Linda Sharp: A trailblazing female surfer amidst a sea of men

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Linda Sharp: A trailblazing female surfer amidst a sea of men

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Linda Sharp: A Surfing Pioneer Who Rode the Waves of Change

Byline: Rowenna Hoskin

Source: BBC News

In 1967, Linda Sharp embarked on a lifelong adventure when she caught the surfing bug at the tender age of 15. Back then, she was a trailblazer, the first and only woman who dared to conquer the waves year-round in Wales.

Linda’s surfing journey began on the shores of Aberavon in Neath Port Talbot, where she honed her skills and competed vigorously for over two decades, securing European, British, and Welsh titles along the way.

At the outset, Linda faced the harsh reality of limited equipment. She had no wetsuit, so she improvised, donning a rugby shirt, cut-off jeans, plimsolls, and rubber gloves to brave the elements. In competitions, she often found herself pitted against men, emerging victorious in the women’s Welsh championship almost by default.

“I grew up as one of the boys,” Linda reminisced, “then quickly learned that I could paddle faster than most of them. I could surf as well as any of them in the water.”

Linda’s surfing odyssey commenced when she borrowed a surfboard from one of her lifeguard colleagues. “I gave it a try, caught my first wave, and stood up,” she recalled. “I brought it back to the beach, paddled back out, and caught another wave until they insisted, ‘Give me my board back.'”

Determined to have a board of her own, Linda made a significant sacrifice. She sold her beloved bicycle to finance her passion, setting the stage for a remarkable journey that would forever change the landscape of women’s surfing.

Her inaugural surfboard came at a cost of roughly £18, the sum she managed to fetch by selling her bicycle. The board measured more than 9 feet (2.7 meters), and she undertook a half-hour trek to the beach, balancing it atop her head until her resourceful father devised makeshift wheels for easier transport.

It wasn’t until the Christmas of 1968 that Linda ventured into the water with a wetsuit. However, the wetsuits available at the time differed significantly from those found in stores today. The only options on the market were scuba diving wetsuits, notorious for their distinctive “beaver tail” flap. Linda, who now celebrates her 70th birthday, vividly remembers these early wetsuits, equipped with a front zipper, tails, and two small protruding knobs on the front that had a tendency to dig in. They were worn over leggings resembling tights, and “everyone would leave that tail thing open, and if you had a bad wipeout, your trousers would just fly off.”

Beyond the challenge of enduring frigid waters, surfers of that era grappled with another peril: the sea was polluted with raw sewage and industrial waste. Linda’s home beach was situated at the confluence of the rivers Tawe, Afan, and Neath.

“The pollution levels were terrible, and I grew up in it,” she recounted. While “many of the boys fell ill,” she was fortunate to escape with nothing more than the occasional sore throat.

“Some people contracted severe skin conditions and the like,” she remarked. “The stagnant water could spell trouble, especially if you had an open wound. Just one surfing session could lead to infection.”

Linda disclosed that a significant portion of competitors in the 1980s British Masters surfing competition, held at Aberavon, suffered from serious health issues due to the polluted waters.

Linda embarked on a global surfing adventure, venturing to destinations such as Sri Lanka in 1988. However, her journey was not without its challenges, as she confronted both pollution and cold water during her exploits.

Remarkably, Linda did not engage in competitive surfing until 1975, a development that occurred almost serendipitously. It was a stroke of fate that brought her back home one summer when the Welsh national surfing championships were being held at her local beach. Up until that point, she had been pursuing her studies at Nonington College of Physical Education in Kent, consistently missing out on competitions.

“There was no way I wasn’t going to participate,” Linda asserted. “I was the sole female entrant, so my victory was somewhat by default. Nevertheless, I insisted on competing against the male surfers, stating, ‘I’m not earning a title without hitting the waves.'”

“I managed to reach the semi-finals,” she recounted, “but they disqualified me, asserting, ‘You can’t compete in the semi-finals; we’re selecting the team for the European championships.'”

Amusingly, Linda recalled the subsequent turn of events, saying, “They substituted the disqualified men, all the guys I had bested, into the competition. However, it didn’t bother me because they were all my friends.

In 1980, Linda made her debut on the world stage, competing in the global championship in France while sporting her personally embroidered Second Skin gear. This pivotal championship marked the commencement of a thriving surfing career, as Linda proceeded to claim numerous Welsh, British, and European titles.

Reflecting on her many Welsh titles, Linda acknowledged that most of them were secured by default, as she often found herself as the sole female participant in these competitions. Undeterred, she consistently opted to surf against male competitors, emphasizing that it wasn’t about the gender divide.

“I would have been thrilled to see more female surfers,” she noted, “and I did my utmost to promote the sport among women, but regrettably, most women just weren’t interested. It wasn’t considered a trendy pursuit at the time.”

The scarcity of female competitors also translated into a lack of wetsuits tailored for women, a disparity that persisted until the 1980s, despite men having access to more modern wetsuit designs for years. In the absence of suitable options, women like Linda either crafted their own wetsuits or settled for purchasing men’s wetsuits, illustrating the resilience and determination that characterized the early era of female surfers.

Now at the age of 70, Linda’s surfing days have come to an end due to her two hip replacements. Nevertheless, her affinity for the sea remains undiminished.

Following her triumph in securing her first European title, Linda received an invitation to participate in the Women’s International Surfing Association (WISA) championship held in Malibu, California, in 1976. This event had been established the year prior with the goal of addressing gender disparities in surfing, featuring participants from Australia, Japan, and the United States.

Linda cherished the camaraderie she experienced while bonding with fellow female surfers and relished the time spent riding waves with them. However, when it came to the actual competition, she found it to be a bit overwhelming and did not derive much enjoyment from it.

Nonetheless, a strong sense of solidarity persisted among the women involved in the event. After the competition concluded, Linda received an invitation from WISA to become a part of the international women’s surfing community. Regrettably, due to financial constraints, she was unable to accept the offer at the time.

Linda made her mark on the global stage by competing in the 1980 World Championships in France. Reflecting on that time, she remarked, “I didn’t have the financial means to fully pursue it. It was often the case that it was predominantly wealthy Americans involved in the sport, a trend that unfortunately continues.”

Linda, who worked as a physical education (PE) teacher, managed to find time for surfing whenever her schedule allowed until 1996 when she welcomed her daughter, Angharad, into the world. Subsequently, the family relocated from Port Talbot to Porthcawl in the same year, where Linda and her husband operated a surf shop.

Regrettably, Linda’s battle with arthritis and her hip replacements have prevented her from returning to the sport that once consumed her. Nevertheless, the waves have undeniably taken her on an unforgettable journey.

Related Topics: Women, Surfing

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