Updated: Mar 31
Melanie White, Founder and Instructor-in-Chief at Rebelle Surf talks to us about surf culture, her love of Ireland's coastline, empowering women and getting back into the 'line-up'.
Tell us about yourself and what inspired you to set up Rebelle Surf?
I'm a writer, chef, therapist, yogi, surf instructor and all-round lover of the great outdoors hailing from Strangford in County Down, Northern Ireland. I have lived and surfed for extended periods in Sri Lanka, Australia, New Zealand, Bali, the United States and the Canary Islands. In between I took long trips to Java, Sumbawa, Gili Islands, Morocco, Samoa, Spain, and France to name a few. And I’m not done yet.
I fell in love with surfing eighteen years ago and wanted to share my love of the sport with others through teaching, workshops and writing. But in a more inclusive and deeper way than was currently being offered. I kept feeling a dissonance in the surf culture everywhere I went, and knew that the grass roots and heart of surfing were missing, or at least being drowned out (pardon the pun) by the noise and projections of our egos and mainstream surf culture.
You see, there’s a narrative that pumps images of limited body types, races, ages and gender. Basically young, white, fit males. It’s very exclusive. Celebrating their ability to dominate each other, as well as nature, in a macho fashion leaves little room for any another narrative. There are more women surfing now than there have ever been. And it’s improving slowly, but is still far from balanced in terms of age, ethnicity, body types etc. Inclusivity leads to a healthy line-up*.
*A line-up is the term used to describe the system in place out in the sea when there are a bunch of people surfing a consistent set of waves, it’s essentially a queuing system for the incoming waves. You'll hear me use it a lot.
Small line-up in Huntington Beach, California, Credit: Jeremy Bishop
The paradox is that the surfing was originally a very sacred and joyful art involving the whole community, and was often led by women. A deeply spiritual practice, one that I feel is crucial to revive and remember in all the surf line-ups. The ocean has a real and intimate presence, one that only grows with time and experience. Most surfers associate the ocean with a feminine energy and very clear moods. What if we spent more time in the water connecting to that instead of battling each other?
You're a great exponent of the health benefits of surfing. Are you in the wellness or adventure business?
Rebelle is very much an adventure business but outdoor adventure by its very nature is wellness embodied, if done consciously. We are firm believers that surfing is good for the body, mind, heart and soul. Experience teaches us more than any study can and, put simply, surfing makes most people feel good! We're all about moving people out of the head and into the heart; a much more creative, peaceful and abundant space to live from. That doesn't mean abandoning intelligence, quite the opposite. Connecting the heart and mind for us is what it's all about.
All these sessions are firmly planted in the tone of JOY! Our Surf and Yoga sessions are also really popular and we're lucky to have the most gorgeous yoga studio right here in the village. The beauty of our teaching style is that our clients benefit from learning strong physical surfing techniques but also ocean knowledge and the importance of the role of the mind and heart in surfing. It's a stunning blend.
What made you settle in County Sligo, Ireland?
It’s gorgeous! For me, Ireland has a vibrancy and freshness like no other place I've been. I used to sail competitively, and if I hadn't fallen in love with surfing, I might have gone down the sailing route. Either way, I've felt a connection to water and the ocean, in particular, from a very young age.
The swell at Sligo, Credit: Andreas Brunn
Our coastline is so varied from the east to the west. Where I grew up, on the east coast, is the famous Northland in Game of Thrones. And where I live now is the homeland of Queen Maeve of Connacht; a strong Irish Queen with a deep history of respecting the land and the equality of women. I've travelled all over, but Sligo is the most beautiful place in the world, in my eyes.
Other than surfing, what else can visitors expect to find on the Wild Atlantic Way?
The Wild Atlantic Way covers 1,553 miles of Ireland's westerly coast, stretching from the Inishowen Peninsula in the far north all the way down to Kinsale, County Cork in the south. We usually welcome a cross section of international visitors but this last year was obviously mostly staycationers.
