Surfing in Maine

With regards to being paid to surf, it’s more meaningful and respected to work towards being accepted by and becoming a part of the group of locals, than to go pro and be paid to surf.”

– Tess from Maine

Photo by anonymous photographer of Tess surfing in Maine, 2021.

I used the $100 to pay Tess, a woman surfer from Maine, to go surfing for a week. This is a conceptual art project where we are both collaborators. I am claiming the action of her surfing for a week as an art project and I am supporting her as a woman surfer by paying her $100 to surf. Similar to the art world, women have been marginalized, underrepresented, and underpaid in surf culture. What form of work is being paid and who gets to be paid? What does it mean to get paid to surf? How does getting paid to surf shift your identity, power, and how you relate to others in a space? How does surf localism filter who deserves power? 

Surf localism is what all of my previous artwork is about or was inspired by. It involves usually male surfers who claim a particular surfing spot on the beach as their own, and use power and intimidation tactics to assert their dominance at a place or surf break, filtering who belongs and who doesn’t belong in their space according to oftentimes contradictory or shifting prerequisites. This ties back again to the marginalization of women in surf spaces and colonial practices of white men owning space in the ocean. 

I interviewed a person who I will name Tess to protect her identity. Tess is a local, but she is not seen as local by the locals because she does not fit credentials of being angry enough (towards people who live out of town) or other unknown and shifting credentials. She requested to be anonymous to protect her identity and safety in her local surf community.  She also had a photographer take photos of her surfing to document the project, but was reluctant to share those photos to protect both  her identity and safety, and her local surf spots in Maine. But she thinks it’s super important to have discussions on how surf localism affects personal identity, and that these conversations on surf localism should be made public. With her interest in sociology and different cultures, she had wanted to write about surf localism for a long time. Tess also wanted to mention her support of the women’s surf magazine I started, Sea Together, saying, “It makes women feel like they’re not alone in this man-dominated sport. Now we have our own community of people who also get us, when we all were previously the only woman in the group.” She removed things that she wouldn’t be comfortable having in this interview, like anything that could be perceived as negative by the localized surf spot locals. Tess wanted to add that “references to them being scary and defending the break is something the locals are proud of and something that further protects the break from being surfed by the people they don’t like. It scares people off.” She also ended with saying, “Feel free to use this feature as a way to advertise the rules of surfing.” 

In the interview, Tess felt guilty for taking the money; not being paid to surf is seen as the proper way to go and she felt locals would not accept her taking the money. To me, this signifies that to Maine locals, money is power, and they do not want to feel threatened by someone else’s power—let alone a woman who is not a pro surfer. I

Brianna: So, how does it feel to be paid a hundred dollars to go surfing? 

Tess: I would’ve done it for free. Donate this money to a good cause. Paying me to go surfing makes me feel uncomfortable.

Brianna: How do you feel about surfers that get sponsored to go surf?

Tess: Oh, well they’re selling their souls. Just kidding. I don’t know. I think getting paid to surf is generally thought of as a sign of making it or respect. And it is fun. I get fun out of surfing. I don’t know if they actually give you money unless you’re a pro. 

Brianna: You mentioned respect. So do you feel like if you get paid to surf, people will respect you more? 

Tess: I think in one sense or another, you have to kind of earn the right to be paid to surf, except in this instance.

So I think kind of along that path, you’ve gained respect from your surf cohort per se to get recognized on a local or regional or national level sponsorship or through private organizations. 

Brianna: How do you feel about me paying you $100 to go surfing as an art collaboration? 

Tess: I guess I can see how surfing is art. It is a fluid activity, where you also can’t really judge it. There’s no line drawn between different movements. No movement is done the same way for every person because everyone also has a different body and the way that they react to the wave.

Brianna: Do you feel like it’s similar to dancing or performance?

Tess: Yes. But also no. It is our bodies moving. But instead of our bodies dancing and dancing freely, when we surf, we are responding to the wave.

