Before she moved to Oceanside, Calif., from Oregon in 2014, Danielle Black Lyons had grown accustomed to being the only woman in the water whenever and wherever she surfed.
Now, the 36-year-old is devoted to the needs of her large and expanding community of "surf sisters" as the incoming president of San Diego Surf Ladies.
The nonprofit surf club was formed in 2004 to create a supportive community for women surfers. The group now has more than 250 members, ages 18 to mid-60s, from Imperial Beach to Huntington Beach.
San Diego Surf Ladies hosts eight to 10 events a month including beginning, intermediate and advanced surf sessions; group coaching events; surfing trips to Baja, Orange, L.A. and Ventura counties; social events; beach cleanups; fundraisers for local charities; and photo sessions. It also hosts surfing sessions and lessons for women just starting out in the sport.
"I feel like we cater to all skill levels from beginners to advanced, young to old. We tick all the boxes in terms of our inclusivity," Black Lyons said.
Valerie Juboori, 49, joined the organization three years ago and now the La Jolla property manager said she hits the waves with her fellow Surf Ladies club members almost every day.
She said it's a welcome difference from her childhood in the Dominican Republic, where she was one of only two girl surfers on the island in the 1980s.
"When a friend told me about the Surf Ladies I thought, 'how awesome to find a group of like-minded women who love to surf and get out in the water with each other,' " Juboori said. "It's so welcoming and empowering for women. I never had that growing up. I think for women coming into surfing, it's a great group to belong to."
San Diego Surf Ladies was started in 2004 by local surfer Jennifer James (now Simmonson), who said that from the time she started surfing in 1996, she had only come across two other women surfers.
She wanted to find other women to surf and create a positive community with and she wanted to have the club recognized by the national Coalition of Surfing Clubs.
Within just two weeks of posting a notice for women surfers on the Surfline.com community forum, 24 members signed up. Simmonson credits the 2002 feature film "Blue Crush," about a group of competitive girl surfers in Hawaii, with fueling a dramatic increase in women's surfing.
"It was amazing," she said. "I think 2004 was the real tipping point. The energy was so phenomenal. I never expected that."
The club and its membership earned credibility by bringing in industry speakers, including pro female and male surfers, board shapers and leaders of other clubs. And as membership grew, product makers rallied to sponsor the club, Simmonson said.
Over time it expanded, earned nonprofit status and built a huge calendar of events. Juboori and Black Lyons both say they were attracted to the organization because it was so active and well organized.
"I liked what they were about – a lot of powerful women who have their stuff together," said Black Lyons, who stepped into the her one-year term as president in September, along with new vice president Camille Cunningham.
Many of the club's members are moms of young children, like 44-year-old Jenny Bonham of Oceanside. She grew up in Ventura County where she never learned to surf as a teen because the male surfers in the area didn't have the time or interest to teach her.
"I was told to shut up and stay on the sand," said Bonham. "I was always at the beach but it was like my nose was pressed up against the glass wanting to get out there and surf but never being able to."
After moving to San Diego, Bonham finally plucked up the courage to start surfing at age 30. Fourteen years later, she admits with a laugh that she's still "pretty horrible." But that doesn't make any difference to the women she's been surfing with at Oceanside Harbor over the past year.
"It's a really welcoming environment," Bonham said. "As females, especially my age, you're not welcomed in the water. You're not encouraged. But if I see a sister out there who wants to surf, we're immediate friends. I'm going to hook her up and I'm going to help her out."
Bonham runs the Surf Ladies' "mom swap" program in Oceanside. It allows members with young children – hers are ages 4 and 8 – to alternate taking care of each others' kids on the shore while the others surf.
When her oldest child was born eight years ago, she longed to get back on her surfboard, but as a Marine Corps wife, Bonham said she didn't have any friends in the area to ask for child-care help.
Eventually she met a fellow surfing mom who watched her infant son for an hour while she caught a few waves and she remembers walking out of the water that day sobbing with joy.
After returning last year from a five-year deployment in Japan with her husband and children, she joined San Diego Surf Ladies and launched the mom swap. The regular group of about seven moms now meet for surf sessions one to three times a week with usually five to 10 children in tow.
"It's been a game-changer for me," Bonham said. "Surfing is the only true thing I do for me and these women are so phenomenal. We've become such good friends."
Membership in San Diego Surf Ladies costs $40 a year, which entitles members to group discounts on coaching lessons and products from club sponsors.
One of the most popular features of membership is access to the organization's private Facebook group page, where women can post invitations for impromptu meetups for last-minute surf sessions.
"Surfing will always be a male-dominated sports so it's hard to find sisters for off-the-cuff sessions. But with the Facebook group you can always get two or three people to come out and you can find someone who matches up with your skill level," Black Lyons said.
Because of its limited budget, San Diego Surf Ladies doesn't host events for children because it can't afford the liability cost. But because so many members are mothers, the organization supports local children's charities like the Girls Rising Mentor Program and Boys to Men Mentoring Network.
The club also encourages the expansion of girls' surfing so that one day women won't be as heavily outnumbered in the waves as they are now.
"It's so fun having the kids out there with us," Black Lyons said. "They're so stoked."
San Diego Surf Ladies programs include:
Team Shaka: An all-levels meetup for new members and beginners held twice a month, including one session in North County and one in South County.
Team Waikiki: A monthly longboard wave-sharing event designed for new members and beginners.
Team Shredders: A monthly shortboard session for intermediate surfers.
Team Coaching: Monthly group coaching sessions in Del Mar with Fulcrum Surf School.
For more information on San Diego Surf Ladies, visit its website at sandiegosurfladies.com.