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Surf's up for industry catering to women

Posted: Thursday, August 30, 2001

CARLSBAD, Calif. (AP) -- Straddling a longboard, Kim Kennis scanned the incoming waves, searching for one packing enough height and force.

A week earlier, she had stepped off an airplane from Rochester, N.Y., with one goal in mind: Ride a wave just like the women she had seen in the surfing magazines.

For five days, she had listened, practiced and shared the frustration that came with learning a new sport. Kennis and 20 others are enrolled in Surf Divas, a camp for women.

Now in the water, the 35-year-old antiques dealer bobbed on her surf board as she looked at the waves rolling in to South Carlsbad State Beach. Then she saw it, a soft swell building in the distance.

''This isn't the end -- you know, a come-to-California-and-learn-to-surf vacation, and then go home and forget it,'' she said later on the beach. ''This is the beginning. This is a sport I'm learning, I'm going to continue, and I'm going to invest in.''

That's the attitude, industry analysts said, that a growing number of women have been expressing about the sport in recent years. In response, surfing companies increasingly cater to women, sponsoring weeklong camps and clothing lines.

Analysts point to the rising number of women with disposable incomes, the adventure sports movement and the success of targeted advertising by mainstream retail giants, such as Nike.

''Suddenly, in the summer of 2001, the climate is just right for a lot of these women to take that step and get out there,'' said Elizabeth Glazner, founder and co-editor of Wahine, a women's surfing magazine.

''It's not because somebody created a board short for women. It's because people have been out in the sand for years watching their kids, their boyfriends, their husbands do it and finally asked, 'Why can't I do it?'''

The Surf Industry Manufacturing Association reported at its annual meeting this spring that the number of businesses offering surfing products for women and girls had increased nearly 75 percent from 1997 to 2000. There are no estimates available on the number of women taking up the sport.

It also found that major surfing retailers, such as Billabong and Reef, had made significant marketing changes to target women.

The babes in bikinis who dominated advertisements in the 1980s and 1990s have been replaced by professional and amateur athletes. Most visible are world-ranked competitors such as Lisa Anderson, who became the first female professional surfer with a signature shoe line.

''Honestly, I think the success of mainstream companies outside of the surf industry has had an effect,'' said Jessica Trent, a marketing manager for Billabong. ''Using real athletes, real women works. You don't have to have a cookie-cutter girl.''

As a result, companies are seeing increased sales.

Reef, which introduced its women's footwear line in 1999, expected female sales to surpass its popular men's line by the end of this fiscal year, said Reef spokeswoman Heather Bensen.

Christina Shires, 29, of Seattle, is among the women targeted by businesses. A year ago, she had never held a surf board. Today, she owns one.

''A lot of people asked if I was going through a mid-life crisis,'' she said with a laugh.

While large companies are riding the wave of success, a growing number of women-owned small businesses also is finding a place in the industry.

At the recent Surf Summit, the surfing industry's annual gathering in Mexico, more than 70 percent of the businesses represented were owned by women, according to Glazner.

''There were a lot of stores, companies owned by men who were selling what they thought a woman should buy. Women know what women want to buy, what they need,'' said Isabella Califano, co-owner of Chickabiddy, a small surf clothier.

But perhaps the greatest indicator is the proliferation of women-only surf clinics and camps.

Five years ago, Surf Divas was one of the only surf schools offering individual instruction, clinics and weeklong camps for women. Today, more than a dozen such schools have popped up around the nation.

''It's like trying to learn driving from your dad. There's no patience'' involved, said Isabelle Tihanyi, co-owner of Surf Divas. ''These kinds of schools offer patience, that nurturing that's needed.''

There are no men at Surf Divas. ''Men and women are different. The way they learn is different. Their bodies are different. The way they surf is different,'' Tihanyi said. ''Surfing by itself can be intimidating. If you throw men in the mix, it can become overwhelming for some women.''

For about $600 a week, Surf Diva participants receive two three-hour surfing sessions a day with instructors, use of a board and wet suit, and room and board -- a tent and outdoor cookouts at South Carlsbad State Beach.

Cat Beagan-Gorlick, a 30-year-old Web designer from Queens, N.Y., had always heard that surfing was for guys. But by day 4 at Surf Divas, she was ready to do it herself.

As she popped up on her board, Lesley Gregory, a 46-year-old elementary schoolteacher from Temecula, Calif., cheered her on. Later, Gregory got up on her board to cheers from others in the water.

''The support the women give each other is important, I think, to the experience. You don't want to feel alone out there,'' she said.

The camp also teaches surfing etiquette, lingo and fashion do's and don'ts.

Bikinis, for example, are a no-no. ''The wave will just take it right off,'' Tihanyi said. Board shorts and wet suits with rash guards, which protect the skin from salt abrasions, are recommended.

''Our goal is to pass the stoke on,'' Tihanyi said. Stoke, she explained, is surf lingo for excitement.

Kim Kennis, feeling that excitement and finally spotting her wave, turned her board back toward the beach and paddled furiously.

As the wave caught her, she first raised her upper body, then pulled her legs underneath and pushed herself up.

For a moment, she was standing. Then she was not, losing her balance and disappearing under the wave's white water.

Moments later, she was back on her board, paddling out toward the incoming waves.



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