I guess you could say it’s a collaboration with the wave. Because without the wave, we couldn’t surf. And it depends on what the wave allows us to do on it.

Brianna: I guess it’s similar to art in that it is its own specific medium. Kind of like painting—oil paints only let you do certain things and they prevent you from doing other things with the paintbrush. Or acrylic paint, it dries faster.

How do you feel when people are watching you on the beach?

Tess: On the beach people are always watching the surfers. It’s like we are entertainment for people in a way. Or especially people who aren’t used to seeing surfers; they seem to be more enamored with it than anyone else. 

Brianna: So do you feel supported specifically as a woman surfer in the surf community?

Tess: [Long, long pause] I believe that there are marginalized communities within the surf community, which is a subculture. Sometimes women and the elderly, regardless of their surfing abilities, have to prove themselves every single time they go out, even if it’s with the same group of people, to, I guess, earn the right to not be dropped in on. (1)

Photo by anonymous photographer of Tess in the water on her surfboard at sunrise. Maine, 2021.

Brianna: Do you feel that this $100 is supporting you more? 

Tess: I feel guilty taking the $100. 

Brianna: Why do you feel guilty?

Tess: Because I don’t need to be paid to surf to feel like I’m getting the most out of surfing. I think being in the water is rewarding enough.

With regards to being paid to surf, it’s more meaningful and respected to work towards being accepted by and becoming a part of the group of locals, than to go pro and be paid to surf. 

Brianna: Do you feel that you’ve been given the same opportunity as your male sibling in surfing?

Tess: Because I had an extremely supportive father and he had extremely high expectations of us regardless of our sex slash gender.

I was stepping into the same spots as my brother and had to face the same fears. I don’t know. My dad pushed the limits with both of us and didn’t baby either of us.

So in that sense, I had the same opportunities. 

Brianna: Do you feel that you have been given the same respect at the localized surf break? 

Tess: I don’t surf the localized surf break. So do you mean the same respect at the other break?

Brianna: Yes.

Tess: I feel the same necessity to protect our local spots. And I think by demonstrating that in the water, that would earn me respect if it was seen by the locals. Demonstrating that looks like being angry towards outsiders, being angry towards anyone who is not seen as a local, or yelling at people when perceived as needing to. According to the local culture, people need to be yelled at when they are not from here, or if they are doing anything that’s considered bad in the water, such as dropping in on someone, or if they are not surfing well, or if they fall. 

I think my surfing earns me respect in the water. They eventually stopped dropping in on me. I don’t know.

But, I don’t think gaining respect is necessarily a habit from the get-go.

Brianna: Do you feel like they would be supportive of you being paid a hundred dollars for surfing? 

Tess: No.

Brianna: Why not?

Tess: I think they think they should’ve been paid a hundred dollars. 

Brianna: Why?

Tess: Misogyny. 

Brianna: Did it feel like work surfing for a week? Do you feel like you worked hard to earn the hundred by surfing?

I’m just really interested in people’s idea of work, what is worthy of being compensated as work. 

Tess: I don’t know how to answer this. I mean like today, for example, I guess I was more willing to wake up early for dawn patrol (2) because I knew the session was going to be photographed. And I was surfing to get paid and we were going to have an interview. So I felt more of an obligation, slash there’s a chance I would not have woken up for dawn patrol if it wasn’t partially work.

If I wasn’t going to let you down, I’m not sure I would have had the willingness to wake up this morning.

So in that sense, I guess it was, I guess there was some feeling of, this is more like work. 

I think any time you’re being photographed, it feels more like work. You have to kind of give everything that you’ve got to try to get good photos and get as many waves and do as much on each wave as you can, because a lot of your waves are going to be missed (by the photographer).

In contest surfing, when you’re surfing for a prize and there’s limited time, it definitely feels more like work. And I think sometimes, I get more energized in that situation. I’m less chill and more… not aggro, but like whatever it takes…I push myself harder than I normally would. 

And I imagine that for pro surfers, everytime they go out, their job is essentially on the line. That would add a significant sense of responsibility and intensity and urgency.

