Linda Sharp: The pioneer woman surfer in a sea of men

Image source, Linda Sharp

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Linda Sharp caught the surfing bug when she was 15 and never looked back

By Rowenna Hoskin

BBC News

When Linda Sharp began surfing in 1967, she was the first and only woman to ride the waves all year round in Wales.

She began surfing at 15 at Aberavon in Neath Port Talbot and competed for more than 20 years, winning European, British and Welsh titles.

At the beginning Linda had no wetsuit, so wore a rugby shirt, cut-off jeans, plimsolls and rubber gloves.

She often surfed against men in the competitions as she won the women’s Welsh championship by default.

“I grew up as one of the boys, then quickly learnt that I could paddle faster than most of them,” Linda said. “I could surf as good as any of them in the water.”

Her surfing journey began when she borrowed the board of one of her lifeguard colleagues.

“I tried it, caught my first wave and stood up,” she said. “I brought it into the beach, went back out and had another one until they said ‘Give me my board back’.”

Desperate to get her own board, she sold her bike to pay for it.

Image source, Linda Sharp

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Her first board cost her about £18 – the price she managed to sell her bike for

It was more than 9ft (2.7m) and she did the half-hour walk to the beach with it on her head until her dad made wheels for it.

She was braving the water without a wetsuit until Christmas 1968.

But when she got one, it was not the type in the shops today. The only ones available were scuba diving wetsuits, known for their “beaver tail”-style flap.

Linda, who is now 70, said they had a “zip up the front, tails, two little knobs on the front which dug in” and this went over “leggings like tights” and “everyone would leave that tail thing open and if you had a bad wipeout your trousers would just fly off”.

Not only did surfers have to deal with cold seas, the water was also pumped full of raw sewage and industrial waste.

Linda’s home beach was at the mouth of the rivers Tawe, Afan and Neath.

“The pollution levels were terrible and I grew up in it,” she said. But while “a lot of the boys did get ill”, she never got anything worse than a sore throat.

“Some people have had flesh-eating diseases and things like that,” she said. “The water gets trapped there and if you had an open wound, it only took one surfing session.”

Linda said a large number of competitors at the 1980s British Masters surfing competition “were quite seriously ill” when it was held at Aberavon.

Image source, Linda Sharp

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Linda surfed around the world including Sri Lanka in 1988

Though she fought pollution and cold water, Linda did not battle other surfers in competitions until 1975.

Purely “by accident”, she happened to be at home one summer when the Welsh nationals were held at her beach.

Until then she had always been away studying at Nonington College of Physical Education in Kent when competitions were held.

“There was no chance I wasn’t going to enter,” she said. “I was the only girl entry so it was win by default, but I insisted on going in against the blokes. I said ‘I’m not getting a title for not surfing’.”

“I got into the semi-finals and they kicked me out. They said ‘you can’t do the semi finals, we’re choosing the team for the Europeans’,” she said.

“Then they put the men in, all the guys I’d beaten,” she laughed. “It didn’t matter though because they were all my friends.”

Image source, Linda Sharp

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In 1980 Linda competed in the world championship in France in her self-embroidered Second Skin gear

That championship kickstarted her surfing career, and she went on to win many more Welsh, British, and European titles.

“Most of my Welsh titles have been default because there’d be no other women. I’ve always gone in and surfed against the blokes, but it’s not the point.

“I would have loved to have other women. I did my best to promote it, but most of the women just weren’t interested,” she said. “It wasn’t a trendy thing to do.”

The lack of female competitors also meant there were no wetsuits designed for women until the 1980s, despite men having more modern ones years before.

“You made your own or you bought a men’s wetsuit.”

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Now 70, Linda’s two hip replacements have put a stop to her surfing, but she still enjoys the sea

After she won her first European title, Linda was invited to Malibu in California in 1976 to the Women’s International Surfing Association (WISA) championship, which was set up the year before to address gender inequalities. It had Australian and Japanese entrants as well as from the US.

“I loved being with the women, loved going surfing with them, but the actual competition was just a little bit over the top for me and I just didn’t enjoy it.”

Despite this, there was a camaraderie between the women.

After the competition Linda got an invitation from WISA to join the women surfing internationally. But she said she couldn’t afford it.

Image source, Linda Sharp

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Linda competed in the French World championships in 1980

“I didn’t have the money to follow it. They were all rich Americans and it’s always the case and it still is unfortunately,” Linda said.

Linda was a PE teacher and surfed whenever she could until 1996, when she had her daughter Angharad.

They moved from Port Talbot to Porthcawl the same year, where she and her husband ran a surf shop.

Linda’s arthritis and hip replacements have put a stop to her returning to the sport.

But those waves have clearly given her quite a ride.

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