Community Projects, WomenEla Surf: Empowering Women Through Surf Retreats 

-Words by Kim Feldmann, images by Ela Surf

Even with recent changes in WSL policies, the number of women in line-ups across the world is still significantly less than that of men. And although some may be quick to pressume that this is just because women are “not as interested in surfing”, there are often other underlying reasons that make our surf breaks so testosterone-laden.

In Florianopolis, one of Brazil’s surf hubs, a group of women has come together to identify these impediments and work through them by way of merging surfing with integrative practices and alternative therapy. With a customised methodology, the team of Ela Surf (“She Surf” in Portuguese) organises surf retreats as a safe space for women to boost their confidence and bring down the walls that limit them both in and out of the water.

What follows is the translated transcription of a conversation with three members of Ela Surf, Alessandra Bressan, Luna Feldmann, and Gabriela Spilari. The quoted texts were edited and compiled from comments of all three interviewees.

Surf Simply technical surf coaching resort, Guiones, Nosara, Costa Rica

Back in 2017, Alessandra Bressan, the founder of the Ela Surf initiative, attended a start-up week event in Florianopolis. Her idea, which was to be structured and validated throughout the event, was to organise a group of women to go surfing.

“Back then – now it is better – it was very difficult to find women partners to surf with in Florianopolis. I went to the event with that demand, We managed to set up the group and continued working on it through 2017 and 2018. There were several changes during this time, the main one being that we began to look beyond surfing – the women involved were also interested in developing self-awareness. So we started to organise events – a morning, for instance – that brought yoga and surfing together. Straight away we noticed the progress.”

But since the initial team consisted of two engineers and one law student, they lacked the theoretical foundation to support and deepen this element of self-awareness.

“One of the reasons we thought it was important to implement this psycho-emotional part was because we had conducted interviews with lots of women during the process of idea validation. We asked them why, if they wanted to surf, hadn’t they tried? Most answers had to do with fear of the sea and experimenting themselves in a mainly male environment, lack of self-confidence, and lack of women partners to surf with. So we saw it wasn’t just a matter of inviting them for a surf – they also needed a psychological support, a support that went a bit deeper and gave them courage to debunk preconceptions.”
Surf Simply technical surf coaching resort, Guiones, Nosara, Costa Rica

Throughout 2018, with the news of the initiative spreading, other professionals started to get in touch – among them psychologists Luna Feldmann, Gabriela Spilari, and Eduarda Marchetti, as well as other integrative therapists who work on emotions. During a surf camp in September 2018, they began to think about what their psychology practice could bring to these events.

“We conducted various group dynamics to help the women bond and facilitate the process of sharing, and wrapped up the event by conferring a deeper meaning to the experience, linking emotional matters with the practice of surfing. It was incredible because the entire future team was present in that event without yet being a team. And it was then that we saw the power of what was happening and decided to use what we had.”

In December 2018, the newly formed team of seven women decided to move forward with Ela Surf with a more entrepreneurial approach. They transformed the original idea of surf events into weekend retreats that used psychology, alternative therapies, group dynamics, and surf lessons as tools for women to understand themselves better.

“Before the focus was surfing, learning how to surf. Now the focus is to use surfing as a process of personal transformation and self-awareness. Sure, we still give surf lessons because without technique you can’t experiment in the sport, and without experimenting in the sport you can’t get to know yourself through the sport. We provide this technical base of surfing, but there is the whole group process, of understanding our beliefs and convictions, understanding why we don’t trust ourselves, why we have fears, why we feel insecurity, how we deal with frustration, how we cope with emotions of anger or whatever other emotion that may emerge while surfing. So the essence of surfing is there – but it is deepened.”
Surf Simply technical surf coaching resort, Guiones, Nosara, Costa Rica

The retreats are usually run over the course of three days, with groups of 6-10 women so as to give individual attention. Friday evening is the initial period of integration: sharing a meal, introducing the group to one another, bringing group dynamics as a way of creating an atmosphere of friendship, as well as evaluating their expectations for the event. On Saturday they begin with a visualization: each participant beginning to imagine themself surfing and perceiving themself in this process, trying to identify beliefs – ‘Why had I never tried to surf before?’ – and to link surfing with their own lives, with their own experiences out of the water.

“There are always two women guiding the group – one psychologist and one general facilitator. So while the psychologist may utilize tools and dynamics that create the supportive backbone of psychology, the other leader can bring practices of aromatherapy, yoga, meditation, Thought Field Therapy (TFT), visualization, mindfulness, compiling techniques and shaping the event based on what skills the two leaders have. Besides these two professionals, who follow every step of the event, there are also the surf instructors who teach basic techniques in daily surf lessons.”

