Finding Solace Beyond The Shoreline

Story originally published on Coastalwatch for Canon

BELINDA BAGGS. The elegance and purity of her demeanor in the water is not possessed by many. It’s a look, a feeling, a vibe that transcends the lens and onto paper too. The Newcastle girl, grew up thinking, no, knowing the ocean was her home. Not only is she famously recognised with a Surfers’ Journal cover but also dropping into huge slab waves with only a pair of fins.

It was a maximum of twelve degrees celsius on the morning we caught up. Belinda had a roaring, raw energy in her voice as she told me about her morning surf, so stoked the icey Victorian offshores had groomed the waves.

“Riding waves and the beach lifestyle has been a way of life that has been passed down to me from my father. Now I am sharing that same passion with my son, Rayson. Not much in life compares to seeing your child’s face light up when riding a swell together.”

The mum-of-one finds a small part of each day to feed her self-confessed ocean addiction before heading to work at Patagonia in the iconic surf town of Torquay. She lifts open the back of her van and selects the craft of choice. No matter the conditions, she’s out there.

Although she says she didn’t ‘become a surfer’ until she was 14, the fundamentals of wave riding existed in her veins since she was born and they have remained the one constant in her life. Long days at the beach with her dad allowed her to breathe in, study and grasp a full understanding of the ocean and all it had to offer.

There weren’t many girls in the water in Newcastle in the ‘80s and ‘90s she recalls, “Growing up I never got given waves because I was a girl, I had to fight for my waves in the lineup.” She believes that social status and gender often dissolves once you cross the shoreline. “It’s more about your skills in the ocean, how you read waves and your ability versus who you are.” It’s a mindset and thoughtfulness that has been embedded in her since she was a grom and very applicable among the ever increasing global surfing population.

As a twenty year old she hopped a plane to Malibu for six months, where she found out this was definitely the of thinking. “Surfing in Malibu was very different to Australia for me. There were so many more girls in the water and everyone was riding different equipment.” The vibe was so mellow and the motion and movement of the surfers was all about flowing with the wave, something similar to The Pass and Noosa in Australia. She couldn’t help but be caught up in the elegance of it all, so picked herself up an old log. A real big, dinged up single fin. It immediately put her in that place of peace, slowed her surfing right down and gave her a new appreciation for gliding along a long, peeling face. It lead her (and her Malibu log) back to Australia where she moved up the coast enjoying the point breaks between Byron and Noosa.

Photographs of Belinda so delicately and lightly moving up and down her craft in perfect synchronicity with the ocean have inspired women and girls throughout the world to pick up a longboard and paddle out. To cross the shoreline into the unknown and be engulfed by the satisfaction of wave riding.

But it’s not just surfing with a board that gets her recognised and published. Enter the Hawaii.

“I ended up on the North Shore of Hawaii one year with the Patagonia crew including Keith Malloy and Jack Johnson. The Pipeline bodysurfing comp was on and it was pumping.”  One morning just up the Seven Mile Miracle, the boys were heading out and it was big. They wanted Belinda out there with them, “C’mon Bindy we’ll take you out.” They said, “I was like, I don’t know how” and they said “you can swim right!? Just kick your legs, hold your breath, stay streamline and you’ll be fine.” I got a couple of waves and realised it had opened up a whole new world of surfing to me. It’s such a different way to experience a wave.” She returned to Australia in love with an incredible new way of wave riding and charging solid swell and it’s been part of her life ever since.

Offshore days on the Surf Coast. Hanging 10 right in the pocket can make you feel weightless and as Belinda says can emulate the sensation of what she imagines flying would be like. Photo by Belinda Baggs Collection @belindabaggs

A move away from the warm water and peeling pointbreaks, Belinda found herself on the Victorian Surf Coast where the days are shorter, the water darker and the crowds much less of an issue. Surfing remained a significant part of her day. “When I moved to Victoria I discovered there were a lot of heavy, slabby, right-hand waves around where I was living. My shortboard take-off’s weren’t strong enough for me really get into them.” She saw photographer Jarah Lynch out bodysurfing those waves one day. “I thought, that’s it, that’s the way I can ride these waves instead of dodging them.” So bodysurfing was it.

Let’s face it bodysurfing slab waves isn’t really the same deal as riding in the one foot whitewash in between the flags. Belinda admits she’s had her fair share of going over the falls. “A 13 wave set that washed me onto the rocks would have to be the worst. I panicked and took in water. I made it to the beach where I sat coughing up water before convincing myself the best way to get over it was to head back out” Admittedly, she says it was a good reminder of how focused and switched on you have to be out there, no matter how many years you’ve spent among the waves.

For Belinda, being in the water is what counts. After experiencing the joys of pregnancy and the birth of her son she had a temporary loss of connection with surfing but it lead her to understand it’s place and unique meaning in her life. “Surfing is all about play.” She says. Every part of it, “It’s just so damn fun. Even when you’re alone out there body surfing, you’re just floating around, you can’t take yourself seriously. It’s just a form of play and it’s so important to play as humans or your life becomes so boring and serious.”

After months out of the water, she let go the frustration of not being able to surf like her pre-pregnancy self “I felt foreign when I got back out there, like a beginner. But the second I let all the expectations go, I could enjoy it for what it was and that pleasure came flowing back.” It also brought an appreciation and respect for other people in the water. “It made me realise how valuable your time in the water is. Everyone’s time. That one wave could make or break someone’s week. It could be their first surf in a month or more.” For people who have a connection to the sea, time is precious it’s a dimension of understanding that could definitely mellow out a lot of lineups.

Belinda’s journey thus far has drawn her closer to the ocean than she could have dreamed. She’s a true waterwoman and wherever she paddles out she emanates a sense of strength, grace and substance. People are drawn to the positivity and energy she brings as she crosses the shoreline.

Hold your breath, kick your legs and stay streamlined… and remember to stay calm when pinned to the bottom.

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