Surf Cowgirl Chronicles 8: Rad Women Surfers I Love

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Captain Liz Clark with her traveling cat Amelia, photo credit: Jianca Lazarus from the book “Swell”

“I must be a mermaid, Rango. I have no fear of depths

and a great fear of shallow living.” ~ Anaïs Nin

Agatha Christie was a surfer.

Yes, the English mystery writer loved sliding the waves, and even was one of the first women to rock a one-piece swimsuit out on the water.

If you didn’t know this about her, neither did I.

Like so much of important women’s history, women were erased from the history of surfing — an art form we’ve been part of since the earliest Hawaiian myths that include goddesses like Pele and Hi’iaka wave-sliding (he’e nalu), and many mortal women like the great princess Ka’iulaini, who surfed an olo, a long and heavy board made for Hawaiian royalty.

We are uncovering female ocean stories, and finding women have always been linked to the power and grace of the sea.

I’m reading the GORGEOUS book called She Surf, edited by Lauren Hill (did I mention how gorgeous it is?) and my greatest regret in life may be that I’m not 15 right now, as the power of women on the waves and the opportunity women have to be involved in the art of surfing is undeniable and inspiring beyond measure.

There are countless women surfers I admire that I’d love to feature in this article (more every day!), but I’m going to keep it to 3 that captured my heart:

Imogen Caldwell, Kelis Kaleopaa, and Ishita Malaviya.

  1. IMOGEN CALDWELL: Australia (See her Instagram)

There’s a friendly sparkle about Imogen Caldwell. A woman of the earth and sea, her adoration of her home country of Australia, and her affection toward animals and the wilderness makes you feel at home with her wherever she travels.

And she travels with fearless charge! I’m in awe of her. Lithe and spirited, she plunges with ease down the steep drops of the Australian waters (chock full of sharks), carving her way through arching wave caverns with style, grace and something akin to sorcery. The poetry of the sea is in her soul, and her smile, and her preternatural ability leaves me breathless.

A stunning new short film sponsored by O’Neill called “Imogen Caldwell” by legendary filmmaker Morgan Maassen gives us a glorious peak into her magical world:

2. KELIS KALEOPA’A: Hawaii (See her Instagram)

As an aspiring nose-rider, I’ve been learning all I can by studying world-champion native Hawaiian Kelis Malia Lei Kaleopa’a. Nimble as a tigress — a graceful teenage priestess of the waves — she tiptoes from the back of the board to the tip to hang ten making the hardest maneuvers look absolutely relaxed. (She’s got this stylish cross of her legs on the tail to pivot the board I’ve never seen before, that I can only say I try and miss every time, but am still in love with the possibility.) She makes it look so easy!

As at home in the sea as a dolphin, Kelis claimed her first world title at the Noosa Longboard Open last year in 2019. I stood up in my living room and cheered. It’s deeply inspiring to know we get to enjoy her style for many years to come out on the water, as she’s the fabric of legends. I wish I’d seen her surf when I was a girl, as I think I would have realized decades before that the sea was a natural place for me to be.

Enjoy this clip of her win at the Noosa, she comes in about halfway through after champion longboarder from my hometown of Encinitas, CA, Joel Tudor:

3. ISHITA MALAVIYA: India (See her Instagram)

There is a woman re-defining one of the most ancient cultures in the world, and women’s roles within it, and she is Ishita Malaviya. I have chills just telling you about how amazing she is, as India’s first recognized female surfer.

The sea has been forbidden to women in India, an ancient culture that holds many ancient cultures, languages, myths, calendars and people within it. Originally from Mumbai, Ishita moved south to study journalism in Karnataka, and found herself challenging where women belong by bringing her love to surfing.

India is a culture fond of modesty for women, whether Christian, Muslim, Hindi; from the north or south. There is cultural resistance to swimming in the sea, but also to women sliding the waves out beyond where traditional roles of the house define them, and the clothing is more spare.

Ishita proves irresistible. Her smile and her stoke seem to stretch from the beginning of time, to encourage a love of surfing in the here and now.

In India, lighter skin for women has been a deep seated bias. Ishita embraces her suntanned complexion, and challenges these traditional beauty myths.

I imagine it must be hard for her to transcend tradition sometimes, but she sheds that in the water with grace and poise. In a post covid world, I dream of visiting her at the Shaka Surf Club she founded on the shores. The kids are taking notice, and because of her, they too will dare to step foot on a surfboard, and experience the magic for themselves.

Ishita is my hero. Listen to her speak in her own words in this wonderful short clip about her here:

As in love as I am with surfing, each day I paddle out to my home break, usually surrounded by men. At dawn patrol I’m often the only woman among 20–50 men.

Sometimes when I feel alone in the pre-dawn light, loading up my board on my Honda, I summon thoughts of them, and I imagine them beside me.

These women have stoked my heart. As a filmmaker, I dream of creating a surf film that features their beauty, their stories and their power.

Together, we are stronger. Together, we light the waves with love.

~ Kaia Alexander

Cowgirl Surf Chronicles is proudly brought to you by filmmaker, novelist, entrepreneur Kaia Alexander.

You can find Kaia at

Watch the trailer of my new documentary short, Chalice: Wise Women Rise here:

Welcome to the Surf Cowgirl Chronicles! How I started surfing at age 40 after ocean traumas. California native. Mom. Moon worshipper.

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