Oregon Field Guide

A sisterhood of Oregon surfers catches its first waves

By Ian McCluskey (OPB)
May 30, 2021 1 p.m.

Lexie Hallahan teaches aspiring surfers to catch their first wave. A unique two-day camp just for women is her specialty and her life’s calling.

In a wet parking lot in Seaside, Oregon, huddled under the overhang of a public bathroom, a half dozen women wait. Some have driven in from Portland that morning, some arrived the night before from as far away as Seattle.

It is a few minutes before 9 a.m. and a typical gray morning on the Oregon Coast. Rain falls so fine that you can’t see it, but everything is wet. It makes the sand of the beach gray, the froth of the breakers gray, and the vast Pacific dark gray under a gray overcast sky.

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Then, appearing out of the monochromatic murk comes Lexie Hallahan in a mango-colored Toyota FJ with a banana yellow surfboard strapped to the rack. She bursts out, wearing yellow flip-flops and a yellow fleece pullover. As she strides toward the small circle of women, her wavy locks of blonde hair seem to flow in the air, as if Botticelli’s Venus herself had stepped out of the ocean from her clamshell. Hallahan’s big smile broadens as she steps up to the small group, clipboard in hand. Surf school is now in session.

Every summer, Hallahan teaches aspiring surfers to catch their first wave. She offers private lessons and coed group lessons. But her weekend camps just for women are her specialty — and her life’s calling.

Suited for surfing

Even in the peak of summer, the ocean water near Seaside does not get much above 60 degrees, making it necessary to wear full neoprene wetsuits. So Hallahan and her group of students wait for a break in traffic and dash across Highway 101 to Cleanline Surf shop.

Although it might seem like an insignificant step, suiting up is an important part of the experience Hallahan has curated for her students.

For most, this is the first time that they have tried to peel a thick, 8mm layer of neoprene over their bodies. It’s understandably awkward. But in the small dressing room, it is all women students, all women instructors. Feeling awkward is accepted and embraced.

As they struggle to tug on booties and shimmy into the skin-tight suits, they joke, laugh, strike poses in the mirrors, and bust out some spontaneous dance moves. Unable to reach the long zippers up the back, they help zip up each other. Lexie looks on and smiles. Their journey into the sisterhood of surfing has begun.

A woman standing on beach, talking to three women sitting on surfboards.

Lexie Hallahan teaches first-time surfers in her two-day camp just for women.

Ian McCluskey / OPB

Circle of flower power

“Everyone circle up,” Hallahan says, waving the women to gather around her. The group has now moved to the beach. Hallahan has them place the bright-blue foam surfboards she uses for her lessons in a circle, noses pointed in and tails fanned out, like the petals of daisy. “I like to call this our flower power circle,” she says with a laugh.

In the circle, Hallahan lays down on one of the boards and demonstrates how to paddle out into the waves, how to pivot the board 180 degrees, and how to make a series of strokes to match the wave’s speed, then finally, how to “pop up” onto the board.

Then it is the students’ turn. They lie prone on the boards, then hop onto their feet, standing with arms outstretched for balance. Small bursts of laughter circle around their ring as the first few attempts are made. Hallahan makes the round, gently correcting positions like a yoga instructor, which she happens to be.

“It’s not so much upright and extended like virabhadrasana,” she explains to one student who had automatically popped up into a yoga pose known as warrior two. “It’s more like this,” Hallahan says, dropping her hips lower, bending her knees more, and rolling her arms and shoulders in a fluid motion. “Surfer girl,” she says. She stands back up with legs locked rigid and arms pointed straight and level, the yoga pose. “Virabhadrasana,” she says, then drops low “Surfer girl.”

The student’s face lights up, “Oh, I get it!”

A woman stands on a surfboard on a sandy beach while a second woman to her left models the proper surfing stance.

Lexie Hallahan teaches first-time surf student proper stance during her NW Womens Surf Camp in Seaside, Oregon.

Ian McCluskey / OPB

A big impression in the birthplace of surfing

When growing up in Oregon, Lexie did not consider herself a strong swimmer. She felt anxious being in water deeper than she could stand. She failed to pass her swim lesson test. Twice.

In the late 1970s, she moved to Hawaii—the birthplace of surfing. While living on Oahu’s North Shore, she became captivated by the surfers and surf culture. Having a passion for photography, she began to bring her camera to the beach and photograph the surfers riding the massive waves.

Impressed by her photos, the surfers invited her into their tight-knit circle. She met and fell in love with Tom Hallahan, one of the expert surfers.

One winter, Hallahan recalls walking from her house to watch the surfing at the legendary break called Pipeline and seeing a group of Brazilian women bodyboarding, the act of riding waves holding onto a foam board, much like a larger version of a swimmer’s kickboard.

