Women’s surfing has grown to become among Australia’s most popular female sports, and if you’re good enough, there’s money to be made and exotic locations beckon.

However, the women’s surfing scene today is a world away from the sport’s beginnings in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Judy Gibbon wonders what might have been had she been born 40 years later.

Judy is a member one of the pioneering families of Lennox Head. Judy’s family moved to Lennox just a few months after she was born in 1946.

She first stood up on a surfboard in 1964 at Lennox Main Beach, and developed her surfing skills to such an extent that she won the 1967 Queensland women’s title.

There was no cash prize involved, but she did win a trip to Bells Beach for the national titles, where she qualified for the final. It was her first flight on an aeroplane — a big moment for a young lady from a tiny village.

That’s why she wonders ‘what if’: What if she was born into the current generation of female surfers, who these days compete for big money in exotic locations around the world.

Judy says she was extremely competitive in her younger surfing days, and believes that, if she had been born 40 years later, she would have had a fair crack at the women’s pro circuit, especially with her switch-foot style which allowed her to surf natural-foot or goofy-foot.

But then the memories come flooding back — memories of a 4am start, waking up her best mate Wendy McDermid by 5am and surfing perfect waves at The Pass at Byron Bay all day. If there were 10 people in the water, it was crowded.

“They were the best years of my life. It was an amazing time,” she says. Then Judy says she sees ‘all the commercialisation in surfing these days’, and you get the impression that those thoughts of ‘what if’ have been forgotten, over-ridden by cherished memories from an idyllic youth.

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Judy surfed Lennox Point only once. She had a few waves, but says she ‘freaked out’ and paddled in.

It wasn’t the size of the waves — it was a fear of sharks, and those fears were well-founded.

Judy remembers fishing with her dad Ken off the Pinnacle, just around from the Point. Jewfish weighing 20kg would be hooked, but by the time they were landed, only the head and gills remained — the rest had been chomped off by sharks.

“The sharks put me off,” Judy says when explaining why she — and others — didn’t surf the Point in the early years.

“We’d see sharks when we were surfing at Byron, but we had no fear of them because we knew they were well-fed (Judy believed the Byron sharks feasted well on waste from the abattoir and whaling station, and weren’t interested in surfers).

Judy says she felt safer surfing in Byron, and she fell in love with the lifestyle.

Her and a group of women, including Wendy McDermid, Denise Campbell, Elaine North, Yvonne Smith, Leona Keevers, Sue Curtis and Bev Duncombe, surfed at the time.

Long days were spent surfing Wategos, The Pass or Broken Head — her favourite spot — in uncrowded conditions.

Then, when the day’s surfing was done, it was off to work at Byron Hospital, where nurse Judy often got startled looks from injured surfers. “Guys would come into casualty with a fin-chop or something, and they’d look at me and say ‘weren’t you in the surf an hour ago?’. They were overwhelmed,” she says.

One of those she tended to was Nat Young, who came in one day with a very large gash in his head. Not surprisingly, ‘he wasn’t a happy man’, Judy recalls.

Judy bought herself a ‘little red Mini’, the very popular car of the 1960s and ’70s. Despite its small size, Judy and her mates managed to cram six boards onto the roof racks, and themselves in the car.

They lived a dream life. “We’d be the first in the water at The Pass and we’d surf all day,” Judy said.

Being a female surfer wasn’t a problem with her peers, because ‘all the locals stuck together’.

But these were the 1960s, a conservative time, and there were some who frowned upon a lifestyle where two men and three women shared a house in Ruskin Street, spending most of their time in the water.

“The matron used to worry about me working at the hospital and whether I was giving the place a bad reputation,” Judy said, adding that it wasn’t uncommon for matron to take a stroll past the Ruskin Street house, just to make sure things weren’t getting out of hand and the hospital’s reputation wasn’t being tarnished!

The matron need not have worried. Eventually the Ruskin Street house was sold, and it was time to move on. Judy went to Sydney to further her nursing career, which advanced to such a stage that she became a psychiatric nurse.

She bought a unit in Sydney, where she lived for 16 years.

Judy continued to surf for a while, but work and paying off the unit eventually consumed all her time.

It all paid off, though. She’s now living on a beautiful local property. It’s still hard work looking after the macadamia trees and running a business wholesaling car parts and accessories, but a peek out the front window makes it all worthwhile: To the east is an uninterrupted view of the coast, with Lennox Point looming large.

PICTURES: Judy with friends (second from left) in Byron Bay in the 1960s, and Judy in action.