is about more than the riding. Even the paddle out sometimes, when you’re going up over a wave, and the wind is going offshore and the colours…it’s something that challenges me physically at a time when I’m supposed to be slowing down. Then there are the friendships and the escapism. When you’re out there, nothing can touch you.” Carol admits that, “women definitely bring a different quality to the lineup. We are lucky on the North Coast that we are often in the lineup surrounded by women, and the feeling just comes of comfort and ease. There won’t be any unpleasantness. And we’re going to look out for each other. I know that when Sally and Marg are out there, they are aware of where I am, and how many waves I’ve had. There’s that respect and acknowledgment, and I find the vibe is one of sharing, peace, contentment and mindfulness when you’re out in the surf.”

The idea for the short film was planted not long after Michelle had had her first baby who says she was “feeling extremely vulnerable, going back into the full exposure of the ocean after the baby cocoon, and these women were so reassuring and encouraging, they had a good humour, and were just so generous. Not quite what you’d expect in any line-up in Lennox Head!” She felt compelled to pay homage to the true embodiment of being a woman in an age where respect for our elders is sadly diminishing. For Marg, in this youth-obsessed, celebrity pedestal society, the other side of 50 looks really different. Apart from becoming more comfortable with herself, she finds her age an advantage in the surf, “particularly when fellow surfers might think, she’s too old to catch that wave, but then, ‘she’ does, right under their nose.” Three-time world longboard champion, American Cori Schumacher found that, “the three women ooze an elder wisdom and integrity that is grounded in that gratitude for being able to celebrate being alive through surfing. It isn’t something that simply shows up with age, I’ve found, but comes through a particular relationship one develops with ageing and a deep connection with the ocean. Though there is that pecking order in the line-up, how much we focus on our place in it determines how much attention we have left to truly enjoy our surroundings, absorb the messages or wisdom of the ocean and the waves we ride.”

Cori, who openly traded sponsorship years ago for freedom of speech, is a passionate advocate for female surfers, recently submitting a petition to Roxy in response to their Roxy Pro France promo video where Steph Gilmore’s bum, breasts, lingerie and bare back make an appearance, but her head and actual surfing do not. This film also hopes to challenge the thought that boobs and bum are the only things that look good on a surfboard. But does sex really sell? According to Jane Fink, Associate Professor of Sports Management at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, sex sells…sex. “Each time a female athlete is pictured in a sexualised way, it diminishes the perception of her athletic ability.” She found that women consumers are more likely to purchase a sports product when female athletes are portrayed for their athletic prowess than their sexuality. Author of “Is it hard to surf with boobs?” (Griffith REVIEW edition 40), Bronwyn Adcock thinks, “it is so important to counter the images and ideas that are put out by the major surf companies and big corporations.” She says of Woman Who Run With the Tides that “it’s also nice to see a positive portrayal of older women whom hardly have a face at all in the media, let alone a positive one.” She hopes that lots of people can see the film, “especially young girls who are in danger of being sucked in to believing that they need to be ‘sexy’ to have self-worth.” 

Bums aside, you only have to see Carol pull off on a four-foot peeler, the look in Sally’s eyes as she paddles out at dawn, or hear Marg giggle like a grommet to know that all that stoke seems to send ageing running. If there’s such a thing as the ‘slow surf movement’, then this is it. Riding each moment to the fullest. Taking the time to live in the present. Embracing nature’s law, Carol says she has, “enjoyed ageing because I’ve felt that you do get a bit better as you get older or you become wiser and everything just gets easier because you know how to navigate the world.” Local longboarder (and mine and Marg’s favourite surfer) Isabelle Braly looks up to these women not just as fellow surfers but as strong community women. “There is so much more to Carol, Marg and Sally than surfing. They run households, own businesses, have families and play busy roles in our community.” As a mother of a toddler and someone who used to actually surf sometimes, I am humbled in their presence. “Your time will come again,” they tell me, and I believe them. Next time you see one of these women glide on by, I suggest you get your head out of Facebook and stop and show your respects. Try watching, learning, as they’re carving lines of wisdom right in front of your very eyes.

Carly Lorente is not only a talented wordsmith, but a damn fine photographer and her words and images can be perused over here.