I pull up to Claire’s house, and am immediately greeted by the sounds of no less than 3 different farm animals — geese, chicken, sheep — and one particularly enthusiastic farm dog. A longboard is sticking out the back of her silver Tacoma, and another couple boards are laying in the grass nearby. There are various half-finished chores and projects everywhere, the result of numerous days of unscheduled wave chasing. Claire greets me wearing two different shoes.
Claire Hodson and I met in the lineup several years ago, and in some ways our surf stories are not too dissimilar. We both grew up in southern New England, privileged with regular access to the ocean. Claire maybe had a cooler preschool experience… at 5 years old she was learning the days of the week against the backdrop of an aquarium, whereas my preschool was in the basement of a nondescript church. At 13-14 years old we were both captivated by surfing, probably because “Blue Crush” had just hit theaters. After this brief fascination, we both went on to participate in other sports through the rest of our teenage years. Claire took her competitive skiing to college, but I gave up sailing in favor of my preferred degree. And when we were both in our 20s, we rediscovered our love for surf. Claire was brought back into the sport when her younger brother took it up, and I found it again through my boyfriend at the time.
As Claire and I swapped stories, I found echoes of ourselves reflected in each other. We were bound together in this universal coming-of-age story built on self-doubt. Both of our surf experiences had been initially stunted by that “self-consciousness of being a teenage girl” as Claire put it, in a sport where we knew next to no one, nothing about waves, or equipment, and found ourselves literally floundering in a sea full of watchful stares. Childhood curiosity evaporated under the gaze of those unfamiliar eyes, and while the sentiment “You shouldn’t care what other people think!” all sounds well and good, as Claire succinctly put it, “I would be naive or lying to say I didn’t care what people thought.” We were realizing here we both were, now adult women in our 30s, sitting on a couch with some Spindrift seltzers, still struggling through these growing pains of finding ourselves while worrying about what other people thought.
And we’re not alone in this struggle. These are all sentiments I’ve heard echoed in other conversations, with women in particular (and every time, I hear the sounds of the patriarchy ring heavily in my ears). We’re all coming to terms with the reality that by merely existing we will be met with unwanted judgements and criticisms. We have to toe the apparently fine line between humble existence and inflated egos.
Today’s surf culture sounds like this safe space for self-expression. “Go out there and ride the wave, commune with nature, just have fun… just be!” But we’re never just being. We don’t exist in a bubble, and in surf it’s no different. For both Claire and I, it’s not just about the sport, or our relationship with the ocean, but it’s also so much about the community. We both discovered our people here, in the New England surf scene. We found our most confident selves, recognized by kindred spirits. And Claire draws a distinction with our longboarding scene in particular, “the magical social fun days are usually all longboarding. If I’m thinking just about the atmosphere and how much fun I had with everyone else, it’s usually with longboarding.”
Claire’s surfing is iconic and easily recognizable at our home breaks. Signature faded take off and cutting bottom turn set up. A few steps to the nose, a few steps back… swiveling little squiggle at the tail to reset in our often small and mushy conditions. Watching her progress over the years has been impressive too, finding the nose on a regular basis, to nailing her hang tens, all despite the region’s lack of consistency.
The constantly shifting environmental conditions help define who we are as New England surfers, but our region doesn’t boast the best surf talent in the world because of this. The waves are rarely over 2 feet unless they’re brought in from a storm, which can often come with heavy rain and wind. We’re switching out gear every few sessions to contend with the rapidly shifting temperatures. As Claire describes, “It’s mostly cold and frustrating.” Don’t get me wrong, we have a number of incredibly talented people in the lineup, but compared to other places, it’s not quite the same standard of skill. For Claire, it’s having to contend with that lack of practice, and with a lot of the practice being in boots and gloves and hoods that becomes one of the greatest challenges to improving. Nonetheless, there’s several people I could watch surf our local breaks all day every day, and especially when it comes to the gals, Claire tops that list for me. (And I’m pretty sure she accomplished her first hang ten while covered head to toe in 6mm of neoprene…)
Her quiver is one to behold, too, with all shapes and sizes one would require for the highly varied conditions we are met with throughout the year. She’s currently been riding a Thomas 9’6” Moose Knuckle. A lot of the time our waves are a little too soft for Thomas logs, but for Claire, “they noseride really well and you can get a little funky with them.” When I ask about what it is that draws Claire to longboarding over and over again, she describes how for her “even though there’s a lot of technical skill involved with longboarding, that skill is less prescribed. Maybe that’s just the disparity in my skill level with short and long boarding… If I’m doing something weird on a longboard I’m like ‘Oh, that was cool! That was fun!’ But if I do something weird on a shortboard I’m like ‘That wasn’t right.’ Longboarding is just a little bit more fun, more fluid and improvised.” Of course, when I gush any hint of praise at her skillset, she starts fidgeting uncomfortably in her seat.
