Surfer girls

The only qualification for this women's camp is determination to catch a wave (forget your sorrows, your age, your tumor, your fears) and have maximum fun on the ride back in

By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / March 20, 2011

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SAYULITA, Mexico — As I sat on the nearly deserted beach peering out at the frothy Pacific just before sunset, a knot gripped my stomach. What travel guides had billed as mellow waves appeared, in my amateur assessment, to be crashing with ferocious intensity.

Call me a wuss, but waves freak me out. Yet, I’ve always been fascinated by them, and growing up in Northern California, I had harbored a lifelong dream of Gidget-hood.

That’s what brought me to this sleepy fishing village, a 45-minute drive north of Puerto Vallarta, up dusty, winding roads carved into the mountainside. I enrolled last month in a weeklong surf camp for women.

As one of our instructors, a svelte, sun-kissed 25-year-old named Dominga, launched into a tutorial on how to read waves, I tried not to think about the recent summer when I had tried to body surf in Westhampton, N.Y. — pummeled by wave after wave, tossed like a rag doll onto the beach until a friend dragged me from the undertow (the others just laughed as they frolicked in the surf, something I had been assured my surf instructors here would not do). I didn’t even learn to swim properly until a year and a half ago, and have done so only in a pool. I worried about losing my contacts, and packed goggles, just in case.

“Go out, have fun, and just be, eh?’’ said Shauna Murch, our bubbly sprite of an instructor from Vancouver Island, British Columbia.

Her words quickly became our mantra. Of the 16 women who had signed up with the Carmel, Calif.-based Las Olas Surf Safaris, most had never surfed. We were a diverse group, ranging in age from 23 to 63. My fellow wannabes included a firefighter from Seattle, an oil field environmental coordinator from Anchorage, an art gallery owner from New York, two mother-daughter pairs, and my friends, two other thirtysomething reporters from Boston.

“We just wanted to learn to surf before we were dead,’’ said Kathy Shimada, 62, a nurse from St. Paul, who brought along a friend. “At our age, it’s now or never.’’

The one thing we all had in common was our respect for the ocean — and the desire to leave winter behind. Even if I turned out to be a lousy surfer, I would be warm for the first time in months. I could eat ceviche and fish tacos every day. And if nothing else, I would return to Boston with a tan. Not even news reports of drug violence ravaging parts of Mexico — which have slowed tourism even in areas considered safe — could deter my escape from New England.

Our open-air beach-front accommodations at Villa Amor, built into the verdant hillside landscaped with palm trees and bougainvillea, looked out onto the blue expanse of Sayulita Bay — our reward for the steep climb up more than 150 steps. Our quarters, officially called Villa Las Flores, had been nicknamed the Buns of Steel rooms by the Las Olas staff.

Our villa — two bedrooms (with romantic mosquito netting that turned out to be unnecessary because of the unseasonably cool evenings), two bathrooms (without the privacy of doors), a living room (decorated with surprisingly comfortable wicker sofas and Mexican inlaid tiles), and a kitchen (bigger than mine at home) — opened onto a terrace ringed by a private plunge pool (cold!) and wooden lounge chairs.

The sun’s searing rays felt delicious on parts of my body that had gone into hibernation. But there would be little time for sunbathing on our terrace, as most of my waking hours in the days ahead would be spent in the ocean or on the beach, politely saying “no gracias’’ to vendors hawking doughnuts, silver jewelry, and crocheted bikinis.

The days started early. We rose in the dark and descended the winding stairs for 7 a.m. yoga, led by one of our surf instructors on the resort’s putting green. We moved through poses with intimidating names like “cobra’’ and “warrior’’ in the cool morning air, preparing our bodies for a day of paddling and popping up on our boards. We lay down for shivasana to the sounds of waves crashing and birds chirping as the sun came up.

This was my idea of camp, without any actual camping. I silently thanked Bev Sanders, the woman who founded Las Olas in 1997 as the first women’s surf vacation. A Greenfield native and Bay State ski instructor, Sanders learned to surf at 44 after years of snowboarding. Now living in Carmel, Calif., she looks much younger than 57, with sparkling blue eyes, long brown hair and bangs, and a fit physique.

“Being out in the big, blue ocean connected me to the sure-footed confidence I had as a girl. It brings back a playfulness,’’ Sanders said during dinner one night. “We live in a culture where women are typically afraid of aging, but I’m pretty proud of being older.’’

