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Taking Charge

Meet the women steering surf boats as the sport celebrates 25 years of women’s participation

When Raylene Symons entered the George Bass Surf Marathon, she didn’t realise she would be making history. In fact, the veteran surf boat rower recalls being shocked there had never been an all-female team in the biennial event’s 44-year history, of which the past 25 years women have competed.

“I said, ‘You’re kidding, right?’”

The Bass is the only long-distance event in surf boats. It is a gruelling 190 kilometres over 7 days along NSW’s south coast. Four rowers and one sweep are in the boat at all times, rotating through a team of six to eight rowers. It’s pretty intense:

Female crews have competed previously, but there had never before been a female sweep leading female rowers.

2:30am wakeups. Bi-weekly drives from Brisbane to the Gold Coast to train. Once they discovered they would be making history, the Maroochydore Black Swans were committed.

“It was that mindset: ‘what we do we need to do, how do we make it happen?’. No question,” Symons said.

In addition, this achievement was another step forward for the sport which only embraced female participation 25 years ago. As a novice sweep in Maroochydore three years ago, she struggled to gain support.

“I learnt from Youtube videos because no-one would mentor me.”

This experience is far from Beck Hamilton’s, the sport’s most decorated and longest-running female sweep. While she remembers disrespect from the “old-school boys” when she started rowing in 1996, she was well-supported when she picked up the sweep oar eleven years ago.

“I was never treated like ‘Oh, you’re a girl,’ I was just treated like a new sweep,” Hamilton said.

“My actual problem was I had so much help, I didn’t know who to listen to. Every time I came in from a race, people would run over and give advice.”

Hamilton made history alongside Symons at The Bass this year, skippering a female crew from Moruya.

Sweeping The Bass has long-been a bucket list goal, and getting to compete in an all-female crew shows how far the sport has come, she says.

“To win a female medal is exactly the same as winning a male medal. There is genuine equality in our sport, and I feel really proud about it. A lot of it has been driven by the men.”

Last year, of the 328 crews competing at the annual Australian Surf Rowers’ League competition, 131 were in female divisions. In 2014, there were 177 female crews out of 488. While the sport has gotten smaller, the proportion of female crews has grown.

The introduction of two new female divisions has been credited with this growth, but both women believe the role of female sweeps is integral to maintaining increased female participation.

Symons facilitated social events with the understanding that close bonds would improve team performance, an insight she believes is characteristic of female coaches. She thinks the numbers could stack up better.

“If 50% of our rowers are female, but only 1% of our sweeps are, we’re missing a massive opportunity for growth,” she said.

Hamilton agrees that female sweeps provide alternate perspectives.

“Female and male coaches are just different. Being a girl coaching girls and understanding things that happen is something of benefit. Girls want to be good, especially in a tough sport, so I just coach them to be the best they can be.”

This sentiment is supported by Nicole Lavoi, PhD, director of the Tucker Center for Girls & Women and strong supporter of female coaches.

“When you see women being successful, it inspires people. ‘Oh, I could do that. That seems cool, she seems cool, I want to do that.’ And in they come. It’s the same thing with women in positions of leadership.”

Hamilton has been mentoring new female sweeps and estimates there will be a handful more female sweeps competing in the coming years.

Symons is looking forward to this future.

“It’s going to become a lot more commonplace to see women at the back of the boat, to the point where it’s no longer a big deal.”

Story by Ella Smith – WSA Digital Media

Unfortunately, the George Bass Surf Marathon was cancelled after two days due to hazardous bushfire smoke. The competitors, all trained lifesavers, spent the rest of the week they would have spent rowing on the south coast, helping out the devastated communities.

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