Show Us Your Quiver – Elizabeth Henlein
My eyes opened. I had spent the night at work, and I woke up early on a December Saturday morning underneath my desk. I had checked the swell the night before as I was working, and noted it was predicted to be solidly overhead with offshore winds.
Regardless of the prospects for the morning, I decided to not set my alarm. It was going to be Saturday and I thought I’d let fate and tiredness from work determine when I got up. I usually got up with my internal clock anyway, as surfers tend to do, and on this occasion, I managed to get up early on my own without the crutch of an alarm.
Having stretched, and closed down all my computer’s windows, I looked at the windows outside.
The windows at work in SoMA revealed a man pushing a shopping cart that rattled as it went down the street. I could see the breath of the guy pushing it, probably mixed in cigarette smoke spoiling the crisp, now vacant December downtown air.
I got up and decided it was time to get out of here, out of the cold concrete, and onto the cold and open Ocean Beach. I gathered my stuff, racked up my surfboard on the motorcycle, and headed south for another December day at the beach.
When I got to the beach, the sun was out but the short winter days meant its appearance would be brief. I looked out into the waves in the distance, and I could see the pack already trading off rides on the outside.
The inner bar was folding, and there was a middle too, which clearly had to be negotiated in order to get out to the pack. It wouldn’t be easy getting out today. When I eventually made it to the outside I thought of how unrelenting, unforgiving, cold and daunting it was just to get to the nice bowl that was being lifted and formed on the set waves.
That’s when I saw her.
Elizabeth had been waiting her turn among the mostly male pack in their black neoprene hoods, and when a set wave came, the bowl was forming. No one else paddled for it from the pack.
It built and started to curl. She stood right on top of it and almost stalled on the lip, but then she put her front foot on the gas and dropped right into the still-building bowl, which was well overhead at this point.
The Ocean Beach Bulletin recently caught up with Elizabeth Henlein to talk about surfing, her boards and what it’s like to surf at Ocean Beach as a woman among the nearly all-male surfing population. Here’s what she had to say, in her own words.
OBB: What’s it like to be a woman surfer in San Francisco?
Elizabeth: That’s a very difficult question. … I don’t always view myself as a woman surfer, at first I view myself as a surfer. And usually I consider myself a woman surfer when I think about not having the upper strength to get out at Ocean Beach, or when I’m in the middle of the lineup and I’m the only girl there, or when I’m going shopping for a wetsuit and my choices are kind of smaller.
OBB: Do you find that you’re treated differently in the lineup?
Elizabeth: Absolutely I’d say I’m treated differently in the lineup. … There are certain people I’ve been surfing with around/with in the past decade and whom I know by now, and don’t treat me differently in the lineup. But generally speaking, more eyes are on you and a lot of people are shocked when you surf well, definitely more surprised, especially at Ocean Beach, when I do well. I find it’s more surprising [for them], and I’ve had multiple people say to me, “I always see you out here in the mornings all the time,” and I say back, “I see you out here in the mornings, you must be here too!” And in my head I’m like, “Why is it noteworthy that I’m out here, when it’s regular that you’re out here?”
OBB: When did you first start surfing?
Elizabeth: I guess I’ve been surfing about a decade now. I took about six months to work my way up to Ocean Beach. I didn’t start out there. I started out surfing easier breaks like Bolinas and Linda Mar and places like that, and then a good friend of mine who’s now in San Diego, who’s a very old-school surfer, deemed me ready and took me out to Ocean Beach. And I have to say, he’s pretty old-school and he told me about rips, he told me about the different people who surf there, and I accidently got my board and started to run out to Kelly’s because I saw people ripping out there. He caught up to me and said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa! Who do you think you are? You just don’t go paddle out at Kelly’s first time. No, we’re going north kinda up and front by Wise [surf shop].” And he gave me a lecture about respect. … I don’t know if people do that anymore.
OBB: What are the maximum conditions you surf at Ocean Beach?
Elizabeth: At Ocean Beach, eight feet. I don’t go over eight feet mostly because I feel I don’t have enough strength to do so, and also because I obsessively and compulsively surf 6’1” boards, and you need to step up. Actually, I was out last winter in the lineup — guys were on step-up boards and were like, “What are you doing?” and I was like, “But this is my board! This is the board I surf, it doesn’t matter if it’s eight feet or two feet [conditions]” There’s disadvantages to that. Usually five to eight feet … and that’s it. I just don’t have the power to get out, or if I get caught in a rip it’s serious business.