Life, like the ebb and flow of waves, is uncertain at times. And surfing, Sanders said, is good mental preparation to ride the waves life inevitably brings. For several of the women in our group, the surf vacation marked an important milestone following personal tragedies and medical triumphs.

Karen Wilson, 41, a marathon runner from Portland, Ore., won a surf safari scholarship because her husband had written an essay in a Las Olas contest about her strength as a wife and mother during their daughter’s battle with brain cancer. Their little girl, just 2, died in 2005, two days before their third child was born.

Getting to know the women as the week unfolded was as rewarding and inspirational as learning to surf. There was Jeanine Rossell, 41, the 6-foot-tall Seattle firefighter with fiery red hair and a matching personality who had brain surgery in July to remove a noncancerous tumor. She had returned to work two weeks before the surf vacation.

“Six months ago, she was learning to walk in a straight line, much less stand up on a surf board,’’ said Carrie Klumpar, Rossell’s personal trainer and one of her best friends. “This is like a huge celebration of it being all good.’’

Chris Brown, 52, an environmental coordinator for an oil exploration and production company in Alaska, had always wanted to surf, having spent her childhood in Wellfleet. She, too, was scared of waves. But she had overcome breast cancer last year and dealt with her mother’s stroke. She was ready to take on the Sayulita break.

“Just meet the challenges head on, like the waves, instead of trying to avoid them,’’ said Brown, who continued surfing even though she developed bronchitis and lost her voice by the sixth day.

Our instructors — former pro surfers, a photographer, a hula hoop queen, and a soccer maven — were gods to us, but that was par for the course in a place that has produced the best longboarder and shortboarder in Mexico. Surfing here is a religion.

As for my aquatic fears, I overcame them within minutes of my first plunge into the ocean. As I paddled out from the shore, a swell gathering strength and size rolled toward me, a seemingly impenetrable wall of white water. I gulped and cursed. There was only one option: the turtle roll. I gripped the rails of the long board, took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and flipped underwater, holding the board close above my body as the wave crashed overhead.

Still alive. At that point, I would have been content just sitting on the board, bobbing up and down with the waves, admiring the horizon. But our instructors had something else in mind: actually riding the waves. I must admit that having the surfboard gave me a sense of security I had never had in open water. With each wipeout — getting knocked off balance, plunging into the frigid ocean, sputtering to the surface — I felt more at ease.

In the end, I still experienced a surge of anticipation on the beach each morning as I studied the water, though my anxiety had given way to excitement. There are few things as exhilarating as balancing on a surfboard gliding toward shore. As feared, I did end up losing a contact. But it was our last day, and I could still see with my left eye. So I paddled out to catch another wave.

Tracy Jan can be reached at

If You Go

Where to stay
Villa Amor
Forty-four oceanfront villas on a verdant hillside, where Las Olas guests stay. Depending on the size and season, $55-$1,500 a night.
Where to eat
Sayulita Café
Av. Revolucion No. 37
Known for its chile relleno (get the shrimp!), this is one of the best restaurants in town, dishing up tasty chicken mole, shrimp fajitas, and other Mexican fare in a romantic setting. Entrees about $18.
Tierra Viva
Calle Marlin No. 10
Intimate, open-air restaurant just a block from the beach, perfect for après-surf margaritas and dinner. Get the coconut shrimp on skewers and arrachera tierra viva. Entrees about $14.
What to do
Las Olas Surf Safaris for Women
Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif.
Rates for a weeklong safari range from $2,500 to $4,000 per person. Includes surf instruction and equipment, luxury lodging, daily yoga classes, one-hour massage, breakfasts and some other meals, and airport transportation. Safaris run February through June, and November.
Salsa night at Don Pedro’s
Calle Marlin No. 2
All the characters in town — pro surfers, shop and bar owners, even some of the beach vendors — will be on this beachfront dance floor by midnight. To avoid the cover charge, make dinner reservations, preferably on the patio to watch the sunset. If you get there early enough, take advantage of free salsa lessons. Entrees about $17.
Shopping at Galeria Tanana
Av. Revolucion No. 22
Shop for beaded jewelry, artwork, and cards made by Mexico’s Huichol people. Proceeds from the nonprofit store, created by anthropologist and jewelry designer Susana Valadez, support the Huichol Center for Cultural Survival and Traditional Arts.