The Surf Issue: Interview with women’s surf pioneer, Janet MacPherson

Side by side photos of Janet MacPherson surfing at a young age and her alongside her grandkids with a surfboard

The New Face of the Old Days

In loving memory of surf pioneer & legend Janet MacPherson.

Not one to classify herself as a beacon of change, although she was one, Janet MacPherson took to the waves at a time when there weren’t “a lot of gals” in the lineup. In tribute to her passing earlier this year, Whalebone is revisiting a chat between Janet and her daughter-in-law Rachelle from 2016. 

Over six decades ago, in 1955, Janet picked up a 30-pound balsa board in Waikiki and ran straight into the waves with only a handful of other surfers—all guys. Back in California, she spent hours surfing and then traveling the world with her son Sean to places like Mexico, Sun Valley, Costa Rica and New Zealand (where she was the women’s surf champion). She surfed in the Seychelles, Reunion Island, South Africa, Indonesia, the Galapagos …“I was the first woman they saw surfing in Peru.” Janet has surfed and skied all over the world. 

At 79, she was still surfing, between her homes in Malibu, California; Pavones, Costa Rica; and Scorpion Bay, Baja; and our home in Montauk. And it’s safe to say she’s reached a sort of legendary status within the surfing community. If you took a stroll in any surf spot in the world and you would not leave before at least half a dozen surfers came to pay their respects, or reminisce with her about the days when she had to beg people to surf Rincon with her (can you imagine?!). 

Janet MacPherson surfing a wave while others paddle around her.

What drew you to surfing? 

I was with my sister in Hawaii in 1955 and watched my then-boyfriend surfing. I thought it would be fun to try. And I just loved it. I loved the water and I immediately took to surfing. 

Did you ever feel like surfing was this feminist move? 

I never thought about it. Some of the guys were really nice to me and some of them weren’t. Some of them didn’t really like a gal out there with them. 

What did you wear surfing in the early days? 

We used to go to the thrift stores and buy cashmere sweaters and wear them out in the water to keep warm. We didn’t have brands back then [laughs]. 

Favorite place on Earth to surf? 

I enjoy warm water surfing. I really enjoy surfing in Mexico—but I’m not going to give the names of the places. I also enjoy Costa Rica … mostly Latin countries because I’m half Latin. Warm water locations—I hate wetsuits with a passion. 

Janet MacPherson crouched down on her surfboard riding a wave.

Who are some of the people you remember surfing with back in the day? 

Philip “Flippy” Hoffman, “Renny” Yater, Tom Morey (Morey invented the Boogie Board in the ’70s), “Grubby” Clark, Gus Gustafson, Jim Foley, the Van Dyke Brothers and Jack O’Neill (of O’Neill wetsuits). I’ve been surfing with them since we were all in college. 

Do you miss the old days? 

Everyone looks back and loves the old days. It wasn’t a sport back then; it was just something that people did. 

How has the surfing culture changed? 

Back in the old days, you would just have your group of friends who loved being in the water and you knew almost everyone who surfed in the world because there weren’t that many of us. Back then people thought of surfers as vagabonds. But my friends and I were all college-educated. 

We would find places to surf and no one would be there. I told my friend that he’d never see me in Cabo again, whereas when I went down there it was all deserted beaches, no people and no hotels. 

When did you start taking Sean (your son) surfing? 

I never forced surfing on Sean. He picked it up with his friends when he was around 12. It was a great way to connect with my son; we had so much fun together. I took him and his friends on long surfing trips down to Baja, Mexico every summer—and I’m still friends with most of them. 

Janet MacPherson surfing a smaller wave surrounded by male surfers.