Elizabeth Pepin Silva
Years Surfing: 34 years (started when I was 21, I’m now nearly 55)
Fave Board: My 9’8″ Takayama Step-deck and my 9’8″ Bing
What got you started surfing? The second house we moved into when I was around 1 year old was at Ocean Beach in San Francisco. I think being so close to the ocean at a very young age had a big influence on me. We always went to the beach when I was growing up. Although over the years I would see surfers, I never met one. But because I loved being in the water, surfing was something I wanted to try. Unfortunately there were no surf schools or places to rent boards when I was growing up, so I had no idea how to go about trying to surf. It wasn’t until I was 21 that a friend moved into a new rental and someone left behind a surfboard in the storage shed. She gave it to me and I took it out that weekend and somehow managed to stand up. It was love at first surf!
Where do you see women’s surfing in the future, say 10 years out? Having been surfing since 1985, I’ve watched women’s surfing change enormously. I used to be one of the few women in the water in San Francisco, now most of the time half the lineup is women. I think this is going to continue – not only will more women take up surfing, but the lineup will become increasingly diverse. My hope is that the surf industry and the surf media will finally notice this and stops focusing on white male surfers and begins to really reflect the diversity we are all seeing in the lineup. There have been tiny steps towards this over the years, but definitely not enough. Hopefully in ten years the tiny steps will become giant leaps. Personally I’m really tired of reading about and seeing photos of the same ten white dudes in every single surf magazine.
Best wipe out story? Anyone who has surfed Ocean Beach in San Francisco has an “I almost drowned” wipeout story. When I started surfing, that is where I lived, so that is where I surfed. It’s a very hard place to surf, even if you are good. So learning there was pretty challenging to say the least. I was trying to learn on a fat 1970s G&S shortboard, because in the 1980s, that was what everyone was riding. The longboard resurgence hadn’t started yet. Ocean Beach is one of those places where you can paddle out for 45 minutes but never get to the outside because the inside is so bad you just keep getting pushed back to the same place. On the day of my worst wipeout, I was surfing by myself as usual – which, in hindsight, is never a good idea because there won’t be anyone around to help you should you get into trouble. It was about chest high but choppy, but somehow I managed to get to the outside. I even caught a few waves, but then took off on a larger wave and immediately caught a rail in the chop and fell. I was pulled over the lip and washing machined around so badly that I didn’t realize where I was in the water until I hit the sand bottom. By then I was running out of breath so I quickly swam up to the surface but as soon as I broke through the water, another set wave landed on my head and sent me tumbling again. This happened 3 times and by the third time I was starting to see stars because I couldn’t get a full breath in. Luckily the tide was incoming, so after the third hold down the tide had pushed me in enough that when I stopped tumbling, I realized I could finally stand. I staggered to the beach, throwing up water. I sat there on the sand next to my board, totally freaked out that I had almost drowned. Yet there was almost no one around to have seen my near-disaster. It was such a surreal experience. After that I tried to find some surf friends so that I didn’t have to surf there alone any more.
Most memorable surf moment? Oh gosh, there have been quite a few. Surfing in Japan with my husband and a friend during a spectacular sunset which turned Mt. Fuji in the distance a beautiful pink/orange while flying fish jumped out of the water was pretty incredible. Having a baby whale surface pretty close to me and a friend while surfing by ourselves in Ventura was amazing. But I think my most memorable was one Labor Day weekend where it was sunny and warm, and the waves were glassy and head high. My husband and I were surfing and for some reason we were just on fire. Every wave we surfed was perfect and we were doing laps for a few hours — getting these really long rides on these incredibly beautiful waves. One of our last waves we caught together, and held hands as we both flew down the face and rode it all the way to shore. People were clapping!
Surf travel story or goals? What I love about surfing is that I can travel anywhere there is surf and it seems within 24 hours I have made new friends. The sport gives you a way to meet people all over the world. I have made some really great friends all over the globe because of surfing. It’s such a nice way to immerse yourself in another culture. But I think as surf travelers we also have to recognize that we are in someone else’s home, and be respectful out in the water and mindful of the impact that our visit has on the place, even if we don’t mean to have an impact. This is especially true in places where there is economic disparity between those who visit and those who live there. My goal when I travel is to try to stay, eat and shop in businesses that are owned by locals, not outsiders, so that at least my visit helps the locals in some small way. Besides, it’s a great way to interact with the locals. I travel to meet new people, not go 1000 miles to some remote surf spot only to hang out with the people I’d surf with at home!
What do you love/hate (you choose!) about surf culture as it pertains to women surfers? Surf culture still has a long way to go in recognizing that it’s not just white males who surf. For example, look at the “portfolio” photo essays in surf magazines, which feature photographs taken by surf photographers. The photographers are almost always men, as are the surfers in their photos. It’s as if women don’t exist in their world. It’s completely bizarre, because I’m a surf photographer and filmmaker myself, and have been shooting surf since 1996. I’ve never had a problem finding women surfers to photograph, even back when I started! But the blame might not entirely be the photographers. Perhaps the male photographers are taking photos of women surfers, but the male editors (and yes, they are nearly all men) aren’t selecting those shots.
What I love is that women surfers are not just waiting around for the men to get a clue. Women are taking things into their own hands — shooting their own photos, making their own surf movies, publishing their own surf magazines and ‘zines, starting their own surf clubs. You’re both doing this with your Ocean is Female project. It’s a DIY women-led revolution that I think will ultimately change mainstream surf culture for the better.
Who are your surf heroes, and why? There are numerous pros and surf pioneers that I admire, but really my surf heroes are all the regular women surfers who carve out a few hours each week to get into the water and surf. They ignore friends and family who tell them women don’t surf and try it anyway. They overcome their own fears around the ocean, their bodies, their lack of skills — and just go do it. They encourage other women to get into the water and don’t feel competitive with other women surfers, only joy when they see them catch waves. These are the women who I most admire. You won’t read about them in magazines or see their photos on Instagram, but they are heroes none-the-less.
You are a surf filmmaker as well as a photographer. Tell us about your films: Yes, I’ve been making surf films since 2001. You can watch all of them on the Surf Network.
The first film I made (with co-director Sally Lundburg) is called “One Winter Story,” and is about the life of Sarah Gerhardt, the first woman to surf Maverick’s and to tow-in surf. It’s experimentally shot on super 8 and 16mm film but a straightforward documentary style story. It’s won some awards and is a very moving film.
The second film is called “La Maestra” (The Teacher) and is the day in the life of a small fishing village which is also a popular surf spot, and a young teacher and surfer who grew up there, Maya Aguilar. I made with Paul Ferraris.
The third film I also made with Paul is “Introducing the Super Stoked Surf Mamas of Pleasure Point.” It’s a story about friendship, pregnancy and surfing and has also won a handful of film festival awards.
And I should have two new surf films out in 2020 so stay tuned!