Roger Cox: Time to wave goodbye to surfer stereotype

Surfers at Newport Beach, California PIC: Lisa Young
Surfers at Newport Beach, California PIC: Lisa Young
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Up until fairly recently, the world thought it knew what a surfer looked like: young, male, dishevelled, besandalled and laid-back almost to the point of being catatonic – Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, in other words, give or take a couple of IQ points either way. As surfing has grown, however (and it really has grown – the International Surfing Association now estimates there are 23 million surfers worldwide) the old cliché of the nice-but-dim Southern California surf dude has come to seem hopelessly out of date. For proof, look no further than the line-up for this year’s Ocean Film Festival tour, which stops off in Edinburgh and Inverness later this month, with a further Scottish date in Glasgow towards the end of October. This carefully-curated selection of shorts profiles divers, kayakers and sailors as well as surfers, but two of the featured wave-riders in particular are a perfect illustration of how diverse the “sport of kings” has now become.

Exhibit A: Ishita Malaviya, star of India’s First Surfer Girl, who, as the title of that film suggests, is India’s First Surfer Girl, or at least the country’s first professional female surfer, these sorts of claims being somewhat tricky to verify in a country of 1.3 billion people. “In India,” she says in the film, “a girl is expected to go to school, start working, get married, have babies – it’s crazy!... When the fishermen saw me surfing I think it was just, like, shock – like, ‘Woah, is that a girl in the water?!’”

Not content to follow the usual school-job-marriage-kids formula, Malaviya founded the Shaka Surf Club with her boyfriend Tushar Pathiyan in the small fishing village of Kodi Bengre, on the west coast of Karnataka state. Not only did she end up as a brand ambassador for Roxy, the female branch of the mighty Quiksilver surfing empire, effectively making her the international face of surfing in India, she then used that exposure to try and get more girls and women in India interested in surfing.

The obstacles in her way were legion, and not all of them immediately obvious: in the film she explains how, in a culture where “people look up to fair-skinned people” it can be difficult to persuade women to spend hours at a time exposing themselves to the strong tropical sun. “The reason it is like this is because they’re worried about not getting a husband, or what will their boyfriends think,” she says, “but I’m hoping things will change.” Judging by the novice surfers interviewed towards the end of the film, Malaviya is well on the way to turning India into a nation of surfer girls – potentially 650 million of them.

One of the biggest changes in surf culture in the last couple of decades has been the shift of emphasis away from the well-known wave zones of California, Hawaii and Australia to places where the water is colder and the weather significantly less hospitable, and in surfing terms things don’t get much colder or more inhospitable than Iceland. This is the setting for The Accord, another cliché-busting surf film in the Ocean Film Festival programme, directed by RC Cone and starring Heidar Logi Eliasson, Iceland’s first and only professional surfer.

Eliasson may share certain characteristics with the Spicoli stereotype – Young? Check. Male? Check. Dishevelled? A little. You’re unlikely to catch him wearing sandals, however, because for most of the film he’s surfing with snow-dusted cliffs in the background, and while he may sound laid-back, beneath that chilled demeanour there’s evidently a steely determination at work.

Finding rideable waves in Eliasson’s homeland isn’t simply a matter of throwing a couple of boards in the back of a van and driving to the nearest beach – it requires a deep understanding of the ferocious weather systems that batter Iceland all year round, and coming to an accommodation with the fierce North Atlantic Wind, neatly personified in the film by a beer-swilling radge with a mighty Viking beard and a penchant for shouting VERY LOUDLY for no apparent reason. On the occasions when Eliasson does manage to find favourable confluences of wind and wave, however, Iceland looks like a chilly paradise; one fast, hollow right-hander in particular will have surf travellers the world over scrabbling for their guidebooks. Some of those travellers might look and sound like Jeff Spicoli, but the majority won’t. n

The Ocean Film Festival, Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 14 September; Eden Court, Inverness, 15 September; University of Glasgow, 22 October,