Wearing her GetShotByElla.com ‘Surf Flower’ tank tee on the beach near Florida’s Sebastian Inlet, recreational surfer Tammie Knight is heading with her board for the water. When asked to share some surfing stories with GetShotByElla.com, she smiles and says, “I want to emphasize I am not a great surfer; I am just someone who likes to be in the water.”
Tammie has been part of the surf scene at the internationally renowned surf destination since 1978. Although she grew up near beaches in Boca Raton and West Palm and had always wanted to surf, it wasn’t until after she left home and was in her late teens that she saved up for a board and tried it.
Tammie Knight captured at a surfing tournament circa 1978
Tammie was inspired by American world surfing champion the late Rell Sunn of Hawaii. Sunn and other women surfers were beginning to gain notoriety in the sport. However, Tammie recollects that Florida surfing at that time was a male dominated pastime. “Surfing wasn’t as culturally acceptable for girls in Florida then. It wasn’t considered ladylike,” Tammie explains, adding that her parents never saw her surf.
It wasn’t easy for Tammie trying to learn the sport either. “Basically, you bought a board and then just went out there and taught yourself,” Tammie remarks.
The innate competitiveness involved in catching a wave when the water is crowded sometimes led to unpleasant exchanges. “Guys made fun of women in the water then. They’d paddle in front of me and take the wave. I’ll never forget this. My first wave that I caught at the Sebastian Inlet, I stood up on a wave, and I finally caught it. There was a guy surfing behind me, and I probably cut him off. He picked me up and my board and threw me off the wave! True story!” she reveals with a smile.
“When I got started, a lot of the girls surfing the waves with me were the girlfriends of guys who surfed because they got tired of sitting on the beach watching. There were very few girls who went to the beach by themselves to surf, but I was one of them. I’d get in my car and go. Learning to surf in South Florida, I realized I had to travel. So I drove up every chance I could get to the Sebastian Inlet, where the most consistent and best wave break exists around here. Spanish House, about 2 miles north of the Sebastian Inlet is also a good surf spot, and then there is another good break called Whitey’s. It’s just a little bit South of Whitey’s Bait Shop on State Road A-1-A. It’s a fun break. Also, on the South Side of the Inlet, where I surfed a lot when I was younger is Monster Hole. There’s a reason it’s named Monster Hole, the big sharks,” Tammie discloses.
Flipping her surf board, Tammie points to several sharply defined bite marks on its rail. “Today I have my lucky board, my blue board. About two years ago, I encountered something unexpected, probably a small bull shark, inside Spanish House. It put these bites on the side on the rail. There were about 3 or 4 foot waves. I was paddling back out, and it was just bumpy with a lot of white water.
I duck dived or I did something, and somehow I went off my board. I thought ‘what a dumb move’ as I got back on my board. Suddenly, I was bumped off my board again. My board was further away from me this time. I didn’t feel good. I had real bad vibes. I grabbed my leash, pulled my leash close to me, and paddled back in. I just didn’t feel right. As I was looking at my board, I could see the bite marks right on that rail. It’s an epoxy board which is harder to bite than a typical fiberglass board. So this is my lucky board,” she states.
As her skills improved, Tammie began entering contests, seeking friendships among a network of women who shared her commitment to the sport. “Even when the pro surf contests started coming to Florida, they always had to have bikini contests. That was considered the girls competition. Later, in the 1980’s to about 1990, when I was surfing in ESA, the Eastern Surfing Association for amateur surfing, the girls’ divisions were always on Sunday, the second day of the contest, late in the day at 4 in the afternoon. Then we might have 2 heats. The other problem was trying to find judges for the girls’ competitions,” she notes.
Tammie credits world champion Frieda Zamba, a Flagler Beach, Florida native, with turning the tide for women surfers in the State. “Frieda changed things. She wore baggies and was aggressive. She surfed quote ‘like a guy.’ She’s the one that really did it. She won world championship titles in surfing and made people start taking notice of women in the sport,” she points out. The impact of another world champion Pam Burridge of Australia also contributed to positive changes for women surfers, according to Tammie. “In the 1980’s, the girls started turning it around and saying, ‘hey, we can surf as good as the guys.’”
Zamba and other women champions also influenced surfing attire. Surf clothing companies started making lines with women’s options. Tammie elaborates, “Do you know how hard it was back then to get a bathing suit to surf in? The lifeguard or swimmer style suits were slick and would slide on the board. The two piece suits were hard to keep in place. There were no rash guards, except in the surf contests, but you couldn’t just go in a store and get them. Rash guards or surf skins really started with the surf contests. They were different colors to identify surfers in the contests. You had to go with a bikini, but it had to be the kind that you could tie on the side, in the back of the neck, as well as in the back. There were no board shorts for girls. Frieda wore boy’s shorts.”
Tammie has traveled to many surfing spots outside of Florida, including California, Mexico, Hawaii, and Elbow Cay in the Bahamian Islands. Four years ago, she sent herself to surf camp at Witches Rock in Costa Rica. Tammie participated in her last surf contest at age 40, the Sisters of the Sea Competition in Jacksonville, Florida.
Surfing has brought Tammie many life adventures. “I met
Tammie Knight cathches a wave in the mid 1980’s
my ex husband when I was surfing in a contest. He was bitten by a shark, and I rescued him! One of my fondest memories is my first barrel ride, where the wave hollows out and you’re on the inside. It’s the hardest to surf really. I was about 21 and surfing at Ft Pierce, Florida. I actually had a couple guys paddle up to me and say ‘good barrel.’ For then, that was like going for the gold! Winning my first contest, the Sea Horse Contest in Vero Beach, Florida when I was about 23 and being in the local newspaper, was also very exciting.”
Reflecting on insights gleaned over her years surfing, she summarizes, “Intuition is real big in surfing. Sometimes I can wake up in the morning, and the air just feels right. I don’t know how to explain. I guess it’s all the years I’ve been in the water. Surfing can be a very humbling sport. It’s a leveling field, an equalizer. It’s also very empowering. To me, it’s magical. There is closeness to the creator God. Just when you ride that perfect wave, and you’re trying and trying, and you finally get that wave, it’s just such a high. It’s so emotional. It’s like your gift to God and God’s gift to you. It’s a very personal special thing. It’s so challenging. It’s such a hard sport, but it’s so rewarding.”
These days Tammie, a science teacher, doesn’t see too many of the women she surfed with in her twenties still in the water, but she does share the waves with some of her students, boys AND girls. “I’ll be out surfing, and they’ll be there. Girls are highly encouraged to surf today, and the equipment is better. They have a lot more opportunity with surf camps, instructors and many more competitions. I’m so excited about that. There are girls today like Bethany Hamilton that are really good.”