BELMAR - Surfing traditionally has been a male-dominated sport. In the Northeast, with harsh winters and difficult waves, it's even more so.
The Carissa and Maya Project, put together by Red Bull, is trying to address this issue and inspire young female surfers. The initiative involves Carissa Moore, who's No. 8 in the Association of Surfing Professionals women's rankings, and Maya Gabeira, the top female big-wave rider in the world.
Moore and Gabeira have been mentoring a group of regional female surfers that includes two locals from Ventnor - 16-year-old Brittany Hickey and 15-year-old Cassidy McClain.
The Ventnor teenagers joined five other female surfers in the project: Sara Beveridge of Long Branch; Ryan McGrath of Manasquan; and Quincy Davis, Ariel Engstrom and Alexis Engstrom, all of Montauk, N.Y.
Moore joined them last weekend at the Unsound Women's Pro in Long Beach, N.Y., and Gabeira surfed with them this weekend in Belmar before the Hannah Women's Pro.
"It's just so cool to watch someone who's that good," McClain said of watching Moore. "We saw her do some really amazing maneuvers on small waves. It makes you want to go out and do it."
McClain advanced to the semifinals in Belmar but was eliminated on Saturday. Hickey did not compete this weekend.
Beach Haven native Jamie Baittinger advanced to the finals with Ariel and Alexis Engstrom and Kim Kepich. The action resumes today at 10 a.m. at the 16th Avenue beach, and waves are expected to be near 8 feet high.
Hickey splits her time between Ventnor and Chambersburg, Pa. She has a serious amateur resume and even has beaten her male counterparts at several local events, such as the Absecon Island Surfing Championships. Two weeks ago, she again won the Wahine Division of that contest and took second place in the Junior Men's Division.
McClain has won her regional division of the Eastern Surfing Association and the National Scholastic Surfing Association for the past several years. She also has a promising track and field career at Atlantic City High School, where she is a sophomore.
"She's so motivated," said Joe Keenan, who has evaluated all the surfers as the Northeast Regional Director of the NSSA for 20 years. "I've never seen a girl who wants it so bad. She's just an all-around athlete. She could probably get a track scholarship as well."
Tough for women
Historically, a career in surfing has never been much of an option for local women. In 1977, the ASP ran a nine-stop pro contest circuit for women. Brigantine's Linda Davoli finished the season in fifth place. She notched fourth-place finishes in 1978 and 1979.
In 1980, Davoli competed in the Men's Bali OM Pro, becoming the first woman to beat a man in a pro competition, and finished third in the world on the Women's Tour. She was among the first surfers in the world to explore Indonesia.
"There were so few women who could surf like that, much less women from the Northeast," said Joe Grottola, a longtime friend of Davoli. Grottola and his wife, Lisa Roselli, are now directors of the ESA's South Jersey district.
There were only two events in 1980, and despite making the finals of both, Davoli's earnings were only $1,625. Davoli's last year on the tour was 1981. Pro surfing just wasn't a realistic option for a woman at the time. Davoli is now 54. She lives in Brigantine, continues to surf, and is a respected fishing enthusiast.
"She was doing that stuff before any woman in the world," Roselli said, "but there was only so far it would take them."
Immersed in surfing
The Carissa and Maya Project is meant to change that by fully engaging girls in surfing, moving them around in a van, watching surf videos at night and having them interact with Moore and Gabeira as much as possible.
"I was most impressed by Carissa's down-to-earth personality," Hickey said. "It shows that just because you are famous, you can still be humble about it. She was so easy to talk to, laugh, with and hang out with. She has such a bubbly personality."
This week, Gabeira took the project to New Jersey, where they are free surfing and competing in Belmar. Red Bull rented a house in town where all the women are staying together, sharing meals and experiences.
Most importantly, they are enjoying swell from Hurricane Igor, a category-four hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean. The entire project is being filmed for a future episode of "Transit Chapters" on the MSG channel in the New York area.
"They treat you like a star," McClain said. "There's a camera in your face the whole time. You're hanging out with Carissa and Maya. It's all really cool."
On Friday morning, the group took advantage of the rising swell from Hurricane Igor to surf Long Branch with Gabeira. The waves were 3 to 5 feet, with perfect offshore winds. In front of three video cameras, and two still photographers - one on a personal watercraft - the ladies pushed each other all morning, doing critical turns and finding little barrel sections.
The overall goal of the project is to elevate the level of women's surfing in general in New York and New Jersey, to build the network of serious female waveriders and give them the support they haven't had in the past.
"It was scary at first, getting into a van with a bunch of strangers and cameramen," Hickey said. "You didn't know if you should wave at the camera or act like it wasn't there. I also found it interesting how quickly most of us hit it off on the van ride.
"We had similar personalities and many common interests. We hung out together, surfed, shared a cottage, skateboarded and ate together. So we got to really know each other and create some great new friendships."