There is so much to do here. Adventure tourism is our greatest treasure; activities like stand-up paddle boarding (SUP), sailing, horse-riding, kayaking, climbing, hiking, coasteering, outdoor and indoor yoga, kitesurfing, fishing, diving. The list goes on. The landscape here is unique in that we have mountains, sea, forest, lakes, rivers and beaches all within close proximity to each other.
Credit: Go Strandhill
We also have an incredible culinary scene that's exploded over the last few years. In Strandhill alone we have Stoked restaurant, The Dunes and The Strand bar (best open fire in Ireland). All incredible, all very different. Shells Cafe is famous for its fresh baked delicious treats and coffee. Opening soon we also have Druminlra organic farm shop and restaurant. We truly are spoilt.
Why would someone choose Rebelle Surf over one of your competitors?
There are many excellent surf schools in Ireland, but none that seek to empower women, men and children to surf the way we do. Our approach prepares our students for a lifelong relationship with surfing, and the ocean environment. We also sew seeds for a healthier line-up to grow, as well as teaching our students how to surf with strength.
Our kids' camps allow children to experience more freedom than the modern world currently allows them, encourages them to find their uniqueness and also teaches them self- responsibility. We’re famous for our women's surf sessions that run up to three times a week. We also run events and combos throughout the year.
Look out for the women's Jiu Jitsu & Surf weekends coming soon. Led by myself and one of the Women's Irish and Swedish Olympic Jiu Jitsu team. Such a combo! The Rebelle SHE collective is another one of our branches devoted to women's surfing, adventures and a deeper journey into the Feminine.
You've already received some media coverage around your work with women, could you tell us a little more about it?
There were few female elders for me to learn from when I was in my early surfing days and I’m excited for the new generation to move into a more supported and grounded space to evolve their surfing with strong women around them. That’s why I’ve just expanded the original Women’s Surf Series and created our newly rebranded REBELLE SHE COLLECTIVE.
We’re still running the women's surf sessions twice a week but now also provide a space for women to share their stories, content, photos and connect with each other. We’ll also be offering workshops online and in-person with incredible tools we have gathered over our twenty years of exploring this subject. More than anything, it’s a space to be completely honest with each other and work through some of the real daily grind issues we face as women, with each other.
This involves stepping away from judging ourselves, becoming aware of the adrenaline fuelled way of surfing that isn't a good fit for most women and being honest about how we are feeling when we surf. Starting an open dialogue about the issues women in particular, face in the surf environment. Part of this is facing up to uncomfortable truths about how we women pitch against each other, rather than step towards one another.
I’m about providing space, visibility and coaching for all women and girls to experience, feel safe and connected to themselves with strong boundaries and tools for self-awareness. All in the atmosphere of Joy!
Could you draw any parallels between the surfing world and the business world?
That's an interesting question. I definitely underestimated the friction I would experience in stepping into the surfing industry. There are no independently-owned female surf schools on my coastline and its pretty rare for a woman to open a surf school. I quickly saw the direct parallels between the surfing culture and the business world.
The existing surf industry is based on territory, aggressiveness, competition, ownership, a belief that there isn't enough for everyone, an 'each for themselves' mindset and a distinct lack of inclusion and often respect for the nature of the ocean. Teaching surfing is not just a sport, it's a communion with forces much more powerful than us, and I believe it demands respect.
I refuse to conduct business from the model that is currently dominating the business world. I have no interest in tearing it down but every interest in creating a new one that is more in alignment with my joy, conscience and the environment. Basically, this nonsense that's been peddled to us that existing systems are infallible and if you can't work like that, you're not up for the task is beyond madness to me.
My work environment is as much a part of my life as all other ways I spend my time and it will be as colourful and fun as the rest of my life. Just as in the line-up whilst surfing, I refuse to be dragged into a negative spiral in order to connect and surf the gorgeous waves. It's a work in progress and like all territory it takes time to work out the kinks. I don’t have all the answers.
