Rachel Tanaka ’17 does her best thinking in the water — most recently in the middle of a hurricane.
Last fall, she was surfing at her favorite local surf spot, or “home break” as she calls it, in Southampton, New York, as Hurricane Cristobel created havoc in the Atlantic. Suddenly it became crystal clear to her what she wanted to do for the rest of her life.
“I made the decision to switch to marine sciences this fall,” she said. “I had this epiphany. Since I love the water so much, why don’t I do something like this for a living?”
Surfing isn’t a career goal because Rachel doesn’t surf competitively. She does have sponsors — including Xt Outfitters, EVA bikinis, Rasta Surf Cult, Uptikal and Pura Vida Bracelets — who contacted her after seeing her posts on Instagram.
Rachel currently has her sights set on working for Surfline.com or the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration someday, predicting weather conditions for fellow surfers.
The sophomore biology major is currently enjoying a course called the Biology and Conservation of Seabirds but is really stoked about an upcoming sea turtle biology and conservation class she will be taking next semester.
“It’s hard to be a surfer and not be an environmentalist,” Rachel said. “When we get out of the water we usually walk along the beach and pick up garbage. It’s our home and we look at it as if someone is dumping garbage in our home.”
Although surfing is her first love, she is also a free-diver, able to descend to 60 feet below the water’s surface without the benefit of oxygen tanks. Rachel can hold her breath underwater for up to two minutes while studying marine life.
When Hurricane Cristobel churned up Long Island waters, Rachel’s ability to hold her breath while under water was put to the test. She wiped out and was held down by the unrelenting surf. “I went down and as soon as I came up another wave crashed and pulled me down again. I was spinning around like I was in a washing machine,” she said.
At 4′ 11″, in a mostly male sport, Rachel joked that her stature renders her nearly a “grom,” a word used to describe child surfers. Although she has many male surfer friends, she said that many men do not take women surfers seriously. “There are so few in the Northeast who do what we do year-round. On Long Island women make up about one percent of the surfing population.”
Being small has its advantages, though. “Having a low center of gravity makes you a better surfer,” she said.
Nothing focuses Rachel like the science of surfing. “When I’m out there I’m looking at the horizon watching the sets. You’ve got to gauge how far apart they are and know when to paddle out. If you paddle out when the set is coming in you can get ‘worked.’ So you’re always judging where and how they will break.”
For Rachel, no matter what the conditions, the ocean is her wet lab, humbling, always with new lessons to learn. And always another wave to ride.