june 2012

first women
The caption on this 1953 publicity photo identifies the first women competitors. It likely refers to their participation in the Makaha International Surfing Championships. From left: Ethel Kukea, Betty Heldreich, Jane Kaopuiki.

The Enduring Girls of Summer

The First Girls In The Curl

Long before Gidget put female surfing on the international cultural map, Mary Ann Hawkins was constructing a resume of competitive wins to rival those of her male counterparts in southern California. Eve Fletcher, a Gidget contemporary, was a Disney animator who took to the waves in 1957 and at age 85 still rides the wild surf.

(Ed. note: In pop culture, Gidget and Annette are indeed the Enduring Girls of Summer; but we would be remiss in failing to salute two other enduring girls of summer, legendary surfers both, one of whom set standards still envied by surfers of both genders, the other of whom is setting an equally enviable standard for longevity.)

Surfing’s first dedicated photographer, John “Doc” Ball, was once asked what role women had in surfing in 1930s Southern California.

"Mostly," he replied, "if they had a boyfriend in [surfing], they'd come down and eventually they'd say, 'Hey, let's get out in the water together.' So, they'd have a tandem ride and finally started to get in the real deal."

In the 1930s surfing had been revived in Hawaii. In the States, it was new and largely the province of a select few men and a handful of women--notably, among the latter, Mary Kerwin, Martha Chapin, Dixie Sholes, Patty Godsave (a standout who, Doc Ball says, “used to ride tandem with one of the guys, either Pete Peterson or E.J. Oshier”), Marion "Cookie" Cook and Ann Kresge.

Of all the talented female surfers of the ‘30s, one stood out from the talented distaff pack: Mary Ann Hawkins.

mary an hawkins
A rare photo of Mary Ann Hawkins in her surfing prime

Mary Ann Hawkins (1919-1993) was the greatest woman surfer of the first half of the Twentieth Century. Her record of competitive wins is testimony to her skill on the board; there is the testimony of those who saw her and those have researched her history.

Surfboard shaper Joe Quigg: "There were women who could get to their feet on a board that their boyfriend built for them. But, as far as just going out and being a surfer on their own, Mary Ann stands out in my mind."

"She was an all around waterperson," according to big wave rider and oceanograher Ricky Grigg, "and I think it gave them [the women surfers who followed] a sense of depth. They had to be more than surfers. They had to be good bodysurfers and swimmers and just totally comfortable in the ocean."

"She was one of the best bodysurfers, man or woman," Joe Quigg added. "She could get across (waves) at Malibu bodysurfing that most people couldn't get across on a surfboard."

Featured in Doc Ball's California Surfriders 1946, Mary Ann Hawkins rode the waves in the late 1930s and through the 1940s before becoming a stunt person in Hollywood. Later she moved to Hawaii and founded a swimming school for babies at the Hilton Hawaiian Village.

"The most prominent thing that comes to mind in speaking of Mary Ann," surfer Tommy Zahn once observed, "is that there have been great swimming ladies and great board surfing ladies... [even so,] I haven't seen or heard of anybody with her versatility."

A Mary Ann Hawkin Retrospective

1933: SPAAU Record for 880-yard Freestyle Swim (new national junior record)

1936: AAU 500-meter Freestyle (winner)

1936: 880-yard Female Paddleboard Race, Ambassador Hotel Swim Team (winner)

1936: National Junior 880-yard Backstroke Champion

1936: In the first-ever all-female paddleboard race, Hawkins finished first. On the same day, she also won the half-mile swim.

1938-40: National Paddleboard Champion and Pacific Coast Women's Surfboard Champion (Long Beach)

1st Female to enter the Catalina-Manhattan Beach Aquaplane Race

1939: Won Women's Half-mile Swim and broke the 220-yard record for freestyle (Natatorium, Waikiki)

1970s: By the 1970s, she had taught more than 10,000 people to swim and had been a stunt double for many movie stars.

Quotes from Legendary Surfers, A Definitive History of Surfing’s Culture and Heroes
by Malcolm Gault-Williams


Eve Fletcher at age 80, surfing San Onofre State Beach, CA:  ‘I plan to surf until I drop.’ (Photo: Rick Rickman for his book about senior athletes, The Wonder Years: Portraits of Athletes Who Never Slow Down)

‘You’re Never Too Old To Be Stoked’

By Martha Glass

In her outgoing voicemail message, Eve Fletcher says that if she hasn't answered, she's "probably out in the garden." That's where the message ends, but anyone who knows Fletcher also knows to check the water-the Pacific Ocean, to be specific, probably off the shore of San Onofre, where the soft-spoken, 5'3," 84-year-old caught her first wave just over half a century ago. Do the math: while more and more preteens seem to be landing pro-surfing sponsorships these days, Fletcher was 30 before she ever paddled out.

An East Coaster by birth, Fletcher moved with her family to the San Fernando Valley at age 10, where she became an avid swimmer when her parents joined the local country club. Later, she took a job in Disney's Ink & Paint department, where she contributed to films like Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland. Fletcher was an animation supervisor for the company (where she continued to work through the 1989 feature The Little Mermaid before receiving the Animation Guild's Golden Award in 2005) when, at age 30, she finally ventured down to the San Onofre shore. Toting her first surfboard-a gift from actor Johnny Sheffield (who played Boy in several Tarzan films), she happened to meet the most famous surfer of the time, Marge Calhoun. When Fletcher asked her for advice, Calhoun's reply was, "You just paddle and then stand up!"

With what could only have been a perfect combination of fearlessness and unflappable determination, Fletcher took to the water in no time. After a year, she cashed in her vacation time and packed up for a month-long Hawaiian "surf-ari." Back in California, she was a member of the San Onofre Surf Club, and a familiar face on the beaches of Malibu and Rincón. She would never be dubbed a prodigy--in 1966, while surfing San Onofre, a 16-year-old Australian surfer informed her that he "couldn't wait to get home and tell everyone all the old ladies here surf!"--but her accomplishments speak for themselves.

eve fletcherFletcher is less an anomaly than most would suspect. At 75, she was among the many senior surfers to be featured in the documentary Surfing For Life. (The oldest to be profiled, then-94-year-old John H. "Doc" Ball, continued to surf, sans wet suit, and skateboard until his death in 2001.) "Getting old still scares people," 58-year-old photographer Rick Rickman told the Huffington Post earlier this year. "I felt that taking pictures of older people doing exciting and active things might change that."

For her part, Fletcher cares less about carrying a torch than catching a wave. She still hits San Onofre on a regular basis--even if she hates to admit that her body is less than willing to cooperate. "I don't have the strength and stamina I used to have," she says, recalling being held under at Makaha for a long time and wondering when she would get a breath. As for other signs of Fletcher slowing down, you'd be hard-pressed to find them. "I plan to surf 'til I drop," she says. "You're never too old to be stoked!"

beau branding
Posted at beau branding, January 13, 2011

surfing for life
Surfing for Life is available at www.amazon.com


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Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
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