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Katherine Leslie and Kristy Howes in Tofino, BC.

The Importance of Your Surf Tribe

If you’ve spent a decent amount of time in the ocean, you probably had at least one close call that shook every fibre in your body. Whether it was a moment of realization that the ocean’s power is relentless, or a very real near-death experience, I bet most surfers can relate. 

For me, this feeling of a “near death” experience happened in Western Australia. I was that totally oblivious tourist that tried to paddle out when the waves were way too big. I was an overconfident kook that agreed to surf with an Irish guy who was staying at the same hostel and was a much more experienced surfer than myself. On this particular day, the waves were not forgiving and far beyond my white wash surfboard riding abilities. It was an advanced break and a beach line where drownings had occurred before and after my day of poor judgment.

I paddled out far enough to make it perfectly to the impact zone, and as quickly as I got out there, a set roared in from the horizon. I began to get hit by heavy overhead waves that seemed to never stop. Being pushed down by the power of the waves, forced into a number of somersaults, I had to use my leash to pull my way to the surface, with only a few quick seconds to catch my breath, before being pushed down again. To this day, I have never been held down by the ocean in such an unforgiving way. 

Although it’s a pretty blurry memory, when I called out to the Irish guy who had encouraged me to get into the water in the first place, he simply glanced my way briefly and continued to paddle out past the breaking waves despite the obvious struggle I was having with the ocean. At the time, I felt completely betrayed.

Steph Wightman at sunset. Pacific Rim National Park, BC.

As land began to look very appealing, I saw my good friend Chloe had walked out to shoulder high water and was waving me in. Although far from graceful, with her encouragement, I made it back to shore and collapsed into a small pathetic Canadian ball on the sand. 

It was this hilarious dramatic experience that made me reconsidered my life as a traveller and surfer. In that moment, confidence was a foreign word to me. I swore off surfing and I didn’t get back in the beautiful Western Australian ocean for four months, unless the water was knee-high. (Note: it is hard to surf epic waves in knee high water.)

Of course, I eventually got back in the water. However, when I decided to give surfing another go, I knew I had to do it differently. I needed to surf with people that weren’t there to charge, but there to embrace themselves in the ocean in the same way I wanted to. While I continued to travel the world, I found so many rad people I could share my experiences in the ocean with that left me feeling filled with a sense of safety and understanding that I hadn’t experienced with surfing before. Surfing felt different. 

I needed to surf with people that weren’t there to charge, but there to embrace themselves in the ocean in the same way I wanted to.

Almost five years later, I now live on Vancouver Island and my female surf tribe is the most important group in my life, in and out of the water.

The small town of Tofino, on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, where I spend a lot of my time has a fascinating demographic of surfers. Unlike anywhere else in the world I have surfed, it has a strong female surf community and upon my arrival in Tofino, I was so lucky to be sucked into the heart of it. I began working at Surf Sister Surf School with only female surf instructors. I found a bunch of rad females that understood why I rearranged my life so that I can spend most of my free hours in the water.  

My surf tribe consists of a bunch of perfectly unique females that get to share time in the water together. With only our faces exposed and our cheeks pushed up by our tight and thick wetsuits, it is obvious the beach is definitely not where we go to impress the boys, contrary to what my family thinks. We go to the water to reconnect with what we love, to float in a place that embraces us with moments of joy. It is this that gets us through our sometimes long work weeks or mundane life commitments.

Lauren Aikins and Steph Wightman at sunset. Pacific Rim National Park, BC.

Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating that you find a group of people that don’t help push your own limits when surfing. For limits pushing is partly why we all surf, right? I know that when you find the right group of people to surf with that understand you, and make you feel safe; what is beyond your limits will not feel nearly as impossible or better yet, scary. 

My surf tribe encourages each other to go for bigger waves, or simply congratulate each other when someone tries something new. Not only does this bring a whole new level of fun in the water, it brings a sense of security. This same security has pushed me to be a better surfer and without it I am not sure I would have been capable of becoming a surf photographer. 

Although, surfing is an individual sport and I enjoy a solo session as much as the next person. I know my surfing wouldn’t be the same without my tribe.

I may not be fulfilling my original surfing goal of getting the gnarliest barrels on a 5’10 short board or be pursuing my dreams as a Maverick’s specialist anytime soon (if you met me you would laugh really hard knowing these were my original goals when I began surfing). I would much rather enjoy my time with my surf tribe, sharing those magical cotton candy sunsets, waving at seals together and encouraging each other to get our toes to the nose—rather than pushing myself too hard and far, potentially right out of the ocean again. 

So, I encourage you to find your surf tribe if you have not yet. A group of water people that have your back in all the right ways. Whether you are still in the white wash or working on your cut back on overhead waves. Surround yourself with people in the water that have your back when you are feeling scared or need a push to get into a bigger wave. Hell, make sure they will share a beer with you afterwards as well.

Read next: Why I Shoot Female Surfing

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