'I want to be surfing when I'm 80 and beyond' - 5 women reveal the benefits of taking up the sport later in life

Surfing for beginners may seem like an activity for those in their teens and 20s - but that's far from the case, as these five UK women reveal

Side by side view of four of five women featured in various surfing poses, representing surfing for beginners
(Image credit: (from left to right): Becky Loto, Amy Hodson, Stacy Barneveld-Taylor, Frances Carter)

After surfing made its Olympic debut in Tokyo in 2020, the sport enjoyed a boom in popularity with 1.4 million people riding the waves in the year following those Games, according to Surfing England. With surfing returning to the Paris Olympics this summer – in the irresistible location of Teahupo'o in Tahiti – even more of us may be tempted to take to the board. 

But perhaps you think surfing is the preserve of athletic young men, effortlessly riding the rough waves of Newquay. When it comes to age and gender, the reality is a lot more diverse than you might think. Surfing England found that not only has surfing participation more than doubled in six years, but now almost as many women as men are trying the sport. And it’s not just teens and twenty-somethings – around 40% of Surfing England’s Facebook followers are aged 45 and over. 

This interest during midlife is no coincidence – as a swimming workout, it ticks all the boxes for women in their 40s, 50s and beyond. Surfing is a great low-impact cardio exercise that works the upper body (thanks to lots of paddling), the lower body and core. It improves balance and flexibility, and can even lessen the symptoms of menopause. Fans also rave about its mental health benefits – the ‘in the moment’ mindfulness, exhilaration and Zen-like calm that surfing can bring.

Once you start, it’s hard to give up. Gwynedd Haslock became Britain’s first female surf champion in 1969. Now age 79, she still surfs off the Cornish coast whenever possible. Nancy Meherne, a legend in her native New Zealand after taking up surfing in her late 30s, was still catching waves a few months before she passed away in 2022 at the age of 93. Inspired to try this sport for yourself? Here, woman&home speaks to five women about surfing later in life, and how it benefits their body and mind.  

"Moving around in cold water helps with my hormones"

Elizabeth Blackman, 45, London

Elizabeth Blackman

(Image credit: Elizabeth Blackman)

While travelling around Bali a year ago, Elizabeth Blackman heard about a nearby surf retreat with the Women + Waves collective. On the spur of the moment she signed up, keen for a reason to extend her trip and learn the basics of a sport she’s always admired. In the past twelve months, she has surfed the beaches of Newquay and Fistral in Cornwall, and Croyde in Devon; visited Bristol’s inland surf lake The Wave; and has an upcoming surf trip to Costa Rica in the diary.

As she progresses from beginner level, she’s feeling its effects. “It definitely helps me focus on my fitness. Now at the gym, burpees and press-ups are great to do. I also practise hanging from a bar so I can keep up my paddle fitness when out of the water,” she says. “Plus, I think moving around in cold water helps with my hormones.”

It's a common theory - and one that UCL researchers proved earlier this year in a study of over 1100 women. Findings showed that menopausal women experienced "significant" benefits of cold water swimming, including improvements in anxiety, mood swings, low mood, and hot flushes. Over half of the women surveyed specifically started wild swimming to deal with the symptoms. 

For Blackman, surfing is a great excuse to escape from London life and put herself in a different headspace. “Being in the water, against the elements, really is a tonic. When you’re waiting [for a wave] it feels a million miles away from day-to-day life – it’s a great stress reliever and brilliant for daydreaming.”

Although it’s not always dreamy. “I’ve had moments where I’ve been freaked out that a wave is too big, or that I can't catch my breath on the paddle out. It can get exhausting but it’s all part of learning the sport – it’s part of the fun too.”

Alongside Women + Waves, Blackman has joined other all-female and London-based surf groups. “I’ve made loads of new friends and meet up with them outside of surfing,” she says. “The community is great – surfers stick together and love to talk about their hobby.”

And her advice for anyone considering taking up surfing at this age? “Do it!” she urges. “Most of the fear and doubt is in your mind, not in the water.”

"The best natural buzz"

Amy Hodson, 47, South Wales

Amy Hodson

(Image credit: Amy Hodson)

When surfing became part of Amy Hodson’s life four years ago, it was a lifesaver. She had spent years struggling to sustain both her childcare business and her marriage, which resulted in a dependency on alcohol and nearly losing everything. After a stint in rehab, where she met her new partner, she embraced an active, outdoor lifestyle which included learning to surf at The Wave. Of her first lesson, she remembers: “I thoroughly enjoyed every second and it didn’t take long until I was hooked.”