“It was a spectacle to behold,” Hallahan recounts. “They were charging famous Pipeline at 12-foot plus barrels in their itsy-bitsy little thong bikinis with their wild black curly hair flying behind them. Even though I wasn’t a good swimmer at the time, something about witnessing them and what they were experiencing triggered something in me, that made me want to do that... some day.”

To fully understand why this moment made such an impression on Hallahan, a little context of the location is helpful.

The pipeline is one of the hallowed birthplaces of “big wave” surfing, and early pioneers of the 1960s and ’70s are revered in the pantheon of the sport. The famous big waves of Pipeline are considered a proving ground.

When winter swells roll in, the waves build up in height, forming a steep wall of water, taller than a surfer, averaging 9-feet. That day, the waves were rolling in 12-feet in height or more, making it a big day to be out in the surf.

As a wave rises to an almost vertical wall, it begins to curl over, crashing down, creating a momentary hollow space. To “charge the barrel” is to ride through this cascading tunnel of moving water. To do it successfully takes expert timing and skill. Any mistake can have dire consequences because what forms the ideal hollow waves of Pipeline is a shallow coral reef and sharp lava spires. It is considered one of the deadliest surf spots in the world.

So when Hallahan stood on the beach that day, it certainly made an impression. She wasn’t seeing bikini-clad women hanging out on the beach, watching their boyfriends surf, but fearless women out in the big surf, claiming world-class waves for themselves.

The next winter, she learned to bodyboard.

Woman standing on the beach holding a surfboard.

Lexie Hallahan has dedicated her life to empowering women through her all-womens surf camps.

Ian McCluskey / OPB

Reshaping the sport

Lexie and Tom moved to Seaside in 1988. She got a job at the surf shop Cleanline Surf and found herself once again an insider of a tight-knit community of local surfers.

At that time, the surfing community of Seaside had been active for decades. Yet, there were only four women, including Hallahan — one surfer, and three bodyboarders.

She wondered why more women weren’t out in the waves.

From her own experience and watching other women paddling out to catch waves, the male surfers seemed to be able to maneuver their boards with long smooth strokes, while the women seemed to struggle. She realized that part of the problem was the proportions of the surfboards. So she worked with a local shaper to make boards that fit bodies like hers better.

Next, she had to do something about the wetsuits. The invention of the neoprene wetsuit in California in the 1950s had allowed surfing’s territory to move northward. But the typical men’s size small didn’t fit women’s bodies very well and made surfing that much harder. So Hallahan got a wetsuit maker to design a wetsuit shaped for women.

She ordered a first run of eight for the shop to see how they’d sell. “Well, there were four of us women surfing at the time, and we all bought one,” she says, and adds with a chuckle, “so we sold 50% of the inventory in the first day. Not bad!”

By leveling the playing field through equipment, Hallahan expected to see a noticeable change out in the waves. But there was still one piece to the puzzle missing.

She had been teaching private and co-ed group surf lessons. Then she had the idea to offer a class for women only.

In her first weekend workshop, she watched moms and daughters learning together, seeming to let their guards down, and enjoying each other’s company. “Seeing this transformation happen through surfing was a visceral experience for me,” Hallahan says. She saw women connecting with other women, forming friendships, and cheering each other on, and in the process gaining self-confidence.

“For me, it was an epiphany,” she recounts. “This is what I was meant to do.”

The next year, 2005, she launched her first season of Northwest Women’s Surf Camps.

Woman walking out of ocean onto beach holding a large surfboard and smiling.

Sam Solomon smiles after catching her first waves during NW Women's Surf Camp.

Stephani Gordon / OPB

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Sisterhood of surfing

Since launching her women-only surf camps, Hallahan has taught hundreds of women, from ages six to 73.

For most of the students, this camp is their first surfing experience. “I tried to learn once from a boyfriend,” says one student, then adds, “an ex-boyfriend.”

The group laughs and nods in understanding. “That’s often how it goes,” Hallahan says with a chuckle.

Sam Solomon had been to Seaside several times but had never stepped into the ocean. Signing up for the weekend camp is a self-given birthday gift.

For Laurie Rich, a retired kindergarten teacher, surfing has been a lifelong dream. “Do you remember the movie The Endless Summer?” she says. “I was so inspired by that, but in my mind, I never thought I could be a surfer — ever.”

Rich has been to Hallahan’s camp before and has returned to practice her skills under Hallahan’s mentorship. “I love being connected to Lexie as a friend and mentor,” Rich says. “She’s one of the most amazing women I think I’ve ever known.”

