Feature: Meet Thea McDonald-Lee

Talking Story

SaltyLips Womens Surf Mentawai Thea McDonald-Lee Surf Girls Salty Lips

Drawing Lines

There are times when the female surf-travel community seems so incredibly tiny, where six degrees of separation appear to dwindle down to an insubstantial one degree. My chance encounter with Thea in South West France was yet another perfect example of this. I was on one of my channel hops over to France to surf and catch up with friends, when Thea and I crossed paths in a bustling French bar down a little cobbled street in Biarritz. Thea was staying with SaltyLip’s Sarah, while she was following the Womens World Tour to Hossegor for the Roxy Pro, as a writer for Australia’s Surf Magazine, Tracks. An incredible achievement, to become a published writer in the surf media, an even bigger accomplishment being of the female variety in such a male dominated industry.

SaltyLips Womens Surf Mentawai Thea McDonald-Lee Surf Girls Salty Lips

Bottom Turning on a Beauty || Photo: John Barton

A year later, on the other side of the world, we caught up in Newcastle, Australia at a surf event,  and Thea was again writing under the Tracks banner. It was here that I convinced this passionate storyteller of surf to have her own story told.

With a warm smile, and eyes that twinkle in illustration of her passion for surfing and it’s talented female participants, we bonded over our wild ideas, shared ideals, and future dreams.

SaltyLips Womens Surf WSL Women's World Tour Thea McDonald-Lee Surf Girls Salty Lips

“Crossing the trestles at Trestles” || Photo: Hendo

This Sydney-born lass spent the majority of her teens in the wild Scottish Highlands before packing up her bag and setting off on her journey of discovery. Her first stop was Sri Lanka as an English teacher, where a chance encounter with a surfing duo set her on a different path, the one of ocean waves and surf stoke. Next came England’s surf capital Newquay (yes, there are waves there, and a vibrant surf scene). Then taking her new found passion a step further, she moved back to her birth country to study Surf Science in wild and beautiful WA [Western Australia]. The world exploration continued and finally her passions crystallised; “The Womens World Tour” blog was born, her writing was and continues to be published by Tracks Magazine and what comes next … who knows, but the ocean holds the key.

SaltyLips Womens Surf WSL Women's World Tour Thea McDonald-Lee Surf Girls Salty Lips

“Welcome to the Women’s World Tour back to Cloudbreak” || Photo: Blair Monk

What does a day in the life of Thea look like?
Since I broke out of the routine of uni three years ago, no two days have looked the same. I’ve moved around through Indonesia and South-East Asia, getting waves and getting lost. I’ve worked on superyachts and sailboats in Europe and Australia. I spent an amazing time with the crew at Pitstop Hill living in the Sumatran jungle and I somehow scored a waterfront apartment overlooking North Bondi. Last year I packed it all up again and followed the women’s surfing world tour around the globe – and fell in love with nearly everywhere I went. Some of it’s planned, but I also swear that life just seems to happen to me.

SaltyLips Womens Surf Mentawai Thea McDonald-Lee Surf Girls Salty Lips

Some Mentawai Magic || Photo: John Barton

Where did you learn to surf and what lead you to become so passionate about the sport and lifestyle attached?
I caught my first ever green wave at Crantock in Cornwall. I was riding one of those Swell foam boards; it was so heavily waterlogged I’m surprised it moved. The feeling was so great I remember running into the lounge room after the session to tell the guy who’d pushed me into my first waves that I’d finally ‘surfed’. He just looked at the elation on my face and said, “I love that best-wave-ever feeling.” There’s always the moment you know you’re hooked.

I didn’t grow up surfing, my parents didn’t surf and no older brother gave me my first hand me down surfboard. It was just two kiwi guys I met while I was traveling in Sri Lanka – they were the happiest people I’d ever seen. Whatever it was they were on, I wanted in. It turned out they were surfers. They were the purest form of froth I’ve ever known and I just didn’t look back.

After wandering the globe for a few years I felt my brain starting to rot and I knew it was time I went to uni and got it back into shape. There was this Bachelor of Science running in a tiny corner of South-Western Australia called “Surf Science”. It took me about a minute to decide I was going to move from the other side of the world to study the waves and the ocean I’d fallen in love with.

