Subscribe to our mailing list:

Leah Dawson

In Conversation with Aeriel Brown
Photography by Jianca Lazarus

On abandoning competition, discovering ‘Morning of the Earth’ and why “What Would Rell Do” has become her motto.

The nineteen seconds of footage of LEAH DAWSON from Deus Ex Machina’s “Under 9 Foot & Single 2014” contest should be required watching for any female surfer. It’s everything surfing should be: joyful, athletic, stylish, powerful, yet still unapologetically feminine. In short, it’s inspiring. All of which could be good adjectives to use for Dawson herself.

Dawson’s joy doesn’t stop in the water, however. The daughter of a television producer (her dad’s credits include “The Mickey Mouse Club”), Dawson eventually discovered her own love for story telling and the moving image. Now she makes short films which focus on her appreciation for the sea and surfing. Her short film “Peanut Butter”, a sweet ode to her favorite board, is as unpretentious as it is earnest.

We caught up with Dawson after her return home to Hawaii after some time in Australia. By phone, we talked about the importance of humbling experiences both on land and in the water and the current state of women’s surfing.

Aeriel Brown: I’m sorry to hear that you were sick.

Leah Dawson: Oh yeah! I just ate something that didn’t correspond with my body but I also got a staph infection in my knee. I had a really bad one when I was sixteen that really woke me up to western medicine.

AB: In what way did it wake you up?

LD: I was playing a lot of sports and had to have ankle surgery to repair some torn ligaments. I was allergic to the dissolvable stitches and ended up in a wheelchair because the wound wouldn’t heal. The doctors didn’t know what to do. So my mom said, “You’re attaching yourself to being sick and to being not okay. You have to decide to heal yourself. You are your own best healer.” That changed my perspective. Being in Hawaii has really influenced me in this way too. 

AB: In what way? 

LD: I grew up in Florida but went to the University of Hawaii for school. My parents knew I wanted to continue with my love of surfing so I applied to Pepperdine, Point Loma and UH, where I ended up studying physics, but not really liking it. I think there was a reason why I came here—one much bigger than…

AB: …Than college?

LD: Yes! At that time I was competing on the girl’s world longboard tour and I really wanted be a world champion or have some sort of accolades. I thought that winning contests would bring respect from a lot of people.

Then I started taking myself seriously spiritually and reading books about non-judgment, seeing everything for what it is and observing things for the beauty of their own individuality. So I lost my competitive taste. I no longer wanted to separate myself from women competitors who were also my companions. That was the hardest thing—I had friendships that were challenged because of tactics used in the water. And I never want to lose friends because of something that happens in the sea.

When I realized that I enjoy the ‘soul’ of surfing rather than the ‘sport’ of surfing, everything changed for me. And I feel like I started finding myself within my own style. And being out here in Hawaii really played a major part of that. 

Photo: Rick Estevez
Photo: Rick Estevez

AB: I’m wondering if you think that having these humbling experiences and having to let go of some of your ego has helped your relationship with the ocean, or your surfing at all?

LD: Undoubtedly. I know what it’s like to go out and feel like I’m practicing for a contest. I know what it’s like to paddle out with a group of friends and to share the celebration of being in the sea. I think a driving factor for competition was the camaraderie of it — that it always felt like a reunion. But eventually there was a very distinct shift in my desire to win. So now I’m just left with the camaraderie part of it.

AB: Was there a specific moment that caused that shift?

LD: Yes. I was reading a book called Conversations with God about a guy that wasn’t religious at all, but started writing a letter to God. He started asking questions and his hand started responding. So he examined his consciousness about getting to a point where we don’t need to judge things as good or bad— where one elevates beyond the point of duality. That really struck home with me in terms of the whole concept of judging a wave as good or bad, or trying to do something in the water that would score points. I just wanted to be free on the wave—to freely allow my, I don’t know, higher self, or intuition, to control my body so that it becomes almost a mindless experience. I think once you spend enough time doing a certain practice you develop the muscle memory and the technique to get into that mindless state. And that’s really where my love song and my spiritual food started growing. I started riding boards I couldn’t ever ride in any contest — single fin boards that evolved my surfing and influenced my style. It changed my surfing more so than anything. 