If you have all the time, I think on some level you can risk your love for the sport. I just think there is a rejuvenating aspect of getting into the water without expectations.

Because I feel like, normally every time I get into the water, I never want to get out of the water. I never think, Oh, I wish I hadn’t gone surfing. 

Brianna: I remember one day this guy was yelling at me and calling me stupid for protecting the puffins. And I went to surf after and it was crowded. And the same guy was in the water and in my way three waves in a row. I raised my voice a little bit and said,If you need to paddle back out, you need to paddle around again.” And looking back, I just feel guilty about that. You know?

Cause other people saw me and maybe I thought, They’re thinking, Oh Bri isn’t being like her positive self, you know. I was trying to both stand up for myself and also educate this guy as he probably didn’t know what he was doing maybe.

Tess: And it’s a safety concern too.

Brianna: Totally. It is a safety concern. I guess there’s this discrepancy, which ties into surf culture. There’s people that think you can’t do that or say that (like what I said to educate the guy). And then there’s people that are like, Oh, that’s what you’re supposed to do. It’s like skiing. You can’t just go to a double diamond trail and think that you can do that if you’ve not reached that level before.

Also, sometimes I feel the pressure that I have to always smile and talk with everyone in the water. But, sometimes I want to just go and surf. Surfing is like a meditation for me. 

I don’t want to have to say hi to everyone all the time. 

Tess: I think I feel maybe the opposite end of that, where, I need to go out and be more aggro and just be super, super good. And when I’m having an off day, I just feel that I can’t justify being an asshole—not that I am an asshole on any level—but I can’t justify glaring at people ever. It’s hard to not only balance the part of that protective side of myself, the part that says I want to fit in as a local or I want to make the locals proud, but also go out there with no expectations, to have a good time and be happy. Which I feel like I end up surfing better in the latter situation anyways.

And then when people are actually being stupid and unsafe and, you know, ruining great waves for so many other people… Even if you’re nice to them, and you try and redirect them, I feel that they’re less likely to listen because you’re a woman and you just feel guilty about it afterwards. 

Brianna: Yeah. I think there’s like this expectation, you know. 

I try not to engage with new guys in the parking lot anymore, just because I don’t really want to deal with them trying to date me. And I know that’s not always the case, but I think I got kind of burnt out on that experience repeating itself many times in a short period. So now, sometimes I don’t say hi to random strangers and smile at them because I’m just tired of it, you know? There’s this expectation for women to always be super happy and smiley and give their energy to everyone, you know? 

Tess: Yeah. That’s totally an expectation.

Brianna: But then if like a woman surfer is in the parking lot, and then she doesn’t say hi or anything, or just keeps to herself, then I feel like she’s seen as a bitch or something, you know, but men do that all the time. There are so many guy surfers I know that don’t say hi and they just keep to themselves.

Tess: Maybe it’s because I was always out with my dad and my brother. I don’t know. I would hate to talk to people. When I’m out surfing, I’m out to surf. I hate when someone’s talking to you and you feel this in the water, and the set is coming up, and you’re thinking, I need to reposition so that I can get this sick wave.

Brianna: So going back to localism. You were born here, but you mentioned before that you don’t see yourself as a local. 

Tess: Guys are pissed at me and they just look like they’re fucking pissed because I’m longboarding. (3) So I’m sitting out on them and then getting the biggest wave set and then yelling at them if they try and go for my wave.

Brianna: Good.

Tess: You definitely can’t just be born here [to be a local]. You have to have the talent [to be a local]. And then you also have… It’s like rushing a frat (to become a local). 

You have to prove that you will defend the localized spot, and all of our spots from kooks and from tourists who come in and think that they just own shit because they’re a straight white male and they rent a surfboard, you know? And they’re fucking terrible idiot assholes.

You’d have to prove yourself in that sense too. The locals want you to be mean, you have to be mean when it might be deserved to protect the spot. 

Brianna: And then you’re saying you’re only a local if you surf the localized spot, correct?

