Surfers hit the waves during a lesson with Saltwater Cowgirls, a surfing camp for women on Florida's Jacksonville Beach.
Surfers hit the waves during a lesson with Saltwater Cowgirls, a surfing camp for women on Florida's Jacksonville Beach.
Jane Shivnan

Women on Board: In Fla., Finding Their Inner Gidget

With Saltwater Cowgirls, an all-female surfing camp, students practice their pop-ups on dry land before hitting the waves at Jacksonville Beach, Fla.
With Saltwater Cowgirls, an all-female surfing camp, students practice their pop-ups on dry land before hitting the waves at Jacksonville Beach, Fla. (Photos By Jane Shivnan)

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By Sally Shivnan
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 16, 2006

I am flat on my belly, pointed straight ahead, traveling in a clean forward line maybe a hundred miles an hour, in the middle of a churning roar -- my wave, my very own wave, how cool is that. But then I have to do the pop-up thing, and I have to do it fast.

So I spring to full upright in one smooth, graceful motion, piece of cake, except as soon as my feet make it forward, I am spinning like a loose plastic lid in a dishwasher in the middle of the turbo cycle. Just like every other single time I've tried it.

Wiping out is the ultimate vacation getaway. Forget no phone, no e-mail, no kids -- this is no arms, no legs, no idea which way is up. It lasts just a few seconds and is actually quite relaxing. It's a curious, in-and-out-of-body experience. And then I'm bobbing in the sea in the sunshine again, my trusty long board floating beside me at the end of my ankle leash.

I am here because I had one of those milestone birthdays -- the big four-seven. I have come with two sisters and three friends for a weekend at Saltwater Cowgirls all-female surf camp in Jacksonville Beach, Fla. Six chicks learning surfing tricks -- trying to, anyway.

But I did get my teeth flossed on that last one. And I got my bikini line waxed on the one before that. My toenail polish is steadily abrading, and it will take two shampoos to get the sand out of my scalp tonight in the shower.

* * *

Jacksonville Beach, with its firm sandy bottom and moderate waves, is an ideal setting for surfing school. Sea temperature reaches the high 70s by April, hits 85 in midsummer, stays 80 in October. Summer air temps reach the 90s; fall is in the 80s. Summer and early fall are ideal for beginners, before the stronger seas of winter kick up.

Jax Beach has a funky, older, party-beach feel about it, though a recent facelift has also given it nice parks and plazas, as well as beach access at nearly every block, and lots of parking. Because of its proximity to Jacksonville it has a strong residential flavor -- people not only vacation here, but live here.

Proprietor Celeste and Laura, her able assistant, are our guides for this journey. Celeste, who has the wildest mop of blond frizz around her head that I've ever seen, is 39, the mother of two teenagers and has lived at the beach all her life. She did not learn to surf until age 27. Her parents had always forbidden it as a lowlife, hippie sport; instead they dropped her off at the skate park, "where 12-year-olds were smoking cigarettes out on the sidewalk," Celeste says. "Like, way better."

She yells at us. "Paddle-paddle-paddle-paddle!" (You need to move if you want to catch that wave.) "Commit, commit!" (You have to mean it if you want to stand up.)

She tells stories. In fact, we get as much storytelling as surfing, but that's because we're on the beach a lot, resting up to go out again, to smash through the whitewater and paddle our butts off to reach the Outside, where all is mellow and peaceful and you can pick your wave.

The Outside is a revelation. Beyond the crashing surf, the swells roll gently underneath me as I lie on my board. It's the only time I really feel like a surfer, because I am just as good at this lazing-about part as the buff, bronze boys who float around out there with me.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company


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