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Catching the wave

A surfing competition in Maine reflects the sport's surging popularity among women nationwide

YORK, Maine -- The waves are waist high. The air is heavy with humidity, the sand gray and claylike. It's surfing, New England-style -- or, more specifically, it's in the style of Long Sands Beach, where the Northern New England district of the Eastern Surfing Association is holding its third competition of the season.

The August contest had been pushed back from the previous Saturday when lightning and rain relentlessly pelted the region. But during a 7:45 a.m. call, it's clear that Lenny Nichols, head of the ESA's Northern New England district, is in "show-must-go-on" mode. "The surf contest in York is on," he says. "Cloudy, possible rain, but we're going."

Hours later, two of Nichols's daughters, Julia and Nohealani, plus Melanie Veltsos and three other young women are lined up on the beach with surfboards tucked under their arms waiting for the women's longboard final to begin. Their presence shows how far women's surfing has come. Of the 75 competitors in the 21 heats scheduled on this day, 25 are female. "Last year, it was probably half of that," Nichols says.

The numbers were even drearier when Veltsos started surfing competitively five years ago. "What we have today [in this competition] is probably the most we've ever had," says Veltsos, 17, of East Kingston, N.H. "Now I see a lot of new faces."

The growth reflects a national spike in the sport's popularity among women that began in the 1990s. Women made up 25 percent of the 1.6 million surfers in the United States last year, according to Board-Trac, a market research firm that follows board sports. The number of female surfers nearly tripled from 1999 to 2002.

It's a long way from the sport's modern-day beginnings early last century, when men "started surfing for women and women were relegated to the beach," says Sam George, editor of Surfer magazine.

These days, surfing has shrugged off its sexist history and remodeled itself into a trendy pastime palatable enough for the big and small screens. A pair of reality television shows -- MTV's "Surf Girls" and the WB's "Boarding House: North Shore" -- recently explored the sometimes catty world of surfing. The surfing documentary "Step Into Liquid" currently spellbinds viewers in movie theaters. Hollywood rode the female surfing craze to a box-office take of $40 million with last year's "Blue Crush," recently released on DVD. Even if you don't live the life, you can look like you do by wearing board shorts and bikinis by the hip, pro-surfer clothing lines Roxy, Billabong, and Quiksilver.

Veteran surfers find the tsunami of commercialization distasteful. "It's selling out in a way," says Nichols, 47, the center of a thriving scene emanating from Hampton, N.H. " `Wear our clothes, and you can be cool and you can surf.' There's a lot of wannabes, what people call `poseurs,' in the surf lifestyle. It's not something [where] you put your bowling shoes on and play. Surfing controls your life. Surf to live, live to surf."

The kids who grow up in surfing families don't follow the learning path of poseurs: renting boards and taking lessons at a surf shop. This is a sport that they're literally thrown into at the youngest age possible.

"My dad got us into it when we were, like, 3," says 16-year-old Nohealani -- Nohea for short -- who was born in Kaneohe, Oahu. Nichols would give Nohea and Julia rides on the front of his board. Six years ago, the girls became serious about the sport, trekking to Waikiki Beach in Oahu every weekend to practice.

When the Nichols family moved to Hampton three years ago, Nohea and Julia weren't exactly enthusiastic about surfing in New England's chilly waters. "They said, `I can't do it,' " recalls Nichols, who's surfed Hampton's summertime waters since he was a teenager visiting from Florida. He told them they could. Then he sweetened the deal by becoming the head of the ESA's Northern New England district, which gives his daughters opportunities to surf up and down the East Coast.

Those who participate in 50 percent of the local competitions qualify for inclusion in the regionals contest in New Jersey for surfers from there to Maine. Those participants may then advance to the easterns competition in Cape Hatteras, N.C., which lures surfers from the entire East Coast.

"That's even a bigger thing," says Julia, 15, as she pulls on a blue rash guard, a stretch top that will identify her by color to the two judges during the competition. Nearby, Veltsos slips on a white rash guard, and Nohea dons an orange one. It's 3:15 p.m., and the women's longboard final is about to begin.

