Seea ambassador Lauren L. Hill reflects on her nearly two-decade friendship with Leah Dawson in honor of their conversation for Episode 5 of the Waterpeople Podcast.
Words by Lauren L. Hill
Leah Dawson has inspired me for nearly 20 years. Her surfing, her open heart, and bright mind, her willingness to give almost anything a go.
We grew up surfing in longboard contests together along the sleepy Floridian coastline. We blossomed amongst that early 2000s “Blue Crush” women's surfing boom when it felt like things were really going to change for the surf industry; that girls and women might actually be welcomed into surf culture in meaningful ways. But the wave broke and left us all kind of wondering what happened. Where did the support go?
We both went our separate ways, both to study at university, and we both emerged into completely different incarnations of surfing careers. For years, it was as if the surf industry didn't know what do do with Leah. She didn't fit the mold of the two binary options for industry-supported female surfers: lifestyle longboarder or WCT shortboarder. She was always a bit of both. Always kind of in-between. She was always skilled in everything she rode.
A few snapshots of Lauren, Leah, and friends throughout the years.
After years of studying, surfing, and studying surfing, Leah emerged with new boards under her arms: single fin mid-lengths. The process of evolving her surfing, expanding her spiritual self and finding a community of like-minded women on the North Shore gave way to a woman who knew her path.
Now, Leah is pioneering the gap in women’s surfing between longboarding and shortboarding. Blurring the lines. Leah takes an artful and considered approach to riding anything – and her voice has found its place right in the heart of modern surfing.
Leah recently helped to establish The Changing Tides Foundation to empower women and girls through travel and surfing. Changing Tides creates spaces for sisterhoods at home and abroad and runs a diverse set of campaigns, from community composting initiatives, to taking much needed menstrual supplies to girls and women in need.
For Episode 5 of The Waterpeople Podcast we sat down with Leah at a little rental shack just off of Sunset Beach in the quiet lull before a big swell brought the wave roaring to life. My partner Dave and I wanted to create a platform to reflect on the humbling, the beautiful, the scary, thrilling, mind-blowing experiences that have shaped us, and to listen to the experiences of our favorite water people. And then to chat about how we can use those experiences to do better and be better on land. Together.
We wanted an inclusive place to share stories from diverse voices within surfing culture—and from all kinds of water people—from around the world.
We begin each episode with a simple question: “Tell us about a time or experience after which you were never the same…” We sit with some of the most adept water people on the planet to explore common themes of aquatic lives lived well: ecology, adventure, community, activism, science, egalitarianism, inclusivity, meaningful play. And surfing, of course.
I was excited to find out where Leah would take this question, and she definitely surprised me. Over the course of about an hour, we talk about Leah's distinctly feminine interpretation to riding waves, the mentorship that shaped her then, and the love that is shaping her now.
One of the great awakenings for me was to see that that's how dominant patriarchal culture was—that we had internalized those beliefs and turned against ourselves and our sisterhood and that is the great undercutting of any power.
In so many ways, Leah is nurturing the space for the next generations of women to continue bustin’ down the doors of patriarchal norms.
We arrived straight into swell, my dream was coming true right before my eyes. On our way to the waves, I said to the crew, “Let’s make the surf film we always dreamed we could watch when we were growing up and learning to surf—a film that allows viewers to watch over, and over, studying the surfing to learn ways to move up and down the board.”
“No pressure,” Jack Coleman said happily.
The story of “Inner Wild” begins in Malibu, one day that the waves were firing. It was some of the best First Point I had ever seen. As I skimmed the beach for a board to borrow, I ran into an old friend, and someone who I’ve always dreamed of working with, filmmaker Jack Coleman.
Jack is unique. He understands elements of surf filmography that clearly show his studious knowledge of the great flicks made through the ‘60s and ‘70s—films full of soul that invite you to ride along with the waves on the screen. Jack’s focus on utilizing film and long lenses for many years has propelled him into a category of his own.
Filmmaker Jack Coleman
I came in from surfing the Bu after the sun had gone down, riding the biggest wave I’ve ever caught there that stretched from the very outside all the way to the beach. Beaming, Jack said he captured the wave on camera. “Let’s do more,” we agreed. “Let’s go on a trip and make a film.” I truly was speaking a dream out loud, praying it would come true.
A couple of weeks later, I pulled up the surf forecast for Mexico. There it was: a fun-sized swell with good winds. Within hours we had a trip planned and booked with Jack and a handful of Seea Babes.
With his abilities, and the skill of Makala Smith, Karina Rozunk, Mele Saili, and Sarah Brady, I knew all we had to do was ride waves, and Jack’s magic would reveal the dream come true.
When I was growing up, I didn’t have access to women’s surf films. Gidget was all I ever saw of women’s longboarding until Thomas Campbell’s movies came out and Kassia forged a new way forward for women. I wanted a surf film that wasn’t short clips of waves, but one that really allowed me to soak in and study movements and technique. With the talented group of women we had brought together for the project, I had a giddy feeling the entire trip because I knew it was that dream in the making.
We all sat at a taco shop after our first evening surf into pitch dark. “What’s the story?” I asked the group. We all brainstormed that it would be cool to subtly express our inner connectivity to the ocean. By the end of the discussion, two words together stuck with all of us, “Inner Wild.” YES, that’s it.
The days flew by under the bright sun. The waves seemed to just get better and better as the day went on, so we surfed until pitch dark every day, opening the possibility for Jack to utilize a slow-shutter filming technique. Surfing in the dark dusk heightens other senses, relying on muscle memory and intuition to determine the line to take on the wave. As the moon would grow brighter, the wind would settle, and the sounds would only get louder when the sets would come. Otherwise, a soundtrack of evening birds and sea-floor rocks rolling offered a meditation space as we stared out to the darkening horizon.
Each night, we would all gather around the dinner table and watch the videos that Jack took that day. We knew we had gold when all of us would stand for an hour each night watching everyone’s waves. Other friends would stop by, and by our last evening there, we had 15 people glued to the screen. Oohs, Ahhs, and laughter abound.
Following the trip, I recorded a piece I wrote about this "Inner Wild" coming alive inside of us when we are in the sea. Jack performed his editorial magic on the edit, bringing the vibe alive with the music score and tempo of the film. We initially planned to make a short film, but with hours of amazing footage, it was clear that a 20-minute film would give an opportunity to let the footage breathe and whole waves to be shown. Jack and I shared the same vision, a simple story with lots of surfing.
I remember my jaw dropping the first time I watched Jack’s rough cut, which turned out to be the final cut because it was perfect from the start. My inner child’s dream came true, and now we get to share it with you!
Join the Live Online Premiere of "Inner Wild" with us on Sunday, August 18th at 6PM PST!