Along with studying I took a job at the local surf shop, a real surf shop, where hands still shape boards and old boys come in just to talk story. And stories there were. Remote travel stories, exaggerated surf stories, big wave chargers who run winery stories and on the piss slide guitar stories. Surfing is an entire culture and it’s hard not to get passionate about it.

SaltyLips Womens Surf Thea McDonald-Lee Surf Girls Salty Lips

“The Kiwis who changed my life”

How did you come to write for Australian Surf Mag, Tracks, and what was it like following the Womens World Tour around the world?
Good writing inspires me and the surf culture is so littered with colourful characters that someone always has a story to tell. It just seemed like there was lack of story telling in the women’s surfing department and I decided to write about it myself. I followed a few of the events around Australia and started getting in touch with Tracks just before the Fiji competition. They asked me to write them a piece while I was over there and I guess they liked it because they put it online. I met with Tracks Editor, Luke, a few days after I got back and it just went from there.

I think I had no real idea about how hard people work to get, and stay on the tour, until I started moving around with it. Not only is it exhausting to move constantly from country to country, people get held at airports and miss their flights and consequent heats. They arrive, but their quiver of boards doesn’t, and they have to rush to the local surf shop and speak broken words in a foreign language to get a surfboard similar to what they usually ride. Depending on what competition it is and what place they come, prize money might not even cover a flight, let alone accommodation and food. But my god it’s fun out there and it really is like a big family. Each time you rock up in new place the same crew are there – it might have been their home country last event and now it’s your home turf or it’s new for everyone and you just have a good time. There’s a substantial amount of froth on tour and everyone is there to make surfing as good as it can be.

SaltyLips Womens Surf WSL Women's World Tour Thea McDonald-Lee Surf Girls Salty Lips

“Gordo The Great: Just one of the cameramen/women who work tirelessly every event” || Photo: Maui Nalu

Which was your favourite event on the Women’s World Tour?
Oh, that’s hard to say. Can I have two? California and Maui. Trestles is ridiculously fun (San Clemente and surrounds even more so!) and I can’t imagine anyone not falling in love with Honolua Bay.

Which surfer inspired you most, having followed them around the world? Did anyone surprise you?
Last year when Bianca Buitendag came runner up at the Roxy Pro at Snapper Rocks, she donated all her prize money to charities run by her friends back in South Africa. Charities they’d started themselves because they looked around them and saw help was needed and knew they could provide it. It wasn’t until after the last event last year that I sat down with Bianca and she told me all about it. How powerful, to use a position of privilege to help those in desperate need of basic human rights and protection. I was, and still am, utterly inspired.

SaltyLips Womens Surf WSL Women's World Tour Thea McDonald-Lee Surf Girls Salty Lips

“You can’t NOT fall in love with Honolua Bay” || Photo: Keith Keahi

SURF TALK:

What does surfing mean to you? 
Just the most fun ever.

Favourite wave?
I know it’s not gnarly and I’ve heard so many male surfers talk negatively about it, but Burger World in the Mentawais is just so fun! Put on a snorkel and cruise underwater between sets and it can be such a joy day! A righthander, peeling off an uninhabited tropical island, is pretty much my idea of paradise.

Craziest wave you have ever surfed?
I haven’t really surfed anything too crazy but there’s definitely been a couple of days out in Western Australia when I’ve felt uneasy in the water. We surfed this one place around the corner from Gracetown a couple days after there’d been a fatal shark attack a few years ago. With the coastline there, waves just come out of such deep water directly onto the shelf, it’s exactly the place you’d imagine sharks to be cruising. It was a pretty spooky morning.

SaltyLips Womens Surf Mentawai Thea McDonald-Lee Surf Girls Salty Lips

Drawing Lines || Photo: John Barton

Most memorable session?
There’s a couple of summer spots along the west coast that you mission to get to through the thousands of flies that seem to congregate and the sand that’s hotter than black asphalt. There was this one scorching afternoon where the sand bank just made this head high peeling right hander. You don’t get too many rights in the south-west and there was only a couple of other guys who had done the trek that day. You know there are hundreds of people scrapping on the east coast and here’s a small piece of untouched perfection.

