NEWPORT — Parked at the lookout of Yaquina Bay State Park before the last hour of daylight, Meira Cole and Olivia Schroeder put on their matching towel dresses — the ones they use on the go to change into their wetsuits. With a high-surf advisory in effect, they went to catch some smaller waves underneath the Yaquina Bay Bridge at sunset.
When they’re out in the water, the two friends said they push each other to surf harder and longer, and always have fun while doing so.
Cole and Schroeder founded a collective called the Northwest Wahines, which is the product of a desire to connect with other women surfers in the area and to build an ocean-minded community around them.
“We knew so many amazing women here and there,” Schroeder said, “we wanted to bring the community together more.”
The pair started the Women’s Expression Session, an annual event at Agate Beach that aims to make surfing fun and accessible to those who want to learn. Participants dress up in costumes over their wetsuits for a day of lesson and mock contests.
“Meira has the good, crazy ideas,” Schroeder said.
From the expression events grew Wahine Wednesday Women’s Surf, a weekly opportunity in the summertime for local women to surf, learn and connect with each other.
What began as an effort to bring cohesion to the local women’s surfing community flourished into a desire to nurture more of the area’s women and girls who wanted to learn how to surf and become a part of the community.
In 2016, Cole and Schroeder were volunteer surf instructors at two Indigenous Surfer Girl Camps, retreats founded by pro-surfer Kelly Pots. The camps were for girls of the Makah Tribe in Neah Bay, Wash., and the Tolowa Dee-niʻ Tribe in Crescent City, Calif.
The camps aim to bring surfing to underrepresented communities while educating, connecting and empowering girls.
Feeling inspired from the retreats, Cole and Schroeder decided to start a camp for the local girls of Siletz, which became the Siletz Surfer Girls Camp.
“It’s so rewarding to be a part of and it’s just such an amazing experience on all ends, whether you’re learning or teaching,” Schroeder said.
Cole and Schroeder have so far organized two retreats, held last August and September in collaboration with Potts and event sponsorship from prAna, an athletic apparel company. The first retreat at Agate Beach served more than 25 indigenous women of all generations and the second one, even more.
“It’s growing in a big, positive way,” Cole said.
With a push toward community outreach, the Northwest Wahines started the Wave Warrior Camps for girls and women as part of the Warren Project, an outdoor therapy and mentoring program for disadvantaged youth, facilitated by the Olalla Center for Children and Families in Lincoln County.
“You can really make lasting change through community action,” Cole said. “My passion is surfing and I want to share it with other people in the hope that it provides the same kind of therapy for them as it does for me.”
Cole, who was born and raised in Eugene, was a UC San Diego soccer player who turned to surfing as a way to rediscover her identity and release the pressure she felt to play soccer competitively.
“It was like my coping mechanism for burning out of the sport that I had done my whole life and been competitive at,” Cole said.
After graduating college, she moved from San Diego to Australia, where she spent her first four years learning to surf.
“It was really cool to be able to learn in warmer water,” Cole said. “I actually never thought I would come back to cold water but I’m glad I did.”
When she’s not surfing, Cole works as a nurse at Samaritan Pacific Communities Hospital in Newport.
She said at the end of a work day, she uses surfing to reset.
“I’ll get out there and get worked a few times and it makes me feel better,” Cole said, “It’s just like this therapeutic thing I can go and do by myself.”
Schroeder, who is a fifth-grade teacher at Sam Case Elementary school, intertwines her educational background with ocean awareness.
Earlier this year, Schroeder started a Surfrider Ocean Club with her fifth grade class. The goal of the club is to get the students invested in protecting the ocean.
Schroeder first learned how to surf with her sister in Hawaii when she was 11-years-old.
“She took me out and that kind of planted the seed,” she said.
Unlike Cole, Schroeder was never interested in team sports, but the surfing community has taught her about strength in numbers.
“Our collective’s motto is ‘stronger together’,” Schroeder said, “Surfing can be one of those things where people think ‘I would never be able to do that’ and it’s just such a great opportunity to show women that you can do something hard and you can do something that takes a lot of grit.”
Cole and Schroeder’s creative partnership began on a bus ride to the Surfrider Foundation’s Clean Water Classic surfing contest in Westport.
“We bonded over guitars and surfing, and we’ve been friends ever since,” Cole said.
They have a lot of ideas and projects up their sleeves, one of which is a women’s surfing documentary in the Pacific Northwest — an endeavor which is still in progress.
Cole and Schroeder also recently applied for a grant through the Siletz Charitable Contribution Fund in hopes of accumulating more gear, dedicated instructors and a trailer set up with gear where the girls can change during the retreats. The decision on the grant will be made on January 23.
“A lot of our stuff is pretty haggard from being used a lot,” Cole said. “It’s important that they are warm and comfortable. It makes such a difference.”
Cole said the next Siletz Surfer Girls camp on August 4, 2019 will have an added component of mindfulness and promoting wellness. Cole and Schroeder said they believe it’s important for young women to develop habits of self-care and to begin formulating good techniques around being mindful and setting intentions and goals.
“I think this is a really pivotal time in history for women to step into their strength, and to empower others,” Schroeder said. “And I think that surfing is a perfect way to do that.”