Historically speaking, I think it's a pretty open-and-shut case that Bethany Hamilton is the most inspirational surfer of the new millennium. What the indomitable Ms. Hamilton has been able to do in the wake of losing her arm is nothing short of heroic. That Bethany has been able to teach herself to paddle-out, duck-dive, surf, and compete on a world-class level without the use of an arm is nothing short of chicken-skin inducing. Mind-boggling. Tear welling.
Her feat is so great, in fact, that you could also argue by extension that Bethany Hamilton is the most influential surfer of the millennium. The mainstream coverage of her heroism and the popularity of Soul Surfer helped catalyze a palpable gender shift that is sending more and more young girls over a metaphoric and literal ledge. Lineups, more than ever, are becoming increasingly populated with the fairer sex.
And I, for one, welcome this shift with enthusiasm.
For years and years lineups have been the near-exclusive territory of males, and it's always the same story: when a set of quality waves appear, alpha males bark, the pack gnash their teeth and the rest scramble for the carcass. A testosterone-filled petulance fills the air. Civility and graciousness fly out the window.
Introduce a female into the equation, however, and things can change in a hurry. Dominant males suddenly pause, and the pack, out of nowhere, becomes more polite. If you watch carefully, you can literally see some guys sit up on their boards and tilt their heads like a vapid Scooby-Doo, not quite sure what to think.
I've even noticed this at my local spot which is far from being a snake pit, but where the subtle rules of the male food chain still apply: We stake out our territory, eyeball our brethren with suspicion, streak for the horizon with the hope of arriving first at our prey, and then claim our property with a shout (it's pretty weird now that I think about it). When a female paddles out, though, some of these guys suddenly become magnanimous gentlemen ("Please go ahead, I insist…No, no, I wouldn't dream of it…It's your turn…Be my guest…").
And this courteousness is especially visible if the female happens to be our "local" striking Brazilian bodyboarder.
Most women and girls bring something more than beauty and a sociological/psychological shift to a lineup, however. They bring understanding. They bring grace. They bring joy.
To a pack of posturing men they bring the rarest commodity of all: they bring smiles.
More than anything else, women seem to understand how great surfing is—what an incredible gift it is—and you can see it on their faces when they paddle out. You can hear it their speech, and you can see it in their camaraderie with each other. You could make a strong argument that more than men, women surfers seem to get it.
This recognition of the essence of surfing may lead to a more lucrative future for the entire surf industry as well. As large fashion and beauty product corporations inevitably sniff around the edges of the evergreen coolness and increased female attraction to the surfing lifestyle, it's just a matter of time before some of them dive in headfirst. And just one of these woman-oriented fashion juggernauts has the ad dollars and sponsorship funds and marketing budgets to saturate the entire surf world like a hundred-year Kauaian rainstorm.
This potential capital downpour would be laced with irony because there are currently male surfers who grumble about some of the sponsorship salaries garnered by the top women pros, and the notion that women may hold the golden ticket after all would be, in more ways than one, poetic justice.
So the next time you paddle out when the surf is firing, I want you to think about trying to tackle the conditions without the use of one of your arms, and recognize the incredible accomplishments of Bethany Hamilton.
And if a girl happens to paddle out, I want you to think long and hard before you snake the living daylights out of her.