At the previous camp, Rich shared some personal and emotional information with Hallahan. She had just been diagnosed with lymphoma. During the round-robin of introductions, Hallahan didn’t reveal that Rich had cancer, but said simply, “Laurie has a challenge that she’s dealing with.”

“It was very healing and empowering to be with her,” Rich says. “And being with the group of women, it’s such a cool sisterhood, all sharing in this journey together.”

A woman on the beach crouches over a surfboard and applies wax to its topside.

Retired teacher Laurie Rich never thought she could be a surfer until she joined Lexie Hallahan's all-women surf camps.

Ian McCluskey / OPB

Taking the plunge

The students and instructors head into the ocean. They wade in about chest-high, just shallow enough to still touch the bottom, but deep enough to rise and fall with the waves, and to feel the ocean’s push-and-pull pulse.

The instructors help get each student spun around to face the beach, floating on top of their boards, waiting for their first wave.

The waves have already broken as they roll into the shallow water near shore. They’ve lost much of their force and momentum, making them somewhat gentler to the first-time surfers, but also very challenging to catch. “Paddle, paddle, paddle!” the instructor yells.

Solomon, the first student in the lineup, frantically begins paddling her arms, trying to get the large surfboard to move forward and match the momentum of the wave.

In this split-second moment, she feels for the first time the lifting sensation of the wave picking up the board and propelling it forward. It is a giddy and proud split second, as Solomon hops to her feet and immediately falls into the water.

She fetches her board and turns back toward the group of students.

“Way to go!” yells the instructor. “Whooohooo!” the other students cheer.

“Paddle, paddle, paddle!” the instructor yells as the next student takes her turn.

The student pops up, wobbles, and splashes into the water.

“Whoooohooo!” shouted the students.

“Way to go!” yells the instructor and raises a big thumbs up.

They each in turn fall off their boards. And then fall off again. And again. Some manage a few tippy seconds of standing. Every ride is punctuated with a group cheer.

Eventually, they return to the beach, smiling broadly.

A woman prone on top of a surfboard paddles to catch a wave.

Student paddles to catch a wave during NW Womens Surf Camp weekend.

Ian McCluskey / OPB

Immersed in the moment

Hallahan opens a cooler and hands each student a hand-made lunch in a small brown bag. She’s drawn on each, like a parent might, sending their young child off to school.

They sit in a circle, eating and chatting. The nervous giggles are gone. Now, they chat easily, as if among old friends.

Meeting for the first time in the parking lot merely a few hours ago feels like it had happened days ago. Whoever they were in their regular lives, in jobs, and families, and whatever they had been worried about, seems to have stayed in the parking lot.

They unzip wetsuits and peel them down to the waist, letting the ocean breeze dry their damp skin. With their wet hair tousled by the sea, flakes of sea salt gleaming on the skin, and sand stuck in ears and nose, and even in teeth, they look like real surfers. They feel like real surfers. In this moment, they are real surfers.

Beach Yoga

After lunch, they walk down the beach to a quiet spot.

Slipping out of the role of surf coach, into yogini, Hallahan leads them through a series of yoga poses and meditation.

“I just thought that was a really important aspect that I needed to add into the camps,” she says, “not just teaching them surfing, but bringing that spiritual aspect into it.”

When Hallahan took her first training course to become a yoga teacher in 2004, she was caring for her mother. For the next ten years, Hallahan was her mother’s caregiver. “It was my practice and commitment to yoga and meditation that kept me afloat in my personal buoyancy,” she says.

In turn, she wants to pass along to her students trust in their inner strength and resilience.

“They come to learn surfing,” Hallahan says, “but they get a lot more just learning surfing with us; we’re giving them the big medicine.”

Eight women sit in a semi-circle on the beach while a ninth woman leads them in a yoga session.

Lexie Hallahan leads a session of beach yoga and mediation during the NW Womens Surf Camp.

Ian McCluskey / OPB

Catch a wave and you’re sitting on top of the world

When they go out in the ocean again, things begin to click.

The students hop up quicker, drop into their center of gravity, and bend their knees, wobbling a little, but standing, as the power of the ocean lifts the weight of the board and glides it forward.

Everyone cheers with each ride.

The students stand up longer, and some even ride their boards all the way back to the beach.

At the end of the day, everyone is beaming huge smiles, as they help each other carry the large blue boards up the beach. This is what surfers call stoke.

“Now I’m just like, I can do this!” Solomon says. “Even if it’s just the baby waves, I can do it!”

Hallahan nods with a knowing grin. It’s only been some six hours since the women have been under her guidance, but they are well on their way.

A woman wearing a wetsuit stands upright on a surfboard while riding a small wave.

A student successfully stands and rides a wave during the NW Womens Surf Camp.

Stephani Gordon / OPB

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