OBB: What’s your self-described style of surfing, what are you trying to accomplish?
Elizabeth: I feel like for a while I was trying to do floaters, hit the lip, but now I’d say I’m really more conscious of my form on the board and that’s the first thing I think of when I pop up. … I’m making sure I’m always looking down the line. I’ve been told I have what looks like a broken arm while I surf, so I’m not really conscious of a lot of things. I like stylistic surfing. I watch competitive surfing, not that I can do it, but I think it looks really cool. I wouldn’t say I’m someone who strives to do Mavericks or big waves or anything, I strive to do turns and the little things I can do.
Maurice Cole 6’5”
This is a sentimental board. I got this board in Sydney and it was the transitional board from a longboard to a shortboard. Anyone who’s ever done that knows how frustrating and trying of an experience it can be. So I don’t really surf it anymore, but I take it with me everywhere I go just to kind of remind me how far I’ve come.
OBB: What was happening during that process?
Elizabeth: At first it was pure pain. … I became very stubborn about it and I thought the only way to succeed was if I only surf this board, and I kind of learned this board. And I did. It’s one of those things which I find generally happens in surfing, it’s probably why it’s so addictive. … I’d get to a point and [I’d think], “I’ve got this down, this is great,” and I’d go out the next morning and kook it up, and be like, “Oh my gosh, I’m back to the beginning again.” It’s a little bigger, and it has more volume. … I remember the first time I took it out I got a ride. It was one of those things. … I remember I took it out and got a right, and thought, “This is doable,” but it was the only ride of the day.
My dad bought this for me for my birthday four years ago. He was reading an article on an airplane in Outside magazine about Danny Hess, and was like, “Do you want a board for your birthday?” And I said, “Of course I want a board for my birthday!” So I met with [Hess] and I got the board, and now it’s my travel board because it’s sturdy … and it catches anything. Also, I travel a lot … and everyone in San Francisco knows about Danny Hess, and I go to other countries and they trip out [when they see the board]. … It’s kind of a reality check that not everyone lives the kind of life we live here in San Francisco. … I can ride this as a thruster but I like to ride it as a quad. … I like the quad setup because this board rides slow and smooth … and I find for whatever reason the thruster moves around more quickly, but I don’t want to move around as quickly on this board. I kind of want to chill it out.
OBB: You say this is your travel board. Where have you gone with it?
Elizabeth: I’ve gone to South Africa … Portugal … Panama … Nicaragua. It was in South Africa and Portugal people tripped out. … People had never heard about it before, they couldn’t figure out what it was made of. … In my head, I thought everyone knew about Danny Hess. I don’t know, we’re really lucky here.
Lost Mayhem 6’2”
It’s the shark series. I always like when I talk to guys in the lineup, they’re like, “What kind of board are you on?” And I’m like, “The shark, and it eats fishes.” [Laughing.] …I used to have a Mark Richards board and this was its backup, but the Mark Richards board died in January so I’ve been riding this as I look for [something else]. … Even though I love this board, I was completely in tune with the [Mark Richards] board. This has volume. … Since I broke that board in January, it’s been out at OB in solid overhead conditions. … It works, it’s light, I can move it, I can get fancy. … This is the board I was riding when it was five to eight feet and I was next to a couple of guys who were on step-up boards, and they were like, “What are you riding?!” … It handles well. … It’s my everyday board.
OBB: Can you give me an anecdote of how surfing has helped you.
Elizabeth: I don’t know if I have a specific story, but over the years it’s helped build my confidence. Especially going out at Ocean Beach and getting a bunch of good waves. …I feel like I conquer the world. I feel like I can be the president of the United States. … I think surfing can give you so much inner power, that’s one thing I wish — that more people would do it, in one sense, because the confidence level is amazing.
OBB: As a woman do you think there’s a lack of that message for women?
Elizabeth: I would like to see [that message] conveyed to other women. The media for women surfers right now is really crap. It’s either like totally young, super cute girl rippers that definitely do rip, but I guess for boys, it’s cute boys doing really well. … And then you kind of have this other spectrum, and you have girls who go out and charge Mavericks, which is like the other end of the spectrum, and there’s not this middle ground like people who are like myself, who are out there almost every day, kind of surfing in all kinds of conditions, sometimes traveling, sometimes by myself and sometimes with other people. … I think it would be important for a lot of girls to see that: You don’t have to be super cute or like charge 20-foot waves, and that’s the only way you’re going to be recognized.