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Woman Makes Big Waves After Mostly Men Chosen for Surf Contest in Laguna

February 05, 1989|JIM CARLTON | Times Staff Writer

Marielle Leeds is looking for two good surfers--female surfers, that is--to compete in Laguna Beach's upcoming surfing contest and, it is hoped, quell what has become a hot local controversy over whether women belong on the waves.

Winterfest, Laguna's first wintertime surfing contest, was almost canceled by Mayor Robert F. Gentry when complaints arose at a City Council meeting last month that organizers discriminated against women by selecting only one in a 24-field invitational. Organizers contended that they selected what they thought were the 24 best surfers in Laguna Beach and only one woman made the cut.

But after Leeds complained to the council, saying that she and other female surfers felt unfairly excluded, the male organizers backed down and agreed to add some female-only heats--as long as Leeds finds seven other female surfers like herself. She has already found five and expects soon to find another two.

The hitch is that they won't be eligible for the $2,000 in prize money. It will go to the men and the one woman, Alisa Schwarzstein, a professional surfer who is ranked sixth in the world among female surfers.

Although the organizers say the controversy has been blown out of proportion, the female surfers complain that this is typical treatment in the male-dominated surfing world.

"The guys usually think that girls are just in the way," said Leeds, 25, an amateur surfer and local waitress. "But the waves aren't male-only waves. They're for everyone to enjoy."

The controversy began innocently enough, when the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce last year decided to include a surf meet in its annual Winterfest celebration. The Feb. 18 and 19 festival, now in its 25th year, is also to include a skateboarding contest, a 30-mile bicycle ride, a catamaran regatta, body-building competition, food fair and art contest.

A committee of three male surfing experts was named to select the top 24 surfers in Laguna Beach and invite them to the competition. The committee members made the selections based on their firsthand knowledge of the surfing community.

"I think it's pretty much general consensus who the top surfers are," said Douglas Bunting, a committee member. He owns the Equipe surf shop in Laguna, which is co-sponsoring the surf contest with Gotcha Sportswear of Costa Mesa.

Because this will be a local meet, only surfers from Laguna were chosen. And because winter tides restrict the prime surfing period to 4 or 5 hours a day, competition had to be limited to what could be accomplished within that time, Bunting said.

In professional meets, competitors are drawn from a pool of surfers listed by the Assn. of Surfing Professionals, said Bonnie Crail, spokeswoman for Ocean Pacific Sunwear, which sponsors the huge OP Pro surf contest every August at Huntington Beach.

Out of 220 competitors in the last OP Pro contest, Crail said, only 32 were women. That ratio closely approximates the demographics of surfing, she said, noting that there are fewer sponsorships and contests for women.

In Laguna, Bunting said, "I wasn't aware of any other women (besides Schwarzstein) who would be interested in the contest."

But, besides Leeds, there were a number of others, including Julie Whitegon, 24, a Laguna surfer. Whitegon said that she tried to enter the contest and even went to the trouble of sending in her own entry form when none were distributed.

'We Can Only Go Up'

"It's unfair, but that's how surfing is right now," said Whitegon, who runs a surf shop in Laguna Niguel. "There are people working to make women equal in the surfing world, but right now we're kind of at the low level of it. We've been on the bottom for so long that we can only go up."

Leeds said she too had waited anxiously for an entry form to arrive. Instead, she discovered by telephoning Bunting's shop last month that the meet had already been filled on an invitation-only basis.

That's when she raised a ruckus before the Jan. 10 meeting of the City Council.

"I thought that was really not fair. I wanted to be in the contest," Leeds said.

She found an ally in Gentry, an acknowledged homosexual who is known for vigorously opposing all forms of discrimination.

'Perceived as Discriminatory'

"I am appalled at the fact that in Laguna Beach we would have anything that is perceived as discriminatory," Gentry said last week, adding that he had threatened to prohibit the organizers from using city beaches if they do not include women.

Besides opening up part of the event to women, the organizers also issued an apology in the Laguna newspapers.

"Our intention here was to pioneer an event that could become a tradition in our community. . . . We apologize for any misunderstandings and hope in the future that the surfing event and the Winterfest can accommodate all the citizens of Laguna Beach," Bunting and Marc Price, a manager of Gotcha Sportswear, said in an open letter.

But Leeds is not confident that discrimination against women in the water will end with this. She expects that they will continue to get dirty looks for trying to share the waves.

"A lot of times, guys will drop in on the shoulder of your wave and make it difficult for you to enjoy your wave after you've waited your turn," Leeds said. "It's hard, especially being a girl."

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