After surfing for 15 years, there’s a reason Elaine Abonal still returns to the waves each morning. “Surfing teaches me something new everyday,” she says.
“Surfing has taught me humility. The ocean does not judge you for your looks, how much money you make, how popular you are. What matters is that we respect the ocean and each other out there.”
It’s an attitude that permeates her entire business, Surfista Travels. Based in Siargao Island in the Philippines, Surfista brings travelers and locals together for professional surf lessons and camps.
Elaine grew up in the Philippines, an archipelago of over 7,000 islands, but didn’t realise she wanted to surf until she was on exchange in the US. In a case of the ocean looking bluer on another coastline, Elaine was inspired by the surfing culture in Florida. She soon returned to the Philippines and learnt to surf at La Union. Then 17, Elaine found that her home country already had its own booming surf culture – she just had to dive in.
Six years later she transformed her love for the sport into a business. “In the beginning I didn’t want to do any kind of business with surfing because I didn’t want to take the ‘fun’ out of it – surfing was my way to disconnect with the world. But I realised that if I was going to have a job, it might as well be something I love doing anyway and where I am working for myself.
Working with Filipino women is one of Elaine’s favourite parts of the job. When she started there were many social barriers to Filipino women learning how to surf. In a previous interview, Elaine has said: “[As a Filipina] if you didn’t know where to go, where to stay, who to learn from and what to do in a new destination, you could easily give up.” Running Surfista has given her a space in which to pass her knowledge on to other Filipinas and women from around the world.
Moreso, it’s her chance to give back to the community in Siargao – with local Filipinos either helping her run the camps or just sharing the waves with her students.
“All of my Surfista lessons or camps involve the locals… I’m here to give them employment, work with them and make sure my customers realize the importance of these people in their surf experience.”
Working closely with both locals and tourists has enabled Elaine to be something of a bridge between the two. “On one side I can show the realities and simple lives of local Filipino instructors to those who come from another country, culture or background, and share what we have. While on the other side I can show the locals what it means to be a professional, and how to be the best version of surf instructors to our guests.”
Employing locals is just one way Elaine gives back to the community. She also runs Surfista Love – a program that educates locals, particularly kids, about reducing plastic and recycling, and gives them surfboards, rash guards, wax, board shorts and other surfing equipment to use.
It’s a natural extension of some of the most important parts of surfing culture: community and inclusivity. On the surf at Siargao, everyone is equal game regardless of skill or status. “You can have the best surfboard or be the best surfer, but there are days that will teach you that the ocean is still the boss!” Elaine says.
“The most rewarding thing is being part of someone's first surfing experience... I love seeing my Surfista students' faces light up with huge smiles when they ride a wave for the first time. I love watching them persevere to get back up and catch another wave.”
Elaine speaks four languages, and her love for surfing has taken her across the world. “The ocean has become home to me and it gives me a big warm hug and feeling whenever I go back to it wherever in the world I go,” she says. Though she admits that Siargao, internationally known for its barrelling waves, is still her favourite place to catch a wave.
Words by Holly Bodeker-Smith