Why Byron Bay is the heart of women's surfing in Australia

Lush forests and homesteads on one horizon, and jewel blue waters abundant with sealife on the other, its easy to see why Byron Bay's natural paradise is a magnet for free-spirited souls. We caught up with locals Cass Hurrell and Bree Sorrell to find out more.

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In the turquoise waters of Byron Bay. Photo by Bree Sorrell. 
Lush forests and homesteads on one horizon, and jewel blue waters abundant with sealife on the other, its easy to see why Byron Bay's natural paradise is a magnet for free-spirited souls. "My surfs with girlfriends are never planned," says Cass Hurrell, a resident of Byron. "Living in the Bay it’s assured when you paddle out one or many of our sea sisters are out there, all smiles upon unity, our hearts singing with joy and stoked-ness."

Women surfers are plentiful along the whole Gold Coast of Australia, but there's something about Byron Bay that feels akin to our own surf enclaves in Southern California: the friendly faces, longboard culture, close-knit community, and connection to the natural land. We caught up with two local ladies — Cass Hurrell and Bree Sorrell— about what forces drew them to into Byron Bay, and the sense of belonging.

A natural water baby from Avoca Beach, Cass came to the Bay to visit friends between winters spent in Bali. After her holiday surfing pumping offshore 3-4 foot turquoise waves and resting in the quiet pastures, she packed up her beach shack and found a farmhouse to call her own. “Moving to the Bay, I found it easy to connect. Like-minded humans drawing together, the usual suspects gallivanting between Sydney, Bali and Byron,” Cass says. 

One such lady that Cass met in the water was photographer Bree Sorrell, who lives in Currumbin, one hour north of Byron. “She immediately got chatting to me as if I was a long lost friend, within minutes we were laughing and being silly,” says Bree, who was equally captivated by the Bay's wildlife and energy. “My first time surfing at Byron Bay I had a turtle pass right under me, and then spotted a Koala in the tree above the carpark!" Bree exclaimed. 

These two longboard ladies shared with us the special bond between women in this picturesque cove on the eastern coast of Oz. 

Cass Hurrell, wearing the Hermosa Surf Suit. Photo by Bree Sorrell.

Girls paddle-out. Photo by Bree Sorrell. 

Tell us about Byron Bay’s surf environment. What is it about the wave and the community that make women feel comfortable to learn how to surf and continue their practice?

Cass: Wategos is one of the most sacred waters on the east coast of Australia, with its pristine effectual beauty naturally drawing you in. Even on tiny days when there’s no swell, I paddle out just to sit with the mother ocean’s sea creatures, the local dolphins — a simple enchanting reminder of what is real.

Then you have The Pass. On a good east swell, you can take off behind the rock and ride the dreamy wave, dancing along for 200 meters, or even more. As the waves roll along the sand, there’s enough space for everyone, party wave-ing with your sea sisters and inviting other’s to join in. It’s more of a meeting place for us salty sea sisters (and brothers) who live here, a social sunset “golden hour” ritual, soul feeding goodness ensuring everything else drifts away.

Bree: We are in a time now when women are not just accepted into the water but encouraged and respected and that’s beautiful to see. It’s an expression of elegance and fun and femininity. That is definitely the vibe around here. The people in Byron Bay are generally in a great mood and there isn’t some of the seriousness and ownership that comes with more localized under-exposed breaks.

Most women longboarding these days, whether it be Byron or Gold Coast, tend to share the joy, and encourage each other. It makes you feel like you’ve got sisters out there. It’s not uncommon to woo another lady onto a great wave even if she’s a complete stranger. It’s a beautiful thing, how it should be, not taking it all too seriously.

The majority of Australians grew up around the beaches and coastlines. How does this shape the local identity?

Cass: I was recently down the coast at my dad’s house and I asked him to tell me of when I started surfing. He said “it was like you were born in the ocean, you could read the waves from day one, had no fear and your love was there before you could even walk.” His words warm my heart.

I feel my life is Mother Ocean, living every day in the sea. She is truly my greatest love. My teacher, my nurturer, my healer, my playground. My morning rituals I honor her, I respect her and all that she brings. Off shore amazingness, to howling northerly’s, our love does not hesitate. She’s powerful, yet delicate, harmonizing my mind, body and emotions.

Bree: It definitely teaches you respect for living things and not to take it for granted. I know how lucky I am to live here, but we all have to look after it. We want our great great grandchildren to be able to receive the same joy from nature and our planet that we did. I think it puts things in perspective, having such huge natural beauty around us teaches us that our “problems’ really are not problems and we are a part of something much bigger than us.

Cass Hurrell in the Hermosa surf suit. Photo by Bree Sorrell.
The ocean connects us all. Photo by Bree Sorrell. 

