Filming, editing and photography by Clementine Bourke
When Clem Bourke began sending us images of her friends surfing Byron a few months back, it seemed really obvious they were all engaged in something special — a homegrown re-invention of riding waves and sharing the experience. There’s a couple of well-known riders among them, but that clearly wasn’t what mattered here. Clem agreed to spend some time filming these women of Byron at play, Elise Trigger agreed to write about their experience, and the result is a beautiful portrayal of a crew who in their own way are evolving surfing’s old social framework into something way more open, inclusive, and fluid. Effortless, even.
Story by Elise Trigger
A sharp yowl startles me half awake — my dog Fudge trying to disrupt my beloved sleep. A tremendously loud noise to come from a fluffy little dog, I think.
I can feel it’s still early and roll over hoping to get back to sleep… It’s a slightly chilly autumn morning and I admit, I love a sleep in. Then I remember today is the day the girls were planning an early surf together.
I stretch my limbs and roll over, checking my phone through a half-opened eye. Buzzz, the verdict from the girls is in and the waves are sounding lush: “Pass is doing that thing on that same bank we surfed last week, looks super fun, I’m going to head out”
“on my way!”
Ughh, I peel back my sleepy eyes, I’m determined not to miss another pearly-waved morning. I remind myself I’m actually fond of early morning surfs.
I roll into The Pass, the carpark’s starting to fill up and I’m wondering if the girls are still out there. I walk over to check. It’s one of those bluebird days, the air is crisp and the waves are clean, running spicily for a few hundred metres.
I spot Josie sliding through. She effortlessly paces her way to the top of her craft, riding her longboard into a sunny honey-drenched peeler, so elegant across the sea surface. I feel inspired by the revolution women’s surfing has had, this enriched embrace of grace and femininity and a more inclusive celebration of ourselves. These values perhaps perpetrated for Jos by her Filipina/Australian mix. For us, our friendship was formed on the day she introduced herself, welcoming me to sit with her on my first day of school. That moment of inclusivity was cherished, and still to this day I witness a similar sharing between others (particularly females) in the lineup.
I head back to my car in excitement, a new skip in my step. I exchange smiles and words with some friendly faces, young and old, regulars.
Board in hand, I catch a husky accent calling out to me. It’s Sonja who greets me through her wagon’s window, wide-smiled and enthusiastic.
“How’s it look?!”
I love her voice, the slight Finnish twang reminds me how truly magic these moments are — everyone has given up one thing or another to be here, and for some that even goes as far as moving to the opposite side of the world, far from friends and family. I admire this strength.
“Waves look so fun!” I say. “I think that person’s leaving over there in the corner… See you out there soon?!”
All my feelings are sharpened, being in my happy place on a morning like today. I leave the hustle and bustle of the carpark and follow the entrance into a natural opening, the broad bay with no high rises or concrete in sight, looking out towards the horizon. The landscape beyond is riddled with bush and layers of differentiated deep blue mountains. A playground awaits.
I don’t quite make it out in time and end up with a set on the head but I don’t mind, I feel the ocean immersing me, soaking me. I feel the pull to learn and try and connect with the energetic wave patterns of this place. Taking a few meditative breaths of gratitude and acknowledging the friends I’ve now joined.
Before too much is said, I see some rolling set reformations emerging. It’s not easy letting them pass but my sisters are next to me and I know it’s for them.
I erupt into enthusiasm as Laure paddles in entering with flair, she flickers down the line doing her tango. I watch her and I fix my attention back to the lineup, after letting some go I know my first one is going to ooze extra ecstatically.
It happens quickly as a fellow falls on an approaching wave. With board under my toes I try to assimilate the speed of the wave, working with each push, gliding with each ripple. I let the wave do the talking, gathering energy from underneath, totally swept up in the momentum. As I come out of a turn, the wave just manages to escape me, running down the line in a perfect ringlet. Ahhh, I pray someone’s sitting right down the inside for that one… it was truly otherworldly! Behind me Lauren’s on the next one, somehow she manages to make a cutback look both powerful and angelic as she passes on, painting her picture on an empty canvas.
Paddling back out I just can’t help feeling ecstatic for my lady friends, the way they pace along the waves with grace and flamboyance timelessly like silk swaying in the wind or watercolour strokes on wet paper, every movement running into the next. It’s been far too long since we all rejoiced. Muddy waters from torrential rain and La Niña weather patterns briefly tamed our surfy salt rat addictions,. Being back together and celebrating water energy again feels surreal.
On star-aligned moments like this one, I feel obliged to stop, trying to absorb it all. I reflect back on the beginning of my journey with mother ocean. I’ve been blessed with a layer of crusty saline skin from these beaches since I can forever remember. All of my family are salt water people and continue to play a huge role in the development of my relationship with the sea, yet I feel after spending much time sharing waves with spokespeople such as Lauren Hill, I am become more and more aware of the value and knowledge within history and story telling from our elders. Women such as Delta Kay who educate modern society about the roots of a place we now call “Byron Bay”.
Through speaking to a variety of elders from different descents I have come to recognise that although it feels unique to be a young girl sliding across sun-drenched peelers on a hot summer’s day, or alienating to be sitting in a pack of testosterone wave-hungry men at the point, there have been women living and instigating this lifestyle long before us. Women who are mostly unacknowledged.
These women date all the way back to First Nations people. Although the ocean has become a meeting place for modern coastal families to enjoy, I recognise and understand that we all act and move from the legacy of the first inhabitants. In fact Byron Bay prior to colonisation was originally named by Indigenous inhabitants of this area “Cavanbah” translating to “meeting place” in Minjungbal Indigenous Australian language. It was known as a healing centre and meeting place for ceremony and spiritual inspiration. This is something I believe is of great importance to recognise and pay respects when we are living and playing on Bundjalung Country today.
Ancestral roots between Indigenous culture, women and sea country here lie very deep, there are sacred Tea-tree birthing sites and particular lores around the relationship between Arakwal women and the water, present through their totem animal, the bottle-nosed dolphin (Wajung). “We have stories of our people and dolphins communicating and connecting with each other, including co-operative fishing, sharing resources from the ocean, and playing in the shallows.”
I learn from elder Algie Reid of the women who surfed this area in the 1960s and set the ball rolling for the future of female surfing here. They include women such as Elaine Reid, Denise Campbell, Judy Gibbon, Yvonne Pendergast, Leona Keevers, Wendy McDermid, Norell Bienki, and Kay Wilke. Before them were inspiring women such as Phyllis O’Donnell who fought and continued to surf despite discrimination.
These stories and names are few of many, and as you have heard there are women from numbers of generations and nationalities, introverts, extroverts, elders to respect and young ones to encourage, all living a life resolving and connecting along a similar weather-worshipping timeline. Today I still sense the kinship and think about all of what our Aunties endured for us to live and be in these waters as we are today. I feel the least I can do is have an open heart to learn from them, to share acknowledgement, respect and interest in the legacy each has left behind.
Just 10 years ago the mas-fem count was never in balance, now we are all here celebrating the ocean and its impartiality.
It isn’t always easy being a female in 2022. It can come with gender-based presumptions. Yet we are trying to do it properly, we are sitting with our elders who have done this before, learning and encouraging inclusivity and respectful behaviours from all, and trying to create a positive healthy lifestyle by the sea.
Byron through our lens: The Pass and beyond