DARLENE CONOLLY

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Walking through the arrivals door at Male Airport a couple of years ago, I was greeted by two tanned, blonde lasses – one short, one tall, standing out amidst the sea of Maldivians and pale tourists. Amy (the shorty) was a new friend – the kind wahine who hooked me up with my new resort job, and destined to become my surf guide sensei. Darlene, Amy`s longtime friend, was also working on a resort a couple of islands down, although far swankier than our middle-of-the-road one. I have to admit, I was never overly confident with my surfing ability so it was a little intimidating surfing with Amy and Darlene for the first time – no shit, these chicks can surf. Gorgeous, outgoing and no stranger to competitive surfing or the Californian surf industry, Darlene surfs with both power and grace – something that instils me with admiration and inspiration. Between balancing life working, surfing, travelling and post-grad study in social work, Darlene found a moment to talk story with us….

Hey mate, how have you been surviving a northern winter this year? Been on any travels of late? I’m managing somehow, but it’s been far too long since I’ve boarded an airplane. Although I haven’t traveled anywhere of significance since last September, 2010 and 2011 were great years for collecting stamps in my passport. Nicaragua, Canada, New Zealand, Indonesia, Mexico, Maldives and Australia to name a few.

Not only are you an ocean goddess, you also have a way with words. Tell us about your time editing at Surfline. I was the Women’s Editor at Surfline from the time I was 21 years old, until I was 25. The job involved writing and editing, picking and editing photos, managing the budget, determining the site’s content and a whole slew of other technical, boring tasks. It was an incredible opportunity for me at such a young age. The position enabled me to travel all over the globe and work with the world’s best surfers, male and female alike. I basically transitioned from childhood into adulthood under Surfline’s watch and it was the opportunity of a lifetime.

You`re about to start Grad School, what is it your studying and what do you plan on doing once you finish? I don’t want to speak too soon about graduate school because I still have several months before I apply to universities but my plan is to be admitted into a Master’s of Social Work program. Ideally, I want to become a high school guidance counselor with a concentration in addressing the needs of high-risk populations.

You`ve travelled a lot for surfing but what was it like to actually work in the tropics? Oh man. Travelling to the tropics is heavenly. Working there, that’s a whole other beast. Actually, I don’t know what it would be like to work somewhere like Bali, Central America or the Caribbean. Those types of places might be far more accommodating for an American female to take up residence. But in the Maldives, things were very foreign to me. It was the first time in my life that I experienced homesickness. I missed choosing and cooking my own food and being able to walk more than seven minutes across land before reaching the other side of the island — there were so many little things that I took for granted in other places. And these things were simply absent or not possible in the Maldives. Don’t get me wrong. The Maldivian atolls are the most fantastically scenic islands I’ve ever seen. They have an incredibly kind, beautiful culture and I’m endlessly grateful for my opportunity to have worked and lived there, but I experienced a degree of culture shock there. It was one of my first real experiences with Islamic culture and I simply wasn’t prepared for how females are perceived in comparison to western culture’s perspectives. But despite the different roles that females generally play in the Maldivian culture, I find it interesting (and awesome) that some of the only female surf guides in the world have worked in the Maldives.

Competition surfing is how you met Amy, how long did you compete for and how has it helped your surfing? Competitions always drove me to improve and push myself but the most significant thing it did for me was introduce me to people, such as Amy, who would make a permanent impact on my life. For example, if it weren’t for contests, I wouldn’t have been invited to try out for the USA Surf Team, which I ended up qualifying for back in 2005. Once on the team, one of the coaches, Mike Cianciulli, referred me to the editors at Surfline as a potential editor. I had the credentials and whatever it was that they were looking for in the job interview, but without Mike, I wouldn’t have even known the position existed.

You also competed on the QS – rad! Any insights to female pro surfing? It’s a deep, dark, secret world. Nah…It’s fun but super stressful because of how competitive the whole environment is. I never did the legitimate, full tour because I didn’t have enough time while completing my bachelor’s degree but the tour is not all the unicorns and rainbows that it appears to be. Those girls live out of their boardbags and never stay at home for more than a few weeks at a time. That kind of lifestyle is seriously taxing on the mind and body.

What`s life like as a real, modern-day Californian girl in the lineup? Do you find there are stereotypes still? It’s pretty common to see a handful of girls in a lineup now. But when I was just starting out back in the early 1990s, I hardly remember seeing a single female around during the cold, winter months. So, as far as the population of female surfers goes, things have certainly changed in the past 20 years. Females are definitely more widely accepted in the water now days but the stereotypes linger. I still have sessions where I get burned four, five, even six times in a row. The good thing is, people stay out of my way once I get a good one under my belt.

Transworld published an article you wrote on the current state of female surfing. Can you elaborate for those of us who missed it…The editors at Transworld Surf actually asked me to write the cover story for their first women’s issue while I was working in the Maldives. It was an interesting point in my life because I had just left my position at Surfline to do some travelling before pursuing grad school so I was beginning to disconnect myself from the surf industry. Basically, it was the perfect time for me to write the story — I still had all my connections with the pros since I’d only just left Surfline a few months before and I was in a position to write things that I would have not dared to publish when my career depended on people in the surf industry liking me. I opened the story by writing, “This is my suicide letter.” And it basically was. I don’t write about women’s surfing anymore. There are too many harsh realities about the industry that you simply must suppress if you want to succeed. I’d had enough of it and wanted to do something completely different with my life but that Transworld story was an opportunity to tell a slightly more in-depth, but still censored, story of the world of women’s surfing.