Cass Hurrell in the Hermosa surf suit. Photo by Bree Sorrell.

Bree, how did you get into ocean photography? And how is shooting in Byron inspiring?

Bree: I’ve been photographing in the ocean for just over two years now. It was always meant to be. As a little girl I could have sworn I was a mermaid or a dolphin, spending every minute I could in, on and especially under the water. I have always had a deep fascination with being in the ocean; it has always been so unbelievably magic to me, that underwater world. It’s by far my favorite place on earth.

I guess moving into ocean photography is a natural extension of my love affair with the water. Its colours, textures, and ever changing energy are what draw me in... Every image, every frame I take, is taken because that’s a moment of beauty I have seen, in my eyes, from my heart. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to capture that... I would describe my style as the feminine side to the ocean, capturing images that evoke emotion or a sense of being right there in the picture, and capturing that connection between humans and the sea.

Role models are really important in fostering a community. Are there many women surfer role models in Australia?

Cass: Growing up I never really had a women role model. I spent my days surfing Avoca point, idolizing all who’s out there ripping. It was almost like if you grew up surfing Avoca or around, you born to surf. We’d wake up on sunrise surf anything before and after school. Since moving to Byron, I can genuinely say, that all of our salty sea sisters inspire me. We encourage, we hoot, we share the waves. It’s my social interaction.

Bree: I think in the water in Australia and especially around the east coast where we live, there is such a huge age bracket of surfers out there. I have had some beautiful connections and conversations with the older generation of surfers. The way that the surf industry has turned in the last 30-40 years, we can all learn a great deal from the people who are out there and have lived through the changes. These people have seen a completely different side to surfing and I have the utmost respect for their wisdom and knowledge. Australia is full of inspirational hard-working women. Growing up Layne Beachley was a big role model, not only a surfing champion, but someone girls can actually look up to, humble and grounded. She did a lot for women’s surfing and gave her time to a lot of charities in the community.

Meeting in the waves. Photo by Bree Sorrell.
Cass Hurrell wearing the San-O One-Piece. Photo by Bree Sorrell. 
Bree wearing the Seea Palmas, digs into a fun little wave. 

With so many really amazing surfers in one place, does competitive nature naturally escalate? Can it be friendly vibes all the time?

Cass: The vibe definitely changes when swell hits. On the smaller days, it’s anyone and everyone. It’s joyful, sometimes a little chaotic, yet it goes with the territory. On a decent swell, the crowds are sorted. The energy is alive, adrenalin pumping. Even if you manage to only score a few waves, for me, being present, tuning in vigilantly observing all those tearing a wave apart is just as good.

I find surfing a short board, I’m naturally more competitive. You have to be in the spot, at the right time, opposed to riding a bigger board, where you’re almost guaranteed to catch anything. Growing up surfing Avoca point, on a pumping day, it was super competitive. I remember when I first moved to Byron, I was out The Pass, I learned quickly not to be competitive, that I didn’t have to have every wave. Patience, respect and enjoy. The competitive nature is somewhat always there no matter which break you surf. The majority of the time it’s tasteful and on rare occasions if it’s not, that’s when I’d decide to paddle in, let go and look forward to my next surf.

Bree: The vibe in the point breaks around the east coast here can change, and there’s always going to be a few people who are out for an argument or want to tell you what to do or not to do. But in the end, most days are filled with happy, healthy and supportive people. I have met the love of my life and most of my friends in the water, and surfing with everyone is such a joy and we always make sure we extend that to every person in the water, encouraging everyone no matter what age or stage they’re at. Joy is joy and it rubs off.

What does the sea teach you about yourself and your place in the world as a whole?

Cass: Dancing in the sea on my 9’4, as I trim along I close my eyes, connecting my feet to my board gliding naturally with the sea, I trust. It’s like the sea allows me to just be me. Me for me. Feeding my heart and soul with love, self love. Encouraging me to be the best version of myself. I crave her solitude every day, zen town. There’s a divine time purity when surfing, being in the right place at the right time, just like riding the waves of life. Teaching us that we must trust, truly trust and the rest will follow exactly how it’s meant to.

At the end of the day we are all in the ocean for the same beautiful reason, from anyone who’s learning to surf or have surfed all his or her lives — it connects us all. It’s pure. It’s real. It’s free. And for us lady sliders, the Bay celebrates that. I continuously remind all my friends who are starting out on a board, it’s not about who can stand up, what maneuver you pull off, who can walk the plank and get their toes on the nose… It’s about getting out there every day and enjoy Mother Ocean. Get to know her, talk to her, and enjoy!! Enjoy!!! Enjoy!! Then you’re surfing!

Get out there and have fun! Photo by Bree Sorrell.


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