Women and girls ages 4 to 70 descend on Folly Beach’s Washout for two days every year to shred the legendary surf spot during the Wahine Classic, an all-female surf competition now in its 20th year.
Surf competitions are nothing unusual in a beach town like Folly, but this particular competition is unique in that it was specifically created for women.
“It started out as a smaller contest for girls to get an opportunity to come together,” said Nicole Elko, the event’s director. “The mission and intent has really stayed the same over the last 20 years. It’s a time for us to get together in what is traditionally a pretty male-dominated sport to just have the Washout to ourselves and enjoy some sisterhood time together.”
The Wahine Classic is the first and only all-female surf competition in the state — in fact, it’s one of the few competitions of its kind in all of the Southeast. The event was originally created by founders Katie Coryell and Kelly Kane Wood to provide a space for female surfers of all ages to come together and enjoy the waves. The competition has grown over the years with more than 100 surfers expected to participate in this year’s event taking place July 31-Aug. 1.
The event is broken into pro, novice and amateur divisions, for longboard and shortboard competitions, with the amateur division split into five age groups. The amateur division makes up a bulk of the competition, but other fun categories are included as well like the bodyboard and tandem divisions.
Two tables of judges sit facing a sea of women and girls in colorful rash guards doled out to the competitors to keep them straight. “Orange is up!” a judge yells out during one of the many 15-minute heats. The rest of the competitors and spectators mingle around the beach, socializing with newfound friends and longtime buddies. All in all, it’s a welcoming, social event that focuses on the Folly Beach community, having fun and creating a comfortable, laid back environment that everyone can enjoy — young and old.
One of the competitors who has been participating in the Wahine since the first event in 2001 is now well into her 70s. Yet she’s at the event year after year, even wearing her T-shirt from the inaugural contest. She even won the 2019 competition in her “Goddess” age division. On the same shore as the older, more experienced surfers, you’ll see girls of all ages getting in on the action — there’s even a push and surf competition for the little 4-year-olds.
Usually attracting 400 to 450 people, the event welcomes spectators to the Washout between 8 a.m.-5 p.m. on competition days.
Although the participants love the opportunity to surf and compete, the event boils down to something more than that: sisterhood.
“The vibes from all the women on the beach together is one of my favorites,” said Perng Hutson, a pro surfer, regular Wahine competitor and assistant manager of McKevlin’s Surf Shop on Folly Beach. “The whole community just comes together. It’s a weekend for all the women to celebrate, support and cheer each other on. It’s an incredible experience.”
Hutson, who has been surfing for more than 15 years, is also on the Wahine Classic organizing committee, helping secure donations and make the event happen.
Comradery and support are definitely the themes of the event. According to Hutson, being surrounded by other female surfers helps young girls feel more comfortable with the sport and enjoy the fun of being in the water rather than focusing too much on an aggressive, competitive edge.
Elko echoes those sentiments. “For me, it’s about empowering the next generation of females. Period. Yes, of course female surfers, but it’s those young girls out there seeing their moms and the older girls they look up to so much just crushing it and being rockstars. That’s what they need to have in their minds — that they can do anything.”
Elko’s own daughters, Ainsley (age 11) and Charlotte (age 10), participate in the event every year and even give her the inside scoop on what to use for trophies and tips on items young girls would like to find in competitor swag bags. “Sometimes I’ll ask them, ‘Wouldn’t this be cool for the trophies?’ and they’ll tell me, ‘No, mom that would not be cool, we need this instead,’” said Elko, laughing. “So, they help me a lot.”
The entire Folly Beach community seems to pitch in, from event sponsors like McKevlin’s and the City of Folly Beach to restaurants in the area that donate gift cards, T-shirts and other items for participants. But perhaps one of the most important sponsors is the Charleston chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, which helps the Wahine Classic to be a zero-waste event by providing compostable dish and silverware, setting up compost stations and educating people on environmental issues. After the event ends on Sunday, participants and spectators stick around for a beach sweep to ensure that no trace of trash is left behind.
And this year, the organization secured a water sponsorship from Aquaman actor Jason Momoa’s water company, Mananalu. They’ll be on-site selling water in twist-top aluminum bottles, similar to beach-friendly bottles sold by domestic beer companies. Aluminum is much easier to recycle than plastic, and all of the cans are made from 73% recycled aluminum, creating a more sustainable way to sell single-use water bottles without the plastic.
“This is the first year that we’re really pushing the zero-waste thing … environmental awareness is so important right now,” said Carey Dankers, a Folly Beach real estate agent for Sweetgrass Real Estate, avid surfer of more than 24 years and another member of the Wahine Classic organizing committee. “Surfing is such a euphoric sport, but it’s a mental thing as well, being in touch with the ocean, the dolphins, the waves. You’re connected with the water. It’s very meditative.”
This attitude about the connection between the ocean and the surfers is a common feeling, which is perhaps part of the reason participants place a greater emphasis on environmental issues and keeping the beach clean for humans and marine life.
Between the vibes, the waves, the sense of community and of course, the swag bags full of fun freebies, the Wahine Classic is a special kind of gathering, giving female surfers of all ages space to shred and share time together. And events like this have, in part, helped shift the narrative around surfing to be more inclusive.
“When I started surfing 24 years ago, it was predominantly male. I think there were maybe five of us out on Folly who were female surfers,” Dankers said. “Now, I see just as many women as men. And young girls are rippin’!”
Hutson agrees. “It’s really cool to see more and more women in the water just from day-to-day surfing. I love that. I love seeing younger kids in general but girls also,” she said. “So, there’s definitely a shift. I think that came along with surfing as a whole showing more pro women and allowing more of the feminine side to come out.”
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