This isn't the girls' home beach, and in the flurry of precompetition activity someone helpfully yells out, "Watch out for the rocks!" Then Nichols, a co-judge, shouts, "Go, go, go!" and the six competitors trot into the water, scoot onto their longboards, and paddle out into the ocean. Soon a horn blares to indicate the start of the competition. Within a few minutes the women start surfing, and the scene dissolves into snapshots of action and a babble of judges shouting out the various colors representing each surfer.

"Blue!" Nichols calls out to draw attention to Julia, who has caught her first wave. She rises to her feet for a moment, then sits back down.

"Red up! Orange up!" Nohea pops up, then loses her balance.

"White!" Veltsos rises and walks forward on the board. Then Nohea is up again taking a few tentative steps along the board before falling to the right.

Twenty minutes later, the horn sounds ending the competition, and the young women make their way out of the water. The final results: Nohea and Julia place first and second. Veltsos is fourth.

Usually Veltsos claims one of the top three spots alongside the Nichols sisters. Blame her poor showing on a trio of reasons. She prefers the shortboard to the longboard, she says, and had already placed first in the junior women's shortboard competition earlier that day. She spent most of her time looking out for those rocks she was warned about. Then there was the problem with the board. "I've never used it before," she says.

Veltsos says that when she first started entering contests, "there were probably like four older ladies [surfing]. I was the only girl in my division." Now the scene pulls in newbies such as Gabrielle Fatello, 13, of Hampton, whose father taught her to surf three years ago. But this is a difficult sport to master, and Fatello's progress initially was slowed by her brief inability to get up. "One of my knees wouldn't pop up," Fatello says with a frustrated laugh. Now she's placing first in the junior girls' shortboard competition.

Veltsos began learning how to handle a board from her father nine years ago. She's now so enamored that she didn't schedule Monday classes this fall during her first semester at Bentley College so she could enjoy three-day weekends on the beach.

"Once you start, you get addicted," says Veltsos, who's missed only five days on the water this summer. "You can't stop."

Gliding on waves, Nohea says, "kind of clears your mind, like, you just don't think about anything else but surfing. I think that's why a lot of people surf: to get the vibe. . . . You kind of forget about everything when you surf."

And you drop everything when elusive summer waves stretch at least waist-high.

"A swell around here only stays around a couple of days," says Nohea, explaining that big waves are associated with lousy weather. "If you didn't go, [you'd] start bumming."

"Bumming," Julia says, laughing, "because you didn't catch a surf this big" and she separates her hands about 3 feet.

For hard-core enthusiasts, the surf is up year-round. As the temperature dips, they trade their bikinis, board shorts, and Lycra vests for the 6mm-thick wet suits, hoods, and gloves of winter surfing.

"That's when our best waves are," says Nohea, who estimates that a core group of 20 from Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts annually indulge in the unique combination of snow, cold, waves, and sand.

Summertime is for contests and extended time on the water that help their surfing improve. The girls have already got tricks. They can do cutbacks, which involve redirecting a board back into the curl of a wave. They can cross-step, walking up or down a longboard in a style that's much more elegant than shuffling the feet.

"They're way above [my talent] at their age level," says Nichols. "They have the benefit of technology and equipment far above what we had at that stage."

Trouble is, it's harder to catch waves as Hampton's beach becomes crowded with more surfers. And the growing number of women testing the waters makes it harder for serious ones venturing beyond their home beaches to "get love" from guys.

"When they look at a woman surfer," says Nohea, "they don't think of them as the best surfer. They kind of give you a look. But if you prove to them that [you can surf] . . ."

Julia finishes her sister's sentence: "You'll be all right."

Veltsos recently experienced this firsthand when she surfed Second Beach in Newport, R.I. She was the only girl in the water.

"I got dropped in on a lot," says Veltsos, using surf slang for a rider cutting her off. But there's light at the end of this pipeline, she says. "Once they saw I could surf, they backed off."

Vanessa Jones can be reached at vjones@globe.com.

Surf New England
Melanie Veltsos, 17, identifies some of the spots where knowing New Englanders go to surf.

The Wall, North Hampton Beach, N.H. If conditions aren't right, other Hampton Beach options include
Jenness Beach and a place known to locals as ''Rye on the Rocks.''
Long Sands Beach, York, Maine
The jetty, Wells, Maine
Second Beach, Newport, R.I.

Globe Staff Graphic / Michael Prager
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