Leah Dawson is a surfer of the soul. As one of the world’s foremost free-surfers–surfers who focus on stylistic expression and experience on the wave rather than the competition–Leah brings a meditative mindset to the water.
She doesn’t, however, leave her wisdom at the beach. Leah is one of the co-founders of Changing Tides Foundation, an organization that promotes sustainability, healthy oceans and female empowerment. In the run up to the release of Electric Wave, Leah stopped through the CONVICTS offices on her way back to Hawaii from Washington D.C., where she had been lobbying congress on behalf of the Surfrider Foundation.
She was kind enough to sit for an interview and chat about what she hopes Electric Wave will achieve, the importance of sisterhood and the importance of emulating nature’s harmony.
Hey, Leah. Thanks again for coming in today. To start, can you tell us where you’re from?
I grew up in Florida and I’ve been in Hawaii for fifteen years now.
For those who don’t know, can you explain how free-surfing differs from competition surfing?
So free surfing is focused outside of competition. To me, it’s an expression of what surfing is on a grander scale: both as a lifestyle, as a medicine and as a spirituality. I found my platform by connecting with women to tell this untold story of the average surfer that goes out just because it feels good. No one in the mainstream surf media was speaking to all of these women who love surfing not as a sport or competition, but as medicine or spirituality.
Could you talk about that spiritual element of surfing a bit?
Anything that allows you to get out of your head and quiet your mind–much like meditation–can you bring you into this very focused but also light headspace. For me, surfing always does that. As soon as I hit the ocean I feel I’m being hugged by the earth. That’s something that no one can take away from you. It’s my temple.
What has your career trajectory looked like so far?
I grew up surfing in Florida and doing amateur events, competing a lot. I followed the professional longboarding route and was doing competitions for a while. Then I went to school at The University of Hawaii and had to make a choice between taking a job that I had been doing for a few years–filming The Triple Crown, I’m a live camera operator–or going to world championships. I thought, “Well, I’ve got ten grand guaranteed if I do this shoot, or I can go to the competition and hope I win.”
So I chose the work, knowing that the contest feeling wasn’t necessarily fulfilling the side of surfing that I valued. I was spending too much time practicing and trying to surf a different way. When I changed my focus, I found my own style. I didn’t care what I was doing: I was just allowing my body to move in a way that felt natural. I was no longer trying to score points on waves, I was trying to let my art connect to the ocean. In doing that, it kind of birthed a surf career for me. There weren’t many women surfing alternatively surf craft and allowing the spirit of surf to be their guiding light.
So, as a free surfer, are you filming parts?
Kind of. Honestly, I don’t know that I would have a surf career if it wasn’t for social media. My soul surfing matched with my soul expression and I think that’s what allowed me to attract sponsors. It wasn’t about being the best or the critical or radical surfer, it was about connecting soul to soul and expressing the untold stories that women never hear. I’ve found great success in that. No, I’m not making a lot of money but my heart is full and I don’t have the stress of putting on a jersey. My happiness is in storytelling.
Can you tell us a bit about Changing Tides Foundation?
Being a surfer, we’re on the front lines of seeing our environmental destruction as a planet. An amazing group of friends I met through our common love of surfing all had this common desire to give back in a way that more than volunteering at a beach cleanup or doing something at another organization. We realized there was an open field for inspiring women to gather together and find sisterhood, we can lessen our footprint and be environmentally conscious with every choice we make.
So how does Changing Tides operate?
Well, we have different campaigns. We’re running one right now called the Plant-Based March Challenge and we have seven-hundred and fifty people signed up. While veganism isn’t for everyone, cutting back our animal product consumption will undoubtedly affect the planet.
We run women’s workshops. We have a program called the Women Outreach Mentorship Program. This program empowers women with ocean skills and allows the women in the community to come together and feel confident in themselves and the fact that they’re not alone in trying to live a sustainable life.
How does Electric Wave relate to your goals of sisterhood and sustainability?
Electric Wave is really the celebration of beauty, art, creativity and the essence of being a woman. There is an innate femininity of women and water. I for one, have never seen surfing in sync, so the surprise of having more than one person on a wave in the reveal is really powerful. I’ve learned that no great thing can be achieved alone. It is only through collaboration, communication and togetherness that we’re going to not only solve the challenges we’re facing but to enjoy living in the moment.
How did the actual choreography go on the night of the evening?
Daniel Askill suggested to Steph First that he wanted to see us moving in unison. Steph took the helm and suggested that we all do one simple maneuver where we stayed really low all at the same time then stood up really tall in–not quite a soul arch–an iconic and relaxed position. Foregoing technically based moves for simplicity based ones made it really smooth for us to nail.
You’d never been to The Surf Ranch before…what was that like going for the first time?
It was wild going to The Surf Ranch for the first time, especially under those circumstances. It’s obviously different from the ocean, but I was just in awe at the engineering capabilities of humans required to bring this perfect wave to real life. So there was this constant awe of looking at the best waterpark in the world…but it was also, by far, the most amazing, profound production I’ve ever been on. Seeing such amazing professionals in every department work together and collaborate and communicate…there was a sense of joy in everyone’s heart that couldn’t be wiped away. All of us were pinching ourselves.
What do you hope this film can achieve?
I think Electric Wave will communicate togetherness and celebrate the fact that not all waves have to be ridden alone. That some of the best waves can be ridden together. The more we explore this togetherness in all realms of life and the more we emulate nature, the better off we’re going to be. That’s really what the wave pool is doing: taking these elements of nature and recreating them in a human way.
I really think that’s how we’re going to solve the issues of today and tomorrow. We have to ask ourselves: what can we draw from nature to empower ourselves and utilize the incredible design of the universe?
Amazing. Thanks, Leah.