Tess: Yeah. And it’s just the guys who surf the localized spot, and sit at the beach at their locals-only spot and cheer for their homies, the other locals, and then just heckle everyone else. 

Brianna: It’s like a game.

Tess: It’s 100% a game. No one knows who I am. 

Brianna: Why don’t the locals know who you are if you were born and raised here and grew up surfing here?

Tess: No one knows who I am. 

I feel like I’ve been hidden away or just cause I don’t surf the localized spot… There are the stories from everyone of the dangers socially and physically from surfing the localized surf spot. The rocks aren’t the most dangerous thing. 

Brianna: So the people are?

Tess: Yeah, you could legitimately get the shit beat out of you.

And I know, as a girl, that’s not gonna happen, but anytime that someone is yelling in the surf, or even if they’re just talking loudly—because no one can hear with their hoods up—to their friends and joking around or whatever, I’m always scared that they’re yelling at me or telling me to get out of there. As if I don’t deserve to be there or something. And I think being at the localized surf spot, I know that they would yell at a girl. They still yell at you, but they probably won’t punch you as a girl. 

Brianna: How did you feel surfing other spots in your home area? 

Tess: I kind of just turned it into my own spot and try and earn my stripes, but obviously all the people at the other spots are a lot more chill and I feel like we’re just like a big family, you know, I love that. 

In my general localized area though, there’s a hierarchy in the water. And if you don’t know who your senior is and you disrespect them, they’re going to do everything in their power to make you suffer. You don’t want to be the bad apple.

To wrap up this interview, I want to share a few quotes about localism from women surfers around the world from ISSUE 002 of Sea Together. You can check out Tara Ruttenberg’s article in ISSUE 002 of Sea Together, titled Does localism redress neocolonial privilege in Global South surfing destinations? You can read more on my work about surfing in my graduation publication; feel free to email me for a copy at

– Brianna Ortega

“Localism to me is having emotional and physical ties to a given spot, after putting in the time to gain respect from others doing the same. Localism can be good by enforcing etiquette in the water, and by inspiring a love for coastal conservation in a given area. Localism can be bad when people use whatever reason they feel local as an excuse to simply be an asshole, as in acting above etiquette rather than leading by example.”

– Lauren

“I don’t see localism as a positive. But being a local and enjoying your break with others is awesome.”

– Terri

“As someone who’s only been surfing for a few years, I’m still terrified of localism. Despite not having experienced any incidences so far, it’s always in the back of my head–especially as a girl who surfs by herself.”

– Emma

“I’ve been a local and also traveled to places where localism was downright dangerous. Really the root feels like a call for ‘respect’ in the water. We can have a long talk about rules and etiquette, but in the end it’s about recognition and earned respect.”

– April

“I’m ok with localism. It is a big part of the roots of surf culture and I don’t think it should die.”

– Sabrina

“I believe localism is best used when it protects and betters the community. For instance, when ‘locals’ put pressure on individuals who disrespect said place and/or the people within it (i.e. stealing, harassing, urinating, and defecating in public areas, etc…).”

– Carla

“As much as I despise the localism often displayed at surf breaks all over the world, I believe it’s a tricky topic. Localism should protect and better the community, and also not harm the environment. I’ve had many talks with Kala Alexander and other locals on the North Shore as well as in Maui, and while I don’t agree with how that localism is sometimes executed, I understand why they are protecting their breaks so harshly. It’s a fine balance. The professional surf industry has often chosen spots and put on contests without enough communication and involvement with the community, which leaves a sour aftertaste. They are now slowly addressing the problem and seem to act more responsibly. Some localism is unacceptable, and we’ve seen the results (even if it took a very long time) in our backyard not too long ago (Lunada Bay).”

– Zora

“The only locals are the marine animals. Seriously though, stewardship means more than localism to us. If you’re a steward and taking care of your spot in all the ways that preserve it for the future, that service means way more than localism protectionism in the name of ego.”