As our conversation continues, it starts to circle around that dreaded word, “expectations”. Expectations we put on ourselves, expectations we feel from others, from friends, family, and society at large. Wherever these expectations come from, they can snowball into personal roadblocks the size of mountains. When we try to drive our own negative thoughts away, they can come roaring back in the form of critiques from the outside world. And in surf, sometimes our escape becomes our anxiety. The iconic quote from Danish author Isak Dinensen often floats around in my brain in moments of crisis: “The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea”. But what do you do when your refuge becomes your battleground? When your problems are either found in the water, or follow you there?
Our beloved surf community can be a double edged sword. As it continues to grow, so does the visibility, comments, and attention. Suddenly in a space where we’re supposed to be celebrating the ocean, ourselves, and our creativity, we retreat into self-doubt. How do we find that balance of honoring ourselves and celebrating our accomplishments, without seeming boisterous or pretentious? It seems to be a particularly poignant challenge for any women with a touch of spotlight, and it’s hard to hide when your favorite breaks come with a sandy stadium for eyeballs to watch you from. You have to learn how to take criticism, but not too personally. You have to learn that not everyone will be your fan, despite our human need for connection. And when society has taught you to placate others’ feelings and make everyone else around you feel comfortable… you’re often left without instructions on how to make yourself feel comfortable or truly seen. And now in the internet age, as we are all learning to balance our relationships with social media, just like any other nuanced part of our complex modern lives, social media can bring inspiration and deepen our community, but it can also be a place for unhealthy comparisons, unkind words, and unwanted criticism.
Is the solution to just merge what you love into your career? Eliminate one of those worldly expectations in the name of the pursuit of happiness? Claire muses, “In theory, who wouldn’t want to surf for a living, but I have struggled with internal and external negativity when putting myself and my surfing out there on social media. It’s just brought a lot of negativity into my life.”
My heart breaks whenever I hear these words, because as a photographer, I’ve certainly played a role in this. Am I part of the problem? Am I celebrating my friends or perpetuating anxieties? Am I just feeding the beast that is social media by flooding the internet with more images? Despite whatever role I may have played in surf media, for Claire, her greatest struggles are much more personal, “I struggle with mental health. I do take it into the water sometimes, when that’s meant to be the place I go to feel better. For me, there’s always shame involved with being in the limelight, especially being a woman I feel like when you boast about your successes… it’s just never made me comfortable.” A recent birth chart reading confirmed Claire’s specific limelight aversion, in oddly accurate detail along the meridians related to athleticism and career success. But perhaps that’s not here nor there. “With depression, anxiety and ADHD, I struggle to know myself and what I want, and within this uncertainty I just can’t turn my brain off. I’m unable to see my own gifts and look at myself the way other people look at me,” Claire continues. Again, I’m having déjà vu to past conversations with other women.
But Claire begins to point to one of her greatest sources of comfort: our community. And while it can be fraught with imperfections at times, it’s also what helps give us a foundation. She begins to speak about the other women in the lineup. She begins to speak of our friends. “I see flaws in my own surfing where I see strengths in the women around me. I see Lara’s grace, Jess’ consistency, Casey’s incredible noserides, and I want to be like them. There are so many women out in the water that excel at the things I am not good at and it’s inspiring to me. They make me better.”
Claire and I are both independent women in this world still so full of men, but independent does not mean alone. It was the men in our lives that helped rekindle the love for surf we had both nearly forgotten, but it’s our relationships with the women in our lives that help keep us feeling supported the most. We see ourselves in each other; the girls we once were and the women we have become, exploring a world full of challenges and unknowns, yearning to shape our doubt into discovery.
So, how does one find balance in an unbalanced life? When the path we’re supposed to take is winding, and the places that are supposed to ground us shake beneath our feet? Perhaps the answer is simpler than we think: Take a moment to appreciate where we are now. Find comfort in our friends and stay close to those who lift us up. For now, Claire says “I am still searching for balance. I’m working on doing what serves me and being happy for where I am in the moment, just being happy for the waves.” For me, I hope to reflect back to my friends what they might not be seeing in themselves. I want my friends to see their strengths as clearly as I see them, because without them, who am I?