A smile lights 9-year-old Avery McCormick’s face and sea foam churns around her feet as she confidently steers her surfboard to shore.
“Beautiful, beautiful ride,” shouts Lesley Curry, co-owner of the Saltwater Cowgirls Surf Camp.
Avery grins, acknowledging the compliment as she grips the surfboard given to her by her grandmother.
“It’s really fun,” she said, turning and running back into the waves.
Avery, who has been surfing a year, says she’s learned a lot from surf camp, especially the importance of keeping a low center of gravity, known as “stay low and go.”
“She’s a natural,” Curry said.
Curry and her business partner, Lorraine Hernandez, run the Jacksonville Beach surf camp, which started in 1999 as the original all-female surf camp on the East Coast. Curry and Hernandez bought the business about five years ago.
They emphasize board control and ocean awareness in the 10, one-week camps offered each summer for girls ages 7 to 17. Curry and Hernandez also give private instructions year round, and in May, after years of selling surf wear with their snazzy cowgirl logo from the back of their vehicles, Curry and Hernandez opened their surf shop. The store carries foam, epoxy and fiberglass surfboards, new and used, and paddleboards, shirts, shorts and hats. They’re hoping the store will encourage more people to sign up for classes, although the surf camps fill up pretty quickly as it is. Saltwater Cowgirls is also striking a balance with the community. In late June, they collaborated with Sisters of the Sea, a nonprofit organization for women surfers in Jacksonville, to give free surf lessons to cancer survivors with the 2nd Annual “Day of Fun in the Sun!”
One recent morning at camp, the water was surprisingly clear with one-and-a-half foot “bunny slope” waves – perfect conditions for surfers in training. It was time for the late morning break and 33 “campers” had taken refuge from the sun under a huge beach tent.
“Look at the flag,” Curry said. “Which way is the wind blowing?” The girls grew silent.
It was an offshore wind, a west wind that was working in their favor.
“That’s good because it’s going to give us some more waves,” Curry said. “How many of you took a nose dive?” The girls giggled as roughly a third of them raised their hands in the air.
“Keep your nose up and paddle as fast as you can,” Curry said. “Don’t stop paddling into the wave.”
This is the hard part. Rough surf can tire out even the best athletes. It’s critical to learn good paddle technique, positioning and perseverance to punch past the waves. Otherwise, they’ll never get to ride one.
This is one of 9-year-old Isabella Buschini’s greatest challenges: Paddling hard and fast enough to gain the momentum to break through, said her mother Laurie Buschini, who’s watching from a distance with a camera around her neck.
So far, in her second day of camp, Isabella says she’s caught 10 waves. Scuffed knees and rashes are the price she’s paid to gain balance, steadiness and proper placement on the surfboard.
“It’s hard at first, but once you get your balance it just comes,” Isabella said.
Her mother encouraged her to do the camp again this year. Not only does it teach safety, etiquette and proper technique, but it’s also a good confidence builder, she said.
“She loves it,” Laurie Buschini said. “It’s very empowering, especially in a male dominated sport. There’s room out here for girls, too.”
While surfing generally is considered a male dominated sport, that’s been changing. Several women surfers from Jacksonville, including Karina Patroni and Tiffany Layton, have earned championship titles and gained attention over the years.
Following the land instructions under the tent, the girls break up into small groups so they can receive personal attention from the instructors. Curry and Hernandez help struggling newbies gain balance and confidence by taking hold of the rear of the surfboard and guiding it along the waves. Standing perfectly still in the board’s center with arms extended, the girls experience for the first time the exhilaration of surfing and the will to learn how to do it on their own.
“It’s all about board control and staying safe,” said Curry, who fell in love with surfing a few decades ago while she was in high school. “You’re finding a balance with nature.”
For more information visit the Saltwater Cowgirls website at swcsurfcamp.com or call the store at 238-4716.