In a normal year, when are you operational and who are your typical customers?
We're usually open all year round. Summer is our most popular time here on Strandhill beach, keeping us busy with kid’s camps, adult sessions, family sessions and of course our women's surf sessions. The beach has consistently good waves in summer and the weather can be great too. We also get a lot of bookings for corporate groups. Strandhill is a great spot for a corporate away day, as everything is within walking distance; surf, food, yoga, mountain hikes and cafes.
Beach Yoga, Credit: Go Strandhill
Autumn and winter are also fabulous. Our Instagram page is full of wonderful winter surf adventure shots of all our guests, as well as the Sligo landscape. Corporate groups often book in with us at this time; something we expect to see more of as people look to enjoy more socially distanced activities together. We tend to have more availability in the autumn and winter months it's our low season. This is when we get to explore different beaches that don’t usually have waves in summer.
Winter here in Ireland has some of the most stunning conditions to experience surfing and local culture. The wetsuits we use in winter are thick, super warm and we also provide hoods, gloves and boots. Our clients are warmer than the seals!
How do you and/or the destination of County Sligo cater for luxury clients?
We do cater for private groups, smaller groups, private families, couples and one-to-one sessions. It's also possible to book an entire experience with us. We partner with some amazing accommodation providers and incredible restaurants here locally, which enables us to really set up something special. If clients would like a bottle of cold champagne on the beach post-surf and dinner booked for afterwards, that's no problem at all.
Are you a member of, or affiliated with, any local or national tourism bodies?
Yes, we’re a member of Adventure Sligo, which is an umbrella organisation representing many of the adventure tourism operators in Sligo County. It's a great mix of experiences and showcases the many activities available in our area. Our aim is to work with the travel trade and encourage sustainable tourism as well as offering a more high-end experience for the travel trade.
Sligo Tourism is a local authority promoting Sligo in all its glory and doing a seriously good job. Failte Ireland is the national tourism development authority innovating new streams of tourism for the country like the hugely successful Wild Atlantic Way. Rebelle Surf features prominently in their forthcoming annual advertising campaign, so look out for us on the big screen! We’re also a member of the Ireland’s Association for Adventure Tourism (IAAT), which is at the forefront of championing Ireland’s tourism sector recovery from the effects of Covid.
Do you work with the travel trade?
We're only a year and a half into our business and so far most bookings have come directly, either through our website at Rebelle Surf or our Instagram and Facebook pages. We have a lot of repeat customers and, quite honestly, the bookings through word-of-mouth recommendations have been flooding in since we opened.
We recognise that travellers are going to be leaning on the expertise of travel agents more and more in a post-COVID world, so are excited to explore opportunities to work with the travel trade later this year. National Geographic and the 'I Love The Seaside' guide book for Ireland (and the UK) recently recommended and listed us and we feel we have a unique and saleable product that is inclusive for all ages, and levels of fitness.
When are you expecting to be back in the water with clients?
We are definitely planning to be fully operational by the summer but are hoping to be back in the water by May. As our business is outdoors, we can operate in a mobile capacity without much disruption. Our surf lessons are personalised for every student so we keep group numbers smaller anyway, just to accommodate this style of teaching.
All being well, we're hoping restrictions on outdoor activities will be lifted well before the summer and we'll be able to welcome our wonderful clients back to experience the beauty of surfing. Autumn and winter surf sessions are also very much on the calendar. Our kids' camps run every week throughout the summer and our newly rebranded Rebelle SHE Collective sessions (originally the Women’s Surf Series) are twice weekly also.
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And be a part of their exciting new project, share your content with them; REBELLE SHE COLLECTIVE https://www.instagram.com/rebelleshecollective/
For the latest updates and to get more of a feel for Rebelle Surf and check out their website to book a session or for more information https://rebellesurf.com/