Among the issues that are brought forth by the participants, fear and lack of self-confidence and the most pronounced, and reflect on perhaps being in an abusive relationship, not having the confidence to change work or career, move cities, take care of oneself – things that end up influencing their approach to surfing as a consequence of what they are living at that moment.

“In one of the retreats, many girls mentioned how they grappled with a need to control things, and when they went for a surf they faced an environment which they couldn’t control. This brought forth emotions which were later worked though together in the group, under the guidance of the psychologist and the rest of the Ela Surf team, so that we can make clearer links between these experiences with surfing and their own lives, maybe not through the experience itself but through the meaning that is conferred to it.”

The team mediates emotional challenges throughout the whole event, both in the water by supporting the surf instructors and back at the lodge by conducting a circle of discussion according to the issues that pop-up. There is a structured program with group meetings, meditation, and other practices, but it all interweaves – as it did at Praia do Rosa in November 2019.

“Many of the women who participated had issues with panic attacks, depression, anxiety, abusive relationships, were people who ended up being in more vulnerable and delicate situations. One of them was utterly afraid of many things, not only the sea – she basically lived a life of fear. She had never even dunked her head underwater! She was invited by a friend and went there to challenge herself. We did some work before getting into the water, bringing some alternative techniques such as Thought Field Therapy (TFT), aromatherapy, and when we went to the beach she got into the water with the instructor and froze. She had a breakdown right there; her body wouldn’t react and kept on shaking.”

One of the psychologists came to assist and began a process of aquatization with her: floating, teaching her how to blow bubbles through her nose, working on breathing, giving support as well as gradually challenging her. She began trying things out and understanding that she had some control – it was shallow and she wasn’t going to drown.

“That day, she simply felt the sea; the following day, she tried going out with the surfboard. I accompanied her to the outside, trying to keep her calm and working on breathing. When she finally caught a wave, she rode prone all the way to the sand, turned around with a smile on her face and paddled back out. Her process was beautiful – the epitome of what we are trying to accomplish. In two days she went from never having dunked her head in the water to catching waves by herself.”

As the idea of Ela Surf was born out of a need to reinvent the place of women in surfing, it also reinvented the way the team saw themselves as women surfers, as well as their outlook on surfing.

“We are still locked to this idea that surfing means riding big waves, catching many waves, doing manoeuvres…but there came a time when despite my evolution, I wasn’t doing any of this, and that realisation frustrated me. I had been surfing for a while, but it was either alone or with a group of men, and seeing them doing big turns brought my confidence levels down, making me doubt myself and think I would never be a surfer. Through the work at Ela Surf, I could live this in a different way, a more loving and welcoming way, as one woman helping and teaching another. And by saying to the women ‘You can surf however you want – if you only catch a small wave, that is your surfing at that moment,’ my perception changed and surfing became something much more pleasurable. Sure, I have goals and want to evolve my surfing, catch a barrel in my life. But I don’t ask so much of myself any more, and have learned to respect my own process, which is different than yours, than hers… As I began to look at myself through surfing, I realised how the way I’m living reflects on the way I’m surfing. From that insight, I managed to quit a job that was suffocating me, and through the process of Ela Surf – which is the process of all women involved – I began to feel a weightlessness in my surfing.”

Ironically, the main challenge found within the initiative is also the thing that keeps moving it forward – to exercise confidence and deconstruct the preconceived image of a woman surfer.

“Many women still don’t feel confident and able to even think of investing in surfing, especially those who don’t fit in the aesthetic standard of a “surfer girl” or who doesn’t exercise regularly. And it is tougher to break through this stigma considering all seven team members of Ela Surf somewhat fit into this “surf girl” standard. So this has also become a challenge – for us to deconstruct the idea that surfing is only for men.”
Surf Simply technical surf coaching resort, Guiones, Nosara, Costa Rica

Being involved with the female surf community in Florianopolis and receiving guests from all over Brazil, they have noticed that there has been an increase both in the number of women engaging with surfing as well as surf clinics and other initiatives for women.

“In the future we hope to optimise these retreats, expanding both the groups and the locations. We also hope to organise larger events that reach beyond surfing and integrate a lot of people, like the women surf talk we conducted last year in partnership with Canal OFF (the main extreme sports paid TV channel in Brazil), where women who have experience in the world of surfing – from mothers of professional surfers to those who work in surf-related projects – brought their experiences as women within this place they occupy. Much like through our retreats, this kind of initiative helps to deconstruct the space of women within the surfing, and bolster their confidence to live their lives as they want. And to surf as they want.”

To keep up to date and find out more about Ela Surf, give them a follow on Instagram.