In the surfing world, the story of Linda Sharp is nothing short of legendary. In 1967, when Linda first embraced the waves off the coast of Wales, she was a pioneer, a fearless woman surfer in a sea of men. Her journey through the surfing world, filled with victories, unconventional gear, and environmental challenges, is a testament to her unwavering determination and love for the sport.
A Humble Beginning
At 15, Linda Sharp discovered her passion for surfing at Aberavon in Neath Port Talbot, Wales. Back then, she didn’t have access to high-tech surf gear. Instead, she bravely rode the waves wearing a rugby shirt, cutoff jeans, plimsolls, and rubber gloves. It was a far cry from the sleek wetsuits and advanced equipment we see today.
Linda often competed against men in surf competitions because there were no other women surfers in her region. She recalls, “I grew up as one of the boys, then quickly learnt that I could paddle faster than most. I could surf as good as any of them in the water.”
A Relentless Pursuit
Linda’s surfing journey began with borrowed boards from her lifeguard colleagues. Her first wave was a revelation. “I 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 have her board, she sold her bike to fund the purchase. Her board was over 9 feet long, and she would walk to the beach with it on her head until her father ingeniously attached wheels to it.
Challenges Beyond the Waves
Surfing in the late ’60s and ’70s was not as glamorous as today. Linda braved the frigid waters of the Welsh coast without a wetsuit until Christmas of 1968. When she finally acquired one, it was far from the sleek, comfortable wetsuits we have today. These were scuba diving suits, known for their quirky “beaver tail”-style flap, with a front zip and two little knobs on the front.
Linda remembers them as being less than ideal. “Everyone would leave that tail thing open, and if you had a bad wipeout, your trousers would just fly off,” she chuckled.
Overcoming Pollution and Adversity
Surfing wasn’t just about battling cold waters and unconventional gear for Linda. The waters she surfed in were heavily polluted tainted with raw sewage and industrial waste. Her home beach was located at the convergence of Tawe, Afan, and Neath, infamous for its pollution.
“The pollution levels were terrible, and I grew up in it,” she recalled. While many surfers fell ill due to the polluted waters, Linda suffered nothing 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.”
During the 1980s British Masters surfing competition at Aberavon, many competitors fell seriously ill due to the polluted conditions.
Linda didn’t enter the world of competitive surfing until 1975, almost a decade after she started surfing. By chance, the Welsh nationals were held at her home beach that summer, and she seized the opportunity to compete.
“I was the only girl entry, so it was a win by default, but I insisted on going in against the blokes,” she proudly said. She made it to the semi-finals but was eventually ousted because the organizers were selecting the team for the European championships. Ironically, the men who replaced her were the ones she had previously defeated.
Nonetheless, this championship marked the beginning of Linda’s illustrious surfing career, during which she clinched numerous Welsh, British, and European titles. “I’ve always 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 women weren’t interested,” she lamented. “It wasn’t a trendy thing to do.”
A Trailblazer’s Legacy
Linda continued to break boundaries despite the lack of female surfers and gear designed for women until the 1980s. In 1976, she was invited to the Women’s International Surfing Association (WISA) championship in Malibu, California, a competition established to address gender inequalities. Although Linda appreciated the camaraderie among women surfers, she found the competition overwhelming.
Unfortunately, she couldn’t afford to continue pursuing international surfing due to financial constraints. Linda became a physical education teacher, and, after having her daughter Angharad in 1996, she ran a surf shop in Porthcawl with her husband.
Today, Linda’s surfing days are behind her due to arthritis and hip replacements, but her legacy as a fearless pioneer and champion of women’s surfing lives on. Linda Sharp’s remarkable journey through the waves is a testament to the enduring spirit of those who dare to ride the tides of change.