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Riding the wave of change: empowering Aberdeen’s women in surfing and environmental advocacy

Written by Ruthy Quigley, Conservation Officer at Buglife


Nestled against the North Sea, the beachfront of Aberdeen, Scotland, was once known primarily for its windswept, industrial stretches, but has undergone a remarkable transformation since 2020. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the community filled the open space with an infectious energy and activity, breathing new life into the salty, bitter wind. Local chefs launched food trucks, remote workers flocked to the beach for morning dips (or dooks, as they are colloquially known), and a surf and paddle board rental hut along with two mobile saunas appeared. While Google Maps may still label it rather unlovingly as a 'wind-prone beach with a promenade,' for those who have strolled its shores recently, Aberdeen Beach is a bubbling hub of activity, especially in the Footdee area. 

 

Footdee, known locally as Fittie, is a historical fishing village based at the south end of the beach at the foot of the River Dee. Amidst Fittie’s revitalisation, one name stands out: Rosie Payne. It’s nearly impossible not to encounter her presence at the beach, as the 23-year-old lives in Fittie and spends much of her time working in the food and coffee shop vans, befriending beachgoers as she works at Scot Surf, a rental hut along the promenade, and is also regularly spotted in the waves surfing, paddleboarding or swimming. As you walk along the promenade, Rosie’s mark is even evident in the beach safety signs, which she designed during her graphic design degree, and her love of the big blue now permeates her full-time job as a Digital Engagement Officer for the Open Seas Trust.


A busy Saturday at the food trucks along Aberdeen’s beachfront © Rosie Payne

Noticing the underrepresentation of women in the water through her work at Scot Surf – which mirrored the prevalent male domination in surfing worldwide- Rosie was inspired to take action. In 2022, Rosie and her friend Kat co-created the Aberdeen Wavy Wahines (pronounced waa-hee-nee), an all-women surf group. The term 'wahine', derived from the Polynesian language meaning women, or more contemporarily, a female surfer, serves as a tribute to Rosie's experiences surfing in New Zealand, where she spent much of her childhood and developed her passion for the sea and surfing. However, the name also holds a connection closer to Scotland, drawn from the story of the Hawaiian Princess Ka’llunani, a respected surfer who arrived in the UK in 1882 to pursue her studies and surf. Her move to the UK was influenced by her deep appreciation for her father's Scottish heritage. The connection to Princess Ka’Illunani is ironic given that, in her era, women held equal status and respect to men when navigating the waves [1].


The Wavy Wahines during one of their meetups. © Timothy Turnbull
The Wavy Wahines during one of their meetups. © Timothy Turnbull

 When I asked Rosie about the creation of the group, and how they attracted women to get involved, Rosie reflected:


“A lot of women would see you with a board or in a wetsuit and they’d ask how to get into it. I sat down with Kat, a friend of mine, and we decided it was time to start something bigger. We held an initial event which was ticketed, and we had over forty sign-ups from women around Aberdeen- which was a lot more than we anticipated. This event was aimed at re-introducing existing surfers to a group of like-minded people, but also to get newbies excited and welcomed into the community.”


Rosie in her wetsuit on a rare warm day at Aberdeen Beach. © Paul Barlow Photos
Rosie in her wetsuit on a rare warm day at Aberdeen Beach. © Paul Barlow Photos

Rosie and Kat made it clear to the women who joined that this group wasn't solely about offering guidance to beginners. It was crafted with the dual purpose of cultivating a supportive environment for those new to the water and creating a lasting surf community in Aberdeen, with gender inclusivity at its heart. Following the event’s popularity, the group gained momentum and now has over seventy-five active members, ranging from recent graduates to mums, all having two things in common: surfing and the sea. The impact the Wavy Wahines has had on the women involved is apparent in the continued success of its membership. Women have reported feeling safer in the water, as well as having developed a caring community that extends beyond their surfing events, often catching up for coffee and chatting about the beach and what more they can do for the environment. Rosie commented:

 

“We used to see maybe one or two women in the water a month and now there’s maybe ten or more, and often more women than men each surf. We’ve had people make friendships and have helped to change a lot of the men’s attitudes as well.”

 

Previously, the sight of women surfing at the beach was relatively rare, and there may have been some hesitation from the wider community to engage. However, with the consistent presence of a large group of women, Rosie says they have become recognised as regulars. As a result, male surfers have become more sociable and open to sharing knowledge and etiquette, as they have witnessed the women's commitment and willingness to learn the rules of the waves. This recognition of the women's dedication has fostered a sense of respect and camaraderie among surfers of all genders, creating an environment where everyone feels valued and supported in their surfing journey. 


Some of the Wavy Wahines and fellow Aberdeen surfers during their World Oceans Day event. © Paul Barlow Photos
Some of the Wavy Wahines and fellow Aberdeen surfers during their World Oceans Day event. © Paul Barlow Photos

Rosie's dedication to this budding community is obvious, rooted in a profound sense of service and a genuine desire to safeguard our natural environment, and is flourishing through the Wavy Wahines. Initially the Wavy Wahines meetups were focussed on sharing information about safety in the water, surfing technique and etiquette, but the reach of the group has expanded with participants now involved in activities such as beach cleans and fundraising, and these events extend to the wider surf community in the name of inclusivity. For example, to commemorate World Oceans Day in June 2023, the group organised the ‘Big Blue Paddle Out’ where they invited their members and fellow local surfers to get together, surf and raise money for the Marine Conservation Society. When asked whether participants had become more aware of their impact on the environment since joining, Rosie said:

 

“I think we’ve managed to evolve people’s perception of why it’s important to look after the environment. It might not look like there’s a lot going on from above the surface, but Aberdeen is home to an astonishing amount of wildlife. From surfing with dolphins, seals and seabirds to delicate reefs along the harbour wall which are home to edible brown crabs and beautiful kelps. Whilst getting women in the water is important, it’s also about educating people about the underwater world.”


Members of the Wavy Wahines preparing for a day in the waves © Paul Barlow Photos
Members of the Wavy Wahines preparing for a day in the waves © Paul Barlow Photos
Rosie chatting to some participants at their World Oceans Day fundraising event © Paul Barlow Photos
Rosie chatting to some participants at their World Oceans Day fundraising event © Paul Barlow Photos

 Aberdeen is known to be one of the best places in the UK to spot bottlenose dolphins off the coast. A viewing café was custom built at Greyhope Bay, just on the other side of the harbour wall from where Aberdeen’s surf community spends its time, attesting to the thrill of surfing in a dolphin hotspot. The Wavy Wahines are already a bright light in Aberdeen, and co-founders Rosie and Kat plan to expand the group’s activities to include educational workshops about environmental issues as well as wellness-focused events. Rosie also plans to grow in her role with the Open Seas Trust and to learn underwater photography. It’s reassuring to have young people like Rosie driving change at the community level when it comes to environmental issues and gender equality, especially in Scotland’s dark North East which, as Rosie comments, is often overlooked:

 

“We so often see people showcasing cool places like Bali or the Maldives, when equally if you embrace the cold you can find just as beautiful and incredible creatures and seascapes”.

 

Here here, fellow wahines. 

 


References

[1]  Jim Kempton. Women on Waves: A Cultural History of Surfing: From Ancient Goddesses and Hawaiian Queens to Malibu Movie Stars and Millennial Champions. Pegasus Books; 2021.


 

 


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