Kerry Powell: Inspiring Women in UK Surfing

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Kerry Powell, has been judging surf competitions locally, Nationally and Internationally for over 10 years. She also happens to be the only female judge on the UK Pro Surf Scene. Having worked with the WSL, as well as being a regular on the UKPSA Pro Surf Tour, she is a role model for anyone wishing to get involved with competitive surfing. We asked the “Best Surf judge 2017” (UK Surf Awards) about her career to date, and what it’s like being a woman working in what has traditionally been a male dominated industry.

Congratulations on winning the Best Judge of the year 2017, how do you feel winning this award?
Thank you, I was totally blown away, I actually had no idea I was in line for receiving it. I almost didn’t make it to the evening as I’d been painting my house during the day so was covered in white paint until about half an hour before. It’s such an honour for me to receive this award after over a decade judging professionally it’s really something special to be recognised for the work you have put in. To me it’s also something special for the people who’ve supported you, trained you, put their confidence in you to work as a judge and spent time helping you to get to that position, and the team of people you work with on a regular basis – for them to see you achieve that, it’s a great feeling. As a judge it’s very rare to be in the spotlight so getting some silverware in front of athletes who you’ve seen get many wins and podium places is a unique feeling. People’s reactions were pretty special, definitely a moment to cherish.

What got you into surfing?
I’ve always been really sporty, a water baby and loved the beach, the river, swimming, anything involving water was where i was most happy, my mum could never get me out of the water when I was really young. On my summer holidays before my final year at school aged 15 me and a friend started cycling to the beach at Saltburn, a 2.5hr bike ride each way (involving some busy roads I’m not sure was entirely legal to cycle down, especially without a helmet!!). My Grandparents lived at Saltburn, so I grew up on the beach there and was reconnecting after a hiatus of being inland and river based. We spent that summer hanging out at the beach and got friends with the local life guards, then the legendary Nick Noble and Gary Rodgers running the surf shop who eventually got us to give surfing a try. I managed to stand up and ride the first wave I went for with some really basic on beach instruction, that was it, I was totally hooked.

What inspired you to be a surf judge?
I tried to surf competitively but I would have such bad nerves that I’d just fall apart in my heats and get so frustrated, coupled with being waaaaayyy too over competitive it wasn’t making for a good career in surfing, but I loved the scene. I had a period where they thought I’d fractured my vertebrae so I was on zero sports for around 12 months. I’d spend hours watching the surfers from Saltburn pier absorbing everything I could and if I got the opportunity I’d go and stand on the reef when the guys went down the coast and watch them in action. I sat the BSA judging cours and started working at the local events, I was 16/17. I remember being stood on this farming trailer in the middle of Saltburn beach. We had to climb up a ladder to get onto it and I just felt like it was the most important job making sure the right surfers got through and ultimately won the contest. I felt really privileged to be trusted with that task, it’s a feeling I still carry today at every event.

Over time I realised that there were so few female judges. At one point I was the only one working at the European surfing events. When I first started being asked to attend, I didn’t know of any within the ASP (now WSL) and it became really important to me that female surfers would have female staff to work on their contests. My dream is still to work with the WSL and maybe one day have an all-female panel on the female contests – it’s a long way off. We’re still a rare breed but we did have 4 female judges present at the Euro Juniors in Agadir in 2016 it was a special moment for me.

Do you think there is sexism in surfing? If so how do you think we can overcome it?
I think it would be naive to say there isn’t. Surfing began as such a male dominated sport in a different era with different views of men and women to what we have now. With the first incarnation of female ‘pro’ surfers, the level was so low compared to the men. There was this kind of time when I came to the sport that was like “it doesn’t really matter what you surf like as long as you look good”. That’s not to take anything away from those trail blazers, they opened up the pathway for the next generation of female surfers but it also didn’t help for equality in the sport. The money was, and is, at times so much less for the women not just in sponsorship but in contest winnings. When you’re faced with a system based on that, you’d have to question that similar things that have been raised recently in the media facing women in modelling and acting haven’t happened in our sport and potentially are still happening. They’re uncomfortable conversations to open up and look at – but to move forward the sport needs to be aware of the whole picture, where we’ve come from and where we need to be.