Hodson and her partner would regularly mix lessons with practising at their local beach, Rest Bay in Porthcawl. After a couple of years spent improving her technique – including facing her fears amidst the big waves of Portugal – she now considers herself an intermediate-level surfer. She finds it physically challenging but ultimately rewarding: “Learning to surf can be frustrating at times but I’m grateful that I still have my fitness on my side – I can hold my own during a surf session and not feel too achy the next day.”

But it goes beyond the physical benefits for Hodson. “For me, mental wellbeing is such an important focus. I’m learning to balance the things in my life that help keep me sober – and this is one of the main benefits of surfing. 

“Being up early on a sunny morning, in the glistening water with my wetsuit on, I close my eyes and breathe it all in. Then that sweet moment when the wave picks you up and you're up on your feet bombing across the wave, is just the best natural buzz. [Then afterwards] warming up with a cup of green tea, with your body tingling and tired, is perfect and keeps me coming back for more.”

Hodson is now six years sober and has turned her therapeutic hobby of handweaving into a full-time small business, which complements her relaxed surfing lifestyle. She surfs most weekends around south Wales, north Devon and at The Wave, where she has forged supportive new friendships through the women-only ‘Sister Sessions’. 

She believes women of any age should give surfing a go: “Absolutely do it, it's never too late. So many women over 45 are starting to surf. Age is just a number; it's how you feel that counts. I'm so grateful to have found surfing at this time of my life.”  

"I feel as if I'm flying"

Becky Loto, 53, Cornwall

Becky Loto

(Image credit: Becky Loto)

Becky Loto’s father loved the sea – whether he was taking his daughter bodyboarding or swimming in Falmouth, Cornwall, every day right up until he passed away when Loto was 48. “After my dad died, I decided to try surfing as my way of remembering him in his happy place,” she says.

But even though she considered herself sporty, she found surfing hard to learn: “I had the strength to reach ‘out back’ [where the wave starts] but didn’t have the skill to catch a wave back to shore,” she explains. “Also, being one of few women was when imposter syndrome kicked in and I wondered what the hell I was doing among younger, skilled male surfers.” 

Signing up for lessons at the Newquay Women’s Surf Club was a game-changer for her surfing, she admits. She still has frustrating days, but “when everything goes right and you catch a wave perfectly, there’s no other sensation in the world. It gives me an incredible high – I feel as if I'm flying and could conquer the world! I know that I deserve my place in the line-up [the queue for a wave].”

Nowadays, Loto surfs most weekends throughout the year, finding it benefits her physical and mental health enormously. “It doesn't matter how many times I go to the gym or walk the coast path, there’s nothing quite as exhausting as surfing,” she says. It gives her mental space too: “Waiting for the next set of waves to come in allows me to have quiet time, giving me the space to reflect on things and think about my dad. I often come back to shore with some brilliant business ideas which I never would have had if I were sitting at my desk. It’s also taught me to be patient, which is one of the hardest things I’ve learned in surfing.”

Loto has forged many new friendships through her sociable surf club, and on surfing trips. “Being part of a community of people who adore being in the ocean is mind-blowingly wonderful. Travelling on surf trips with women of diverse backgrounds and ages but with a common love of surfing creates a special bond, which is hard to describe but absolutely magical.”

"I want to be surfing when I'm 80 and beyond"

Stacy Barneveld-Taylor, 62, Devon

Stacy Barneveld-Taylor

(Image credit: Stacy Barneveld-Taylor)

Originally hailing from Los Angeles, Stacy Barneveld-Taylor was a water sports enthusiast for most of her life, but it wasn’t until she neared her 60th birthday that she turned her attention to surfing. She and her wife Petra had both grown-up near the beach (southern California and Tenerife respectively) so after falling in love with Devon on holiday, they moved to the north Devonshire coast. “I had just turned 60 and I thought, I want to be surfing as an older woman – staying fit and enjoying the sea,” says Barneveld-Taylor. “I just really missed being in the ocean, I find it very healing.”

She threw herself into her new hobby, buying second-hand surfboards and cheap wetsuits. “The very first time I was in the surf on my board, I fell off – a lot! But those moments when I was able to stand up and ride the whitewater for a bit was so exciting.”

She’s currently taking lessons with North Devon Surf School on their council-funded programme for people over 55. “It’s to get us into the sea for the blue health benefits and to have fun – it’s really helped my surfing progress. Now, on occasion, I can take off on green [unbroken] waves and ride the face [the smooth front] which is really cool. It’s still exciting and I scream like a girl when I get an awesome wave!”

Stacy and Petra Barneveld-Taylor

Stacy and Petra Barneveld-Taylor try to surf at least once a week at their local beach. 

