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OUTDOORS: Ventura County

Call of the Sea : Surfer girls, young and old, just wanna have fun.

June 12, 1997|JANE HULSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Judy Oberlander was always afraid of the ocean. Not a strong swimmer, she seldom ventured to the beach in the 26 years she has lived in Ojai.

So it took a hunk of courage about four years ago when she signed up for her first surfing lesson--at the age of 50.

"I was really terrified," Oberlander said. "I didn't think I could do it."

It wasn't easy, especially for someone troubled with a bad back. It took a year before she could stand on the board with any proficiency. She's not a hot dogger, but she's progressed into the intermediate stage--thanks in part to periodic lessons from Ventura surfing instructor Shelley Merrick.

"So many women want to surf," said Merrick, giving a few pointers to Oberlander in the surf near the Holiday Inn in Ventura. Their boyfriends or husbands surf and they want to learn, she said, or their children get into it and it looks like fun.

Traditionally, surfing has drawn few women, young or older. But that's changing. In 1992 they comprised 10% of the surfing crowd. Last year it was about 15%, according to the Dana Point-based Surf Industry Manufacturers Assn.

"It's a delightful trend," said Steve Hawk, editor of Surfer magazine, also in Dana Point. Why they haven't been drawn to the sport in greater numbers before has always puzzled him. But now surfing has high-profile women role models such as Florida's Lisa Andersen. Also, men who surfed in their youth are introducing their daughters to the sport, and the surfing industry now views women as a lucrative market.

Ask Theresa Smith what's new at the surf camp she and her husband, surfing champ Davey Smith, run in Santa Barbara and she'll say: "Girls!" Some, especially those who have had ballet or gymnastics training, pick it up faster than the boys. In surfing lingo: "They shred," she said.

Oberlander isn't there yet, and may never get there. She likes the gentle surf near Ventura's Holiday Inn, and for her, the strong winter surf is still scary. "This is good enough for me--it's a major achievement I did it."

As an English teacher who also has administrative and college counseling responsibilities at Ojai Valley School, Oberlander doesn't have the time to surf several days a

week. "Two times a week is a big deal for me," she said.

She wouldn't have tackled surfing at all if she hadn't met someone six years ago who got her to try boogie boarding.

"I got a wave and never felt anything like it," she said. "I got addicted." Now she gets a thrill out of surfing occasionally with her 24-year-old son.

Her view of the ocean has changed: "I have a lot of respect for the ocean. You can't say, 'I'm going surfing at 4 o'clock on Monday.' The ocean calls the shots--you have to harmonize with nature. It teaches me patience and humility."

Sometimes it pays off in spectacular ways. Once she was in the water waiting for a wave and she heard strange whooshing sounds. Then she saw dolphins cutting through the water nearby.

"I was so close," she said, "I could hear them breathing."

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