“For me, surfing is like therapy,” says Ashley Blaylock, the founder of CHICABRAVA, the first all-female surf camp in San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua. “You feel reborn, refreshed and renewed every day you can do it.” It’s transforming. And you learn only by being in the water.
Harnessing the power of the ocean and its healing properties was the idea behind the surf retreat, where women from all over the world come to challenge themselves, feel exhilarated as they walk on water, and to mend wounds. It was also the inspiration behind Camp Bella, an annual weeklong charity camp Blaylock founded to empower Nicaraguan girls who have been the victims of sex trafficking.
According to Hawaiian legend, the first surfers were women, and there are illustrations in picture books showing the ancient fire goddess Pelé riding the waves. In Nicaragua, however, surfing was a largely male-dominated sport until recently. When Blaylock first traveled to Nicaragua more than 10 years ago, she was pretty much the only woman hitting the surf there, which prompted the locals to give her a nickname: chica brava (brave girl). By the time Blaylock decided to ditch her job as a lawyer in Texas and move to Nicaragua permanently (where she became a six-time Nicaraguan National Surf Champion), the idea for an all-female surf camp had been born.
Now in its seventh year, Blaylock’s CHICABRAVA camp is not only an amazing adventure, it literally helps women find their personal strength amid the crashing waves. “I knew surfing was a healing sport for me, but the very first time I hosted a group of women — and hands-on watched the transformation happen — was when I realized the inspirational potential these camps had,” says Blaylock. “Overcoming fears, navigating through challenges and learning how to go with the flow — the ocean always dictates — are all lessons learned paddling out beyond the breaks. The women who come here take those lessons back to their real lives and feel empowered.”
Blaylock recalls a woman on the brink of divorce who came to the camp “a broken shell, and she left strong. She still got divorced but she was ready to embrace her new life after a week of the life lessons she learned on her board.”
Recognizing the potential of the surf experience to help women set new intentions, Blaylock and her former camp operations manager Sarah Powers decided to extend the reach of the program in 2012 by creating Camp Bella, hosting six girls, ages 13–16, who lived at House of Hope Nicaragua, a home for former prostitutes and victims of sex trafficking. “It was incredible hosting those young girls who had been sexually abused and exploited and watching them go through the same process I’d see other campers experience — i.e. ‘I’m fearful, I can’t do it, I can’t swim’ — and then witnessing them overcome their fears,” Blaylock says. “As renowned big wave surfer Laird Hamilton has said, ‘We are all equal before the waves,’ and it was great to see them in a situation where they weren’t treated like outcasts, charity cases, or who knows what perception of themselves they had,” says Blaylock. “It was life-changing for all of us involved, campers and counselors.”
In fact, Camp Bella was such a success that Blaylock is trying to grow it beyond an annual event and into its own nonprofit, bringing the restorative powers of the ocean to all kinds of girls and women in need. “Facilitating and helping a woman do something she was convinced she could never accomplish and then watching her progress over the course of the week is so rewarding,” says Blaylock, who is now focusing her efforts on fundraising.
The spiritual side of surfing goes way beyond the athletics of grabbing a board and hanging on with everything you’ve got. “Surfing is like life,” says Blaylock. “You have to learn to be present and attentive, figure out how to make your way by creating a melody with the waves instead of trying to control or fight against them.”
Blaylock still marvels at the bravery she so often sees in the women who come to CHICABRAVA. “Whether you are a beginner or an experienced surfer, when you are in the ocean there are ups and downs and the pull of the moon and shifting tides and you kind of just have to learn how to ride the waves and live with conditions that are out of your control — same as we do in life.”
Photo Credit: Sarah Lee