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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Surfing: Not just a man's sport anymore

Belmar Pro surfing contest draws top women's competitors to N.J.
Bob Considine/The Star-Ledger

Enlarge Twins Alexis and Ariel Engstrom of Montauk paddle out into the lineup during a early-morning session with some of the top professional female surfers and New Jersey locals who will be competing in the women's division at the Belmar Pro this weekend. Big waves are expected this weekend from Hurricane Igor, far offshore.

Andrew Mills/The Star-Ledger

Click here for Gallery: Belmar Pro surfing competition draws top women surfers to N.J. Gallery
(17 photos)

LONG BRANCH — Last summer, Maya Gabeira was photographed riding a 45-foot wave in South Africa — the largest ever ridden by a female surfer.

So the Brazilian was the perfect choice Friday to speak about overcoming intimidation in uncharted waters to a some top women surfers from New Jersey and New York who joined her in Long Branch.

"Her best advice was to just get out and go," said one of them, Ryan McGrath, 21, of Manasquan.

Friday’s event, the first Carissa and Maya Project — featuring Gabeira, a big-wave specialist, and Carissa Moore, the No. 8 woman surfer in the world — was part of a week-long mentoring program intended to get the local women to excel in a male-dominated sport, while also pushing the participants to become the first from the metropolitan area to gain national recognition.

"You have to remember you’re there for yourself," said Gabeira, 23, who received an ESPY Award last year for Action Sports Female of the Year. "And you have to battle with so many guys just to get the same kind of waves and the same quality of waves to actually perform and improve. That can be intimidating."

The popularity of women’s surfing has maintained a steady growth after a big boom in 2002 — attributed by some to the popularity of the movie "Blue Crush." That year, women made up 25 percent of the 1.6 million surfers in the United States, according to Board-Trac, a market research firm that follows action sports. Today, 30 percent of 2.9 million surfers in the U.S. are women, according to Board-Trac.

The national trend seems to have followed suit at the Jersey Shore, where women surfers have become commonplace.

"When I first started about 10 years ago, I only saw a couple of girls when I went out," McGrath said. "Now they’re all over the water, which is really cool."

But some of the women participating in the Carissa and Maya Project, which began Monday in Montauk, N.Y., and culminates this weekend at the annual Belmar Pro surf contest, say it’s still a struggle for them to feel at ease in a male-dominated sport.

"A lot of the guys are nice, but sometimes they paddle around you or look at you (because they don’t know you) and it can be really annoying," said Ariel Engstrom, a surfer from Long Island. "Sometimes it depends on whether they’re a local or not."

"I still feel that intimidation today," Gabeira said. "Not because anyone is being rude. But it’s just super hard to paddle out at Pipeline (in Hawaii) and be surrounded by all of these guys in such a small space. You’re surfing with guys who are out there searching for the wave of their life."

The conditions were perfect for the half-dozen women who participated in Friday’s event. A storm swell brought clean and consistent, four- to five-foot waves at a spot in Long Branch renowned for its territorial, "locals-only" vibe.

In fact, one local male surfer groaned at the site of so many female surfers.

Sara Beveridge, of Long Branch, who regularly surfs the spot, said these waters are a proving ground.

"I’m not sure if it was because I’m a girl and they are guys as much as they had been here longer than me," said Beveridge, 20. "I think the more I started paddling out and catching some waves, the more I was respected. It’s all about earning your respect."

Belmar Pro surfing competition photosMontauk, N.Y. native Quincy Davis wins her semifinal heat at the Belmar Pro professional surfing contest Friday. Andrew Mills/The Star-Ledger

The project started with Moore hooking up with McGrath, Beveridge, Cassidy McClain of Ventnor and three of Long Island’s finest — Quincy Davis and twins Ariel and Alexis Engstrom — in Montauk before Gabeira met with the surfers in Belmar.

Moore and Gabeira said they were looking to see if a New Jersey or New York surfer can make a name for herself nationally, the way Somers Point’s Dean Randazzo and Lavallette’s Sam Hammer have for the men.

Davis, a 15-year-old from Montauk who qualified for the U.S. women’s junior surfing team last year, is an odds-on favorite to become the first.

McClain, 15, said she would enjoy the recognition somewhere down the line. But for now, she’s content to have spent a week with the best of the area and two surfing heroes — which she equated to having a local All-Star team shagging flies with Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez.

"I’ll always remember hanging out with a bunch of cool girls and surfing good waves," McClain said.