I think the sport has already come a long way from when I started in terms of equality and level. I mean women are just pushing those boundaries and you could say at a more explosive rate than the guys did. I was fortunate enough to be on the steps in Bells Beach for the contest one year and I heard the guys Jordy Smith, Dusty Payne etc saying they wouldn’t like to be surfing against the girls that day, they were on fire and they had some of the best waves of the contest. But you know, sometimes they still aren’t afforded that luxury in a mixed contest, often the best conditions are still reserved for the men. It’s still a shock to people to see women doing airs or charging big waves – the question is, should it be? That shock at what women in the sport can achieve, those things I guess is in part a residual sexism but that’s how society and humanity is still functioning. Women are still paid less in almost any job they do, pink is for girls, blue is for boys, boys are physically stronger than women, it’s obvious from the need for movements like ‘This Girl Can’ and ‘Like a Girl’ that society is changing and things are becoming more equal, but it’s a slow process.

Certainly, I think the change in surfing has happened, is happening and will continue to happen. The CEO of the WSL is a woman, that’s an inspiration in itself and I’m sure will encourage a greater shift towards equality.

From a staffing point of view there are still so few women in the roles around contests. It’s harder to get a foot in the door and there seems to be a lower number of women around the whole scene. I guess some of that comes down to funding, as a female you are going to cost more unless there’s 2 of you. Men can share rooms where needed but there’s a taboo surrounding male and female colleagues sharing accommodation so it’s going to cost more for that member of staff to be there.

I think the only way to overcome it is to keep moving forward and listening, to try and equal out the opportunity for both the sexes and that comes from the top right back down to grassroots. I guess as a woman involved in it all, I just have to hope I am a trail blazer and open some doors, allow some changes for the next ones coming behind me.

You come from Saltburn, how has surfing developed in the North East?
It’s amazing to see how much the surfing communities in the North East have grown since I started surfing. In one sense it’s a great thing to see, but also frustrating in terms of crowds and some localism. The crew that I started surfing with are mainly still around and many are still working within the surf industry, which is just so good to see in an industry that is so difficult to make a living from. There’s many more surf schools and surf shops opened all up and down the coast. To surf there, you’ve got to be so dedicated, the swell windows can be small, so you need to know the charts and the locations to score good, the best waves are in winter and it’s COLD. I’ve gotten so soft living down in the south west that I do get teased about it when i head home.

It’s difficult because there is also this disconnect with the contest scene, it’s been that way since I’ve known it, surfing is becoming such an expensive sport in terms of cost of wetsuits and boards, most of the elite contests are based down in the South West and it can be really difficult for inspired youngsters to get involved. It’s rough you know to travel for a whole day to come to a contest and get knocked out because you maybe don’t have the contest surfing experience. Over the years I have seen some surfers coming through who have vanished from the scene, it’s hard for those kids to be on the radar for sponsors and support and makes it really tough to truly commit to a competitive surfing career.

Im hoping that as the scene up there continues to grow we’ll see some more faces from my old stomping grounds coming up and hitting UKPSA Pro Surf Tour and even the WQS.

If not, they have the most wonderful grassroots surfing communities there, they are so tight knit and supportive of one another, people live for the surf. With projects like the Wave Project expanding up to the North East using surfing as a therapy it’s just fantastic to see that the area as a whole will never lose its stoke.

Which surfers inspire you?
There’s so many things to draw inspiration from in our sport; I’m a little old school and I grew up on Slater and Fanning, I love seeing all the up-coming guys. Bethany Hamilton is just mind-blowing, her grace and determination to still achieve her dreams and her skills in the face of adversity. Then there’s the crop of UK Groms we have growing in number every event. Their enthusiasm and stoke is amazing and as a judge you get to watch their progression over the years. Finally, as a surf coach myself I am always inspired by those people taking their first waves, pushing and pushing and pushing till they stand up and just experience that first ride, there’s nothing like that first wave feeling, it never ceases to put a smile on my face and make me want to ride more waves myself.

We Thank Kerry for all the hard work she has put into helping us on the tour over the years, and are looking forward to the future of surfing. If you’ve been inspired to get more involved with the UK surf scene and competitive surfing we have many options for supporting you. Hey, we might even see you in the judging tower one day!

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