Everyone is drawn to the siren song of the waves. Some dip their feet in, others lay by it, some splash around and take a few strokes. Then there are those who want to be on the waves, surfing them. You’ve probably seen them off of Narragansett Town Beach, clad in neoprene, buoyed by the gentle surf. They sit on their boards, waiting for the waves to roll in. They point their boards to the shore, start paddling, pop up and ride the waves to their heart’s con.tent, then paddle back out to deeper waters.
Surfing is many things to different people: a hobby, a passing interest, a great workout, a way of life. Once dominated by men, surfing has become much more gender neutral. In fact, most women who pick the sport up rave about the surf community’s camaraderie. I spoke with three women who love the sport, and the community they’re a part of.
Lily Gartner, 13
Lily Gartner’s been surfing since she was seven years old and won’t be stopping anytime soon. “My father taught me and my brother Noah how to surf. He grew up surfing in Narragansett, so he knows all the breaks,” says Lily. “I used to only go out a few days a week, now I surf all day, everyday, year-round.”
Her dream is to become a pro surfer. “I’ve always wanted to get sponsored by a company, and that happened,” she beams. Lily is currently sponsored by two companies, Rip Curl and IMSY, a local bikini company started by a woman surfer from Rhode Island. Rip Curl has sent her bathing suits, wet suits, t-shirts, dresses and shorts, and they picked her because she embodies the surf lifestyle. But they also chose her because she’s a darn good kid. Lily is a straight-A student and a lovely young lady.
It’s inescapably clear that this is her passion. She’s even got the medals to prove it. At 11, she entered her first competition and placed third. In her second competition she placed first in the Girls Under 14 division and in her most recent competition this winter, she placed first in the Girls Under 14 division and first overall in the Long-board division.
Above all else, Lily emphasizes good surf etiquette, which amounts to sharing the waves. “It’s not fair for one person to catch all the waves. You want to respect all the surfers. It’s just good sportsmanship,” she explains. It’s this respect she shows for others that has earned her the respect from the surf community. She also wants other young women to not be afraid to try surfing: “Just go for it. Even if you’re not the best at it you can still surf for fun.”
For her there’s always another wave to catch on the horizon, especially since she’s only surfed in Rhode Island. “I want to surf a lot of places in California and Hawaii. That’s where I want to live when I get older,” she says. Well, with the direction she’s going, California and Hawaii better watch out for our Rhode Island gal.
Rachel McCarty, 28
Rachel McCarty started surfing when she was 12-years-old while visiting her grandmother on spring break in Charleston, SC. She’s been hooked ever since her first lesson. “It was a dark and stormy day and I remember the surf being rough, but [my surf instructor] pushed me into my first wave and I stood up and surfed it straight to the beach,” Rachel says. “This was the turning point for the rest of my life, because everything after that day was about surfing.” Now, she surfs year-round.
The smell of surf wax and salt air always brings her back to those first few times she surfed. “I’m sure they weren’t graceful moments, but they were some of the most fun,” she says, laughing. “The thrill and adrenaline were overwhelming. I think before I even caught my first wave, I had built surfing up to be the greatest thing ever. I am so glad it delivered.”
Rachel’s competed in the past and was the president of the Surf Club at the University of Rhode Island for a couple years. But most of all she loves the connection to the ocean she feels while surfing. It’s all at once calming and rejuvenating for her. Even the feeling of the water passing through her fingers is special. “I love the feeling of weightlessness you get on a wave, and the pure focus you have when you are riding it,” she says, “because absolutely nothing else matters in that moment.”
The camaraderie is important too; it takes a special kind of person to devote their life to surfing. In the past, she’s definitely felt that some guys didn’t think she could catch a wave, so they would drop in on her. But these incidents were few and far between. She’s held her ground, kept catching waves and has found the overall vibe to be much friendlier, partially due to having more women in the sport.
And her advice to women who want to start: “Realize you are diving into an obsession that will leave your hair salty, sand on your floorboards and surfboards in every nook and cranny of your life... It isn’t meant to be easy, and sticking with it is the key to success.”
Success, for her, can be counted in the waves she’s surfed. One of Rachel’s favorite sessions was from this past winter, when she paddled out alone before dawn. “I saw a sliver moon set and sea smoke illuminated by the sunrise,” she reminisces. “My hood quickly covered with a layer of ice, and although the waves were decent, I couldn’t stop smiling because it was such a crazy and beautiful moment.”
Medelise Reifsteck, 52
Medelise started consistently surfing about 12 years ago when she signed her daughter up for a three-day surf clinic called Chicks on Sticks. She enrolled herself and has been hooked ever since. She was 40 when she started. “I did my first surf competition last year when I was 51. I felt like it was something I wanted to check off the list,” she says. “I have a competitive nature and I thought it would be fun. It was the Battle of the Beaches annual surf competition at Narragansett Town Beach and I managed second place in the Women’s Longboard division.”
For Medelise though, it’s not all about the competitions. She loves the thrill and pure joy of what surfing does for her. While she’s out on the water, she’ll take in the natural beauty all around her, staring in awe. Then there are the times she paddles out and sees five to ten friends who share her passion. She’ll catch that perfect wave and let the rest fall away.
There was one point, however, she had to stop surfing for health reasons. She got a major bacterial infection and spent six weeks in the hospital. After multiple surgeries and major complications, she lost almost a third of her body mass, her muscles had atrophied and she was extremely weak. “Finding my way back out onto the board and building up the necessary physical strength to surf was a priority for me and quite the undertaking,” Medelise explains. “It took me over two years to get back to the place that I was with my life and with surfing before I had the infection.”
And now that she’s back on the board, she can’t see ever stopping unless forced to by injury or illness. She loves surfing in South County. “We have an amazing surf community. What I have seen in the way of love and support from all the surfers young and old towards each other makes me feel blessed to be a part of it all. And God we have some fun!”
Her best advice to those who want to surf is that you are never too old or too young to start. “My aunt started surfing at 64 and just turned 70 and is still surf.ing,” she beams. “I would say that surfing may very well be the most fun you will ever have. It takes time, practice and a healthy dose of obsession to get good at it, but it’s well worth it in the end.”
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