Story by Sally McGee with photography by Tom Bing
For the past year I have been travelling up the Pacific Coast of the America’s, from Santiago, Chile to San Francisco, California. I always knew that one of our final destinations would be Santa Cruz, the home of Hotline Wetsuits. After feeling such a strong affiliation with the company for the past ten years I decided that visiting the factory and arranging to meet up and talk to the co founder and CEO Brenda Scott-Rogers was a must.
With all the other things to see and do in Northern California, visiting a wetsuit factory might seem like a strange tourist stop-off. Here is the thing though; Hotline were my surfing saviors. I’ve spent the last ten years of my life surfing through the freezing winters of the North East of England and Scotland. At the start of my journey into surfing I really struggled to find a hooded winter suit with a chest zip, all that the shops had in stock for women were hoodless back-zip suits which although great for spring and autumn, weren’t able to keep me warm during the cold winter months in the North Sea. There was a small selection of wetsuits on the market but few shops in the UK stocked them and suits that they did stock often just didn’t seem to fit right and would flush icy water and cut sessions short. It might be that I have a strange body shape, but don’t we all? In the words of Brenda Scott-Rogers herself, ‘there’s no perfect 10.’ When my local surf shop owner Steve Crawford in Scarborough, England suggested I try on a Hotline, I finally felt that I had found a suit that was of the same high quality standard as the guys I was surfing with; a suit that understood that women also want to be able to surf where the waters aren't always warm. When I found out that the company was run by a woman from the cold waters and heavy surf of Santa Cruz, California, it all made sense to me. A woman making wetsuits with women surfers in mind.
Sitting down with Brenda at the Hotline factory we connected immediately, she has a real energy that surrounds her and her personality fills the room. As we leafed through incredible old surf photos of her younger days it was clear to see the passion for surfing and the pride she felt about what she had achieved at a time when it was even more of a challenge for female surfers. The factory itself is like a museum of surfing heritage, a testimony to her involvement and contribution. Old posters, photos, wetsuits and memorabilia lined the walls. Before establishing Hotline as a brand in the USA, she had been an influential figure in the surfing world during an era when women pro surfers were really pioneering the way and ensuring women received the same respect and compensation that the men received on the pro circuit. At just 21 in Sunset Beach, Hawaii. Brenda won the 1978 World Cup and gained notoriety as International Surfing Professionals' prestigious "Rookie of the Year." In 1981 she was rated 3rd in the world. In 1979, in order to support herself on tour and have something to fall back on once she had retired from professional surfing, Brenda co-founded Hotline Wetsuits. This was at a time when, according to Brenda, the idea of women’s wetsuits styles and models didn’t even exist and women simply wore men's suits to surf, Brenda introduced Hotline to the US market and for many years she was the surf industry's only female CEO.
AS WE LEAFED THROUGH INCREDIBLE OLD SURF PHOTOS OF HER YOUNGER DAYS
IT WAS CLEAR TO SEE THE PASSION FOR SURFING AND THE PRIDE
SHE FELT ABOUT WHAT SHE HAD ACHIEVED AT A TIME WHEN IT WAS EVEN MORE
OF A CHALLENGE FOR FEMALE SURFERS.
Brenda is an innovator in the truest sense of the word, she told me that she used to keep a Dictaphone next to her bed at night so she could wake up and make a note of all the ideas that would come to her, some of these ideas have become part of surfer's everyday life. Hotline were the first company in the USA to introduce wetsuits with a front zip. In fact, the first product she introduced was the Vulcanized neoprene and rubber booties that we have all become so accustomed to using. The boots hit the market with great success and the idea has since spread worldwide. However, the women’s wetsuits she produced initially struggled, Brenda recalls how getting women’s wetsuits into the surf shops was a real challenge, the community of women surfers was very small at the time but Brenda and the team persevered and pushed the brand forward by sponsoring a number of pro surfers globally. One particular surfer that they sponsored was pioneering surfer Sarah Gerhardt. Sarah was the first ever female to take on the might of Mavericks, an infamously dangerous big wave spot just north of Santa Cruz. It was the support of brands like Hotline that insured women like Sarah could contemplate the challenge presented by those icy waters. The inspiration for other women that follows as a consequence of this is immeasurable.
Arriving in Santa Cruz after spending some time in Southern California, the beating heart of the global surf industry, it was encouraging to see that small business are still managing to provide high quality products to their loyal customers in the area. Paddling out at the world class point break, Steamer Lane, less than a mile from the factory, it was clear to see that they do have a loyal following and it felt oddly reminiscent of the scene I am familiar with back home; the ‘H’ logo dotted around the cold, misty line-up means that they too have found an affiliation with this small brand in a world of giants. Hotline has a strong ethos of function over fashion, the suits are simple. A slow-burning improvement and development from the suits first produced in the late 1970's, built to fit and last. According to Brenda, it is not easy in such a competitive market to find independent surf shops to stock their product.
Through connections with people like Steve in Scarborough, England who passionately believe in what Hotline do, they manage to survive and continue to develop their technology and nurture local talent who will go on to positively contribute to the world of surfing in the same way Brenda, Sarah, Darryl 'Flea' Virostko and many of the other pioneering surfers in Santa Cruz that have been involved with Hotline have. Money isn’t the driving factor here, passion is. I was humbled to walk around an operational factory, complete with off cuts, scissors, sewing machines, paper patterns and evidence of the craftsmanship needed to produce full custom suits by hand in Santa Cruz. Heritage is something that is important in surfing and the true, genuine innovators and dedicated waterfolk who chip away to improve the thing we are all so passionate about deserve to be celebrated; they are becoming a rare breed. Brenda is vehemently passionate about not only surfing, but women’s place in surfing and I am forever grateful for that.
Sally McGee is a writer and photographer residing in North East England. Tom Bing's photography can be found here: www.tom-bing.com/@tombingphoto. Find out more about Brenda Scott-Rodgers and Hotline Wetsuits here: www.hotlineonline.com