It was funny, my first time surfing in Bali (a couple years ago) I got out of the water, and these kids just came up to me and asked “Do you watch ‘Morning of the Earth’ every morning before you go surfing?” And I hadn’t seen it yet. I felt like a complete idiot. So as soon as I got home from the trip I watched it and thought, “These guys are totally right! That’s exactly how I want to surf.”

AB: Are there certain people from the past that you draw inspiration from?

LD: For sure! I was just discussing with Rochelle Ballard yesterday—she’s been a mentor of mine for many years. She really taught me everything I know from yoga, to cooking, to getting barrels, to cleaning, to gardening. I was chatting with her yesterday about how I’ve been asking myself “How would Rell [Sunn] feel about this? How would she feel about the current state of women’s surf culture? What would she do now if she was in my position?” Rochelle said, “Pretty much my whole time on tour that was a question I always asked myself: What would Rell do?” 

I really think that as a woman who is absolutely in love with surfing I see a current women’s surf culture that is yearning for community. So ready to be brought together and celebrated. I think that’s really what [Rell] was about. My clear goal is to help unify and remind women that there is beauty within them, and that when we get in the sea it accentuates that.

We don’t have to surf like men. We don’t have to surf like anything. The only thing that the ocean wants us to do is rejoice. Be there, and be a part of it, and feel it hug you when you jump in it. It’s like a magnet. 

Eventually I’d love to be making women’s surf films and sharing this timeless thing that we all do. Capturing people like Stephanie  [Gilmore] and Carissa [Moore] are big dreams of mine. I want people to see who they really are because all these women are so amazing. 

AB: Surf films are still mostly made by guys with one or two token female surfers. Do you think that there has to be a revolution in the narrative of surf films? How are you thinking differently than some of the precedents out there?

LD: I think it comes with the complete revolution in how we view women’s surfing as a whole. What is that? What is that story? What is women’s surfing? I don’t care about just [filming] the best girl surfers in the world. I care about the mass of them, and what they are doing. What are they feeling? What are they connecting with? What inspires them? The door is so wide open. I’m really excited to walk through it. The main thing is to make media that girls can watch and go “Oh! I want to surf just like her.”

AB: Yeah, I agree. I mean it’s hard watching surf films that are essentially irrelevant to you. Like “Well, I’m a woman, so A, I have no desire to surf like that, and B, will never have the physicality to be able to surf like that even if I wanted to.” So it can be a frustrating experience. 

LD: Exactly, exactly, exactly. If we’re all striving to do 360 airs, I might as well quit surfing. 

AB: But do you think that it’s possible to create something unique? I only ask that because any time you try to change a narrative— especially one where there is so much money tied up in it—you face so many challenges.

LD: I don’t know. I think you have to stare it in the face. Because you know, as you said it has been such a male-dominated industry. Even though there may be a woman at the head of marketing for Roxy and Billabong, they still may be listening to top male dogs. If a woman was running the show would marketing really be the way it is? Would super skinny models be the ones that are the face of women’s surf companies? Do all women have to wear a G-string in order to look sexy in the water or to be a good surfer? It’s been interesting to watch out here, especially on the North Shore, how many women are surfing in G-strings. I’ll ask and be up front with guys about it. 

AB: What do they say?

LD: It makes them uncomfortable. Especially because a lot of times women are underage, wearing a piece of clothing that is you know, calling attention to their ass.

AB: Maybe the larger problem is the dichotomy between wanting to be taken more seriously in the water and being offered gear that’s essentially designed to make sure you’re taken less seriously. 

LD: I’m amazed by that correlation. 

AB: I think it’s always hard being a woman surfer, because you’re never just a surfer. You’re always a woman surfer.

LD: Right, so people are going to look at you differently. They’re going to want to cut you off until they either see that you’re good, or they expect to cut you off no matter what. The goal here in Hawaii is to always catch a good first wave, because then people won’t be looking to cut you off. “Okay, she kind of knows what she’s doing.” 

But yeah, I love feeling sexy. I mean who doesn’t? I also love having my body kind of show its form through whatever it is that I’m wearing. I have to wear things that cover my skin in the water because I can’t expose my skin to so much sun. So for me I just much prefer to cover up. But of course, I catch guys checking out my ass even though I don’t have a G-string on. That’s just what guys do.

AB: Well, that’s never going to change. I walk down the streets of New York wearing a puffy jacket that’s down to my knees and guys still whistle. That’s just part of being a woman in the world.

This story originally appeared in Wax Issue 7.