– Katherine 

“I feel like localism is there for a reason; when a local yells “GO” on a set wave, you bet your ass I better catch that wave. When a local has been surfing the same break their entire lives, they automatically have first dibs. However, it’s common courtesy to share the waves. When it’s super crowded, I believe it’s okay for locals to play the ‘local card.’ It’s not okay when locals get super territorial and start fights, especially if the waves are small! I think it’s best to always salute the locals when you paddle out and share your gratitude.”

– Thespi  

“I’ve been surfing Cardiff Reef for just over two years, and last week I pulled up in my car just to look at it and a local who has been surfing this spot for 40 years sees me, walks over to my car, and says, ‘Definitely go out. It won’t get any more windy than this, trust me.’ He was right. I had an epic session that afternoon, in gratitude. How blessed I felt to receive that wisdom. That’s the best of what localism means, isn’t it? One generation learning from the next, the wisdom of the elders.”

– Kaia

“I feel quite strongly that localism is okay in very few instances. I surf in the Pacific Northwest (U.S.). It’s cold. I’m a beginner and trying my hardest as an adult woman to get into the sport. When I go to spots in Washington and men give me dirty looks and just seem annoyed I’m there, I get it I guess. I think I understand when the lineup is extremely crowded, that locals would want some [waves] to themselves, but I think that should be a time to teach people about surf etiquette and just invite them to learn more about the sport instead of starting fights or making faces. Especially up here, I feel there should be a bit more understanding of what we have to do to catch waves. Most people are traveling to catch waves and so most of the time there is no big local surf scene. It’s just frustrating driving hours, trying my hardest to get just one wave at least, and then getting dropped in on by someone every time who assumes that because they are better they get unlimited access to every wave.”

– Audrey

“Localism is ridiculous!!! What does it really mean? That only locals can surf all the waves??? The only local/owner of the ocean is GOD!! Respect is the key and many times locals are not respectful! If you don’t respect, you can’t ask to be respected! Localism sucks!”

– Audrey

“Localism is rubbish. Not everyone has the privilege of living on the coast, but they are still drawn to the ocean. Sure, it’s annoying when you have perfect conditions on a long weekend and the peaks are crowded, but no one has dominion over the waves. Just because someone isn’t a local, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are unsafe. There are plenty of arrogant locals making bad calls, as well.”

– Jenny

“The term localism gets tossed around frequently in L.A., and I simply see it as an intimidation tactic. People warned me about Topanga for years, so I stayed away for that reason, but then finally got the courage to surf there and have had many wonderful sessions and met some amazing and welcoming people. The key for me is to be patient when I surf a new place–pay attention to where the wave breaks, the feel of the crowd, and observe for a bit. I don’t roll up to a new spot and pretend I already know everything; there is something to be learned from each other and you can usually read individuals in a crowd, and who is approachable. I’ve also had those idiots at Topanga say ‘I’ve been surfing here 20 years and never seen you.’ Ok buddy good for you, want a cookie?”

– Stacie

(1)  Dropped in on means when a surfer takes someone else’s wave by paddling into the wave and getting into the other surfer’s way.

(2)  When you wake up early to go surf, usually at dawn or before dawn or after dawn, depending on each surfer’s unique relationship to how much earlier than normal they can tolerate waking up.

(3)  The original type of surfing from Hawai’i, where you are on a larger board and you paddle into waves sooner than people who are on shortboards, so technically you can get more waves overall because you have to sit on the outside.

Brianna (she/her) is in her third year of the MFA program in Art and Social Practice at Portland State University. Through embedding herself in surf culture, Brianna Ortega uses art as a tool to explore the relationship between identity and place through questioning power in social constructs and physical spaces. She values making art in relationship with others at the global or local site. She engages with topics of gender, race, Otherness, place, and the in-between spaces of identity. Her work is multidisciplinary, spanning across performance, publishing, organizing, video and facilitation.

Tess is a surfer who lives in Maine. She wants to be unidentified to protect her local identity as a surfer.

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