Out of interest, Cori Schumacher recently wrote an article for the Gender Across Borders site, Women in the Sub-culture of Surfing. Any correlations or contentions with your ideas? I did happen to see this article recently and I think Cori was able to author the story I wanted to write for Transworld. But since I was writing for an endemic surf publication, I knew that there was no way I could call out the big wigs of the industry so I just stuck to the pseudo-controversial content that I knew Transworld would be willing to put in print. I found it interesting that Cori touched on the fact that surf media like to teeter on the so-called cliff of controversy but that they never actually take the plunge because it would be self-destructive for any publication that considered doing such a thing. It’s true. Just look at my story. One criticism I have of Cori’s story was that she didn’t get quotes from anyone in the industry to get an alternative perspective or to back her stance. But who can blame her? Even if she had all the bribe money in the world, I doubt she could pay anyone to utter a word about the issues she grappled in that story. Props to her for getting her voice out there, though it’ll be decades (if ever) before the the surf industry would even consider shedding light on the topics that Cori talked about. (Random side note from Darlene: “Cori was one of the first female surfers I looked up to. We were both in an all-girls surf club back in 1994 when I was nine years old. I think she must have been about 16 years old and I simply adored her. To this day, I don’t know whether she knows who I am, and if she does, I wonder whether she knows that I was the little grom in that club.”)

Nikita was your sponsor for awhile – how was that experience for you? Any other sponsors you`d like to shout out to? Nikita offered me the chance to surf for a paycheck. I am forever thankful for that and I hope that companies continue to support random girls, giving them the chance to compete on a professional, international level. I don’t have any sponsors at the moment but I would like to thank Travis at Channel Islands for letting me buy used boards. If it weren’t for him, I would be riding negatively buoyant planks of waterlogged foam. And thanks to Chelsea at Roxy for throwing me the first new fullsuit I’ve gotten since 2009. It was greatly needed and appreciated.

What`s the current state of surf affairs over there in Cali? Eh. Same old. There’s always been the occasional Toyota television commercial or Pacifico Beer billboard that depicts surfers and/or the surf culture. It comes and goes. But mainly, the lineups of Southern California are way too crowded and localism hardly exists any longer due to lawsuit-happy American culture, so no one enforces the basic hierarchical tier structure of the lineup any longer. And the local news always trumpets an alluring “High Surf Advisory!” whenever the waves get up to shoulder high, so that’s super duper cool.

Any underground surfwear brands we should know about? I can’t think of any surfwear brands but as far as surfboards go, my friend Ryan Burch is designing some of the craziest, most innovative shapes you can imagine. (Check out this clip about how he transitioned from being a run-of-the-mill competitive shortboarder to shaping bizarre, inspirational boards), and this little number on Transworld, and his tumblr. A couple of other friends started some great surf websites. Cyrus Sutton started Korduroy and Chris Grant founded Jetty Girl  and they are both chockful of original content that you can’t find anywhere else. Also, this rad little grassroots company out of Byron Bay called Salt Gypsy comes to mind. Best handmade, vintage board socks I’ve ever seen.

Favourite surf destinations so far? Maldives. Seriously. There’s no place like it. I am dying to go back but my pocketbook won’t have it.

Bucket list? You’re going to open that bag of worms? Let’s see…Chile, Alaska, Peru, Madagascar, Portugal, Morocco (again), Ireland, France (again), Scotland, Falkland Islands and plenty more but we could do this all day long.

Your top ten travel essentials:

1. 5’10” Channel Islands rounded squash Rookie model

2. 5’4″ Channel Islands Biscuit model (I call it the Bisquick since that thing flies. Other people call it a disk or jellybean.)

3. Surfing bikini

4. Sexy bikini

5. Sunscreen

6. Wetsuit

7. Passport

8. iPhone (music and camera in one little package)

9. My boyfriend, Michael

10. Wax for traction and ding repair all in one smooth move

What`s one piece of advice that`s resonated with you? When I was in the Maldives, I worked for a surf guiding company called Tropicsurf and their motto was a brilliant quote by Mark Twain that perfectly summarizes my perspective on life:

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bow lines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

Who and what inspires you? My boyfriend inspires me every single day with his motivation to make something of himself while also remaining deeply connected to the ocean. That sounds unbelievably cheesy but they’re the only words I have to express his influence on me. Music by groups like Future Islands, Minus the Bear and Metronomy inspire me. My genius roommates Paul, David and Dan are great inspirations, and of course my best friends Amy and Monika. Amy made an incredible life for herself as a gypsy surfer and Monika is an avid world traveler who’s finishing up her Master’s in Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning and is about to embark on the adventure of grown up life.

 Darlene Conolly is one rad lady and we loved Talking Story with her. All photographs supplied by Darlene and were taken by Chris Grant of Jetty Girl and Darlene`s boyfriend photographer, Michael Barrus. Check out his very cool site here.

3 comments

  1. cjf

    Rock an surf on ladies! this post is so inspiring and uplifting, great surfing and comradeship. Thank you for sharing Salt Gypsy 🙂

  2. Pingback: RECYCLED SWIMWEAR BY ROSE « Salt Gypsy

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