Born and raised in Seal Beach, Lisa Gonzales has lived a storied life. In 1975, age 18, she became the first female beach lifeguard in Orange County. Around that time she began spending winters on the North Shore, where she grew a froth for big waves at spots like Sunset and Laniakea and Haleiwa. She worked as a spotter for the cameraman on the film Big Wednesday. The stunt doubles were some of the greatest surfers of that era— Peter Townend, Ian Cairns, J Riddle, Bruce Raymond, Billy Hamilton. They’d become surf buddies. In 1978, she won a bodysurfing contest at Pipeline. In 1980, she placed second in the NSSA Nationals at Huntington Pier. She enrolled in UC Irvine, majored in Biology, graduated in 1985. That year she became a flight attendant—and has been one ever since. For twenty years she stepped away from surfing. She got married, moved to Colorado with her mountaineering husband, had a kid. Her son, Bridger Gile, 21, is a member of the U.S. Alpine Ski Team.
Five years ago, Lisa moved back to Hawaii. Age 63, she’s as fired up about surfing as she’s ever been. As she puts it, “I’m making up for lost time.” She lives beachfront in Town. From her bedroom window she can check the waves at Kaiser’s. When she’s not flying the friendly skies she can be found flying across the outer reefs.
After a 20-year hiatus, what does surfing mean to you now?
How can I put this into words? Have you ever seen a time lapse of this flower blooming?
That’s the feeling I get: everything goes away and you’re in the now and everything just blooms. And it just brings such joy. It makes me laugh. I don’t have that many surfing pictures, but the ones I do have, in many of them I’m smiling. It’s hilarious!
It’s nice to be able to step away from surfing. I find that abstinence definitely makes the heart grow fonder.
Yes! When I first started flying, I was based in Newark, and so I lived in New York City, on the Upper West Side. And I loved that, too. There’s that French saying, “Grow with grace wherever you’re planted.” And I guess without even knowing that saying, I’ve always felt like you’ve got to enjoy wherever you are and just embrace it. I think, too, if you would’ve asked my 20-year-old self if I would still be surfing at this age, I would’ve laughed, “Oh, you’re kidding. No way!” And now I mix it up out there. I’ll take off on the biggest bombs. Because of my swimming background, I can paddle. I’m a really strong paddler. People are always like, “Auntie, how do you get so many waves?” And I’m like, “I have to be smarter than you kids to get those waves.”
The water knowledge just gets better with age.
Yeah, I always joke about that. At spots like Pops or Paradise or Threes, where you’re kind of far out there on the reef, I can read the ocean really well. And so it looks like it’s going one way, but it’s really going to ricochet and fade back. Yesterday I was kind of aggravated out in the water. It was really crowded, and I’d just been on a plane with 300 people. People were pretty frothy about getting out there with this first big south swell. But once you latch on to a wave or two, it all melts away.
And also, too, we don’t know. I mean, none of us know how much longer we could do any of it. And I figured, what am I going to wait for? And I mean, my son is happy. He’s traveling all over. And he could be on the Olympic team next year. And so I think, too, I just want him to know that you’ve got to follow your passion. And so I hope that I can set that example for him. And I still really love big waves. I like that ginger ale feeling you get, that fizzy excitement.