On Surfing

Rhonda Harper

Illustration by Matt Titone

To call Rhonda Harper fierce would be an understatement, but as a woman who reconstituted the arc of what it means to be a surfer as the founder of Black Girls Surf, she’s due for a sea of praise. In turn, she’s helped articulate some of the most haunting questions about surf culture and why it remains so homogenous.

Can you describe one of the most challenging aspects of surfing to you?

The most challenging thing about surfing for me is my health. I was  injured in the military, so severely that I was told I’d never surf again. It took 15 years for the VA to approve the surgery. Eventually, I’d ignore the doctor’s orders and attend a surf camp for veterans, AmpSurf. Dana Cummings was so patient, and his crew definitely made my life much better. I attended the camp until I was confident enough to go out on my own. A couple of years later, while I was surfing at Manresa State Park, I lost my vision temporarily. I was terrified. I would find out later that I had a rare chronic illness, intracranial hypertension. This illness causes me the biggest pause for getting in the water, but also it empowers me to overcome my fears and just get in.

I’m a personal fitness trainer. I have been for years. I’m constantly learning new ways to change the body, and this is helping me with mastering my own health issues as well as helping others.

Has surfing afforded you anything in life? If so, what?

I was an extremely angry kid growing up. My nickname is “Rocky,” which was bestowed on me by my father. There was a lot of trauma in my life before I left for Hawaii. After teaching myself to surf, there was a calmness and a newfound sense of achievement. It was a very empowering experience for me as a kid. I knew then that I could do anything.

How long can you go without surfing?

That’s a fairly easy question to answer as it’s recently become an issue. I was an employed union carpenter a couple of years ago. I was working on the new Stanford Hospital when my right hand was caught in a rotor drill. The doctors said there would be multiple surgeries in my future. That’s when I decided to concentrate on Black Girls Surf, as I knew I would have to be still and out of work for a while. I am just now getting back in the water after two surgeries.

To say it was difficult would be an understatement. The feeling that I get in the water is like no other feeling I have ever had. The one thing I’ve learned throughout the recovery process for my hand is how much I took the water for granted. At one point in Senegal, with all the pressure of this sudden growth and notoriety, I jumped off the boat fully clothed. I re-emerged energized and felt a sense of calm wash over me once again.

How and when did you fall in love with surfing?

I fell in love with surfing as a young child who was completely enchanted by the ‘Beach Blanket Bingo’ movies and ‘Gidget.’ I had a paper route as a kid, and I would spend my money on surfing magazines. When I was sent to Hawaii, I emptied my green hope chest that my parents had purchased for me and filled it with surf magazines, art supplies, and journals. I wasn’t worried about clothing, as I knew that I could purchase clothes there, but I wasn’t sure about the magazines.

What’s one of your pre/post-surf rituals you hold dear?

My pre-surf ritual consists of my inner-voice telling me that this is the first day of the last day of my life and to enjoy the moment whatever it may bring. My post-surfing ritual is finding the best grinds and enjoying the feeling of accomplishment over an extremely warm meal. And if I’m in Santa Cruz, Mr. Toots is a must.

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On Surfing is generously supported by our friends at McTavish

Michael Adno

Michael is a writer and photographer born in Florida as a first-generation American to Austrian and South African parents. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Bitter Southerner, and The Surfer’s Journal among other magazines.

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