(Image credit: Stacy Barneveld-Taylor)

Barneveld-Taylor credits surfing with improving her fitness and endurance. She explains, “Now that I’ve been surfing regularly for about 18 months, I feel amazing. I have some old orthopaedic injuries from my firefighting career, so strength training in the gym, a spin class and a yoga workout once a week help my body stay flexible and strong for surfing and reduce my risk of injury. I’m very diligent about doing a good stretch-out and warm-up before I go in the surf. 

“Also, being postmenopausal, my body doesn't respond to certain types of exercise like it did when I was younger, so I adjust what works and what doesn't. 

As a couple, the Barneveld-Taylors try and surf at least once a week all year round at their local beaches Westward Ho! and Saunton Sands – often accompanied by surfboard ‘Rell’, named in honour of Hawaiian longboard champion Rell Sunn. 

“Our social life has expanded dramatically,” she says of joining the local surf community. “It’s been an amazing journey of meeting the most beautiful and diverse tribe of women surfers of all ages and abilities, although I’m the elder at the moment. Two awesome women surfers we used to watch at Westward Ho! are now our best friends.”

But sometimes it’s just about the ocean. “To be honest, it doesn't even matter if I don't catch a single wave, because being in the sea can be so nourishing for my soul. I want to be surfing when I'm 80 and beyond.”

"They leave grinning from ear to ear"

Frances Carter, 62, Cornwall

Frances Carter

(Image credit: Frances Carter)

Although Frances Carter wasn’t a latecomer to surfing (she took up the sport in her late 20s), her relationship with surfing reached a milestone in her 40s when she opened Hibiscus Surf School in Newquay, as Europe’s first women-only surf school. Lessons are taught by women for women, covering not just technical skills but surf etiquette, water confidence and respect for the ocean. 

Carter, who learnt to surf while living and working in Devon as a lifeguard, now lives in Cornwall and still surfs regularly at the age of 62. “I’ve not had to adapt anything as I’ve got older – I’m still surfing the same size board as I did back in my 20s. Surfing, plus my time as a lifeguard and fitness instructor, has kept me fit and I’m fortunate to have not had any injuries.”

Alongside coaching at Hibiscus, running her sports therapy clinic, training first aiders, and teaching Pilates and aqua aerobics classes, she tries to surf at least once a week – despite the unpredictable British weather. “If I was living in Barbados I would go out every day!” she admits. “I always go on holiday where I can surf, usually Australia where I have a lot of friends.”

While Carter doesn’t believe it’s essential to be super fit, she says it helps to prepare: “I recommend you try and get upper body fit, do Pilates and yoga, and go swimming because it’s exhausting going in and out of the surf – that can be a real shock to first-timers.”

Carter agrees that the mental health benefits can be huge. “It’s not just about surfing for me, it’s about being in the ocean. Even if I’m not surfing, I’m swimming every day. There’s so much evidence suggesting that being in the sea increases endorphins.” And the social aspect is also a big draw: “The surf school has kept friendships alive – we have people coming back each year and catching up with old friends. They leave grinning from ear to ear.”

In the past couple of decades, Carter has noticed attitudes towards female surfers are changing for the better with both men and women of all abilities supporting each other. If you want to be part of it, she says, “You’re never too old for anything. Your brain is the barrier, not your age.”

How to start surfing for beginners 

Try a lesson

  • Hibiscus in Newquay runs female-led surfing for beginners lessons and lessons for all abilities. Alternatively, apply for North Devon Surf School’s programme for over 55s.
  • Tech-powered surfing lake The Wave in Bristol runs lessons for beginners and beyond. It’s a similar set-up at Lost Shore in Edinburgh, a new surf lake due to open in September 2024.
  • Britain’s official surfing bodies Surfing England, Scottish Surfing Federation and the Welsh Surfing Federation can help you find accredited surf schools, clubs and qualified coaches across the country to help you get into surfing for beginners.

Join a club

  • There’s been a boom in all-female surf collectives around the UK – examples include Women + Waves and Surf Sistas in Cornwall, Yonder in North Tyneside and London’s LNDN Surfgirl Community. Groups like these arrange meet-ups, surf holidays and often run lessons and courses on surfing for beginners. Google ‘women-only surf club’ to find one near you. 
Kerry Law
Freelance Writer

Kerry is a freelance writer covering health, fitness and wellbeing. With bylines in several national publications alongside woman&home - including Stylist, Red, Metro, Good Housekeeping and more. She has written about the latest news and trends in exercise, nutrition, mental wellbeing, alternative health, ecotherapy, health tech, relationships...in fact, anything that impacts our bodies and minds. Outside of work, she can be found doing her most important job (parenting) while trying to squeeze in time for exercise and escaping into nature whenever possible.