Favourite surfer?
You know, seeing surfing at the world tour level in real life, not just behind a computer screen or from a DVD, is pretty cool. I love Malia’s style and think she has a seamless balance between power surfing and feminine grace.

Worst injury?
Just the standard black eyes, reef cuts and sea ulcer scars. Actually, the worst injury I had in the water was probably wakeboarding. I was coming across the wake when I managed to catch the front edge and face plant the water. I then proceeded to kick myself in the back of the head with the board still attached to my feet and slice it open. The doctor said it was one of the deepest head wounds she’d seen and I felt like an extra from a zombie movie going home with a bloody bandage around my face.

SaltyLips Womens Surf Mentawai Thea McDonald-Lee Surf Girls Salty Lips

A different view || Photo: John Barton

Scariest moment?
I actually came close to drowning in 2 metres of water at Burger World! When it gets mushy and the swell’s a bit big the current pulls pretty hard along the side of the island. I’d come off on the first wave of the set pretty close to the waters edge and my leash caught midway around a coral head, board on one side me on the other. The water was so powerful that I couldn’t even reach my ankle to undo the leash. It’s weird to think I couldn’t just stand up but my feet wouldn’t touch the ground and the water just kept coming. It was the biggest lesson that panicking doesn’t help any situation.

If you could spend a day with someone who inspires you, who would it be and what would you do?
Bill Bryson is hands down the best writer out there. Nothing about his writing is self-glorifying, he goes on some pretty epic missions in his travel journals and he wrote my favourite book of all time; A Short History Of Nearly Everything. To take something as complex as “Everything” and make it humourous, insightful and reveal science to be a complicated game of guesswork, is nothing short of inspirational. I’d buy him a lot of beers in a low ceilinged English pub.

Where is next on your surf hit-list that you haven’t been to before?
Everywhere! But chronologically I’m hoping the Caribbean. I have some friends who cruise around there six months of the year on a sailboat – there’s a lot out there to be discovered!

SaltyLips Womens Surf Thea McDonald-Lee Jaws Surf Girls Salty Lips

“J A W S” || Photo: Thea

Most hardcore surf spot you’ve visited?
I went to Jaws last year and that place is just beautiful! I love how so many parts of Hawaii have managed to stay relatively untouched and the crowd you’ll see on a Jaws day are true watermen and their families. To get from the clifftop down to the beach you have to grab onto the leashes that have been tied to tree roots or rope that’s slung through the branches. And watching surfers trying to get back in, getting washed over boulders till their boards are broken, is dedication to the sport.

Favourite board? 
A couple of years ago Dave Macaulay made me a board, he calls them the Mac Attack. It was 5’10 by 20 by 2 ½ with a pulled in round tail. I was in the Mentawais for a few months in the off-season and just had so much fun on it! I ended up giving it to and Irish girl who was staying at E-bay before I left. If you’re reading this Irish (I’m sorry I can’t remember your name) give me a call, I’d love to hear how it went!

SaltyLips Womens Surf Mentawai Thea McDonald-Lee Surf Girls Salty Lips

Off the top || Photo: John Barton

I love…  ‘Volcom food’ – Indo food that comes wrapped in brown paper and stapled into a pyramid shape. My friend calls it Volcom food because it looks a bit like the logo.

I miss… WA! West truly is best!

I wish… Australia had a little less red tape.

I want… A sailboat.

What three words would describe you best?
I heart life!

SaltyLips Womens Surf Mentawai Thea McDonald-Lee Surf Girls Salty Lips

Surf Stoke || Photo: John Barton

Check out more about Thea and follow her work on:
Website:
www.thewomensworldtour.com
Facebook: The Womens World Tour
Instagram: @the_womens_world_tour

SaltyLips Womens Surf WSL Women's World Tour Thea McDonald-Lee Surf Girls Salty Lips

“California Dreaming”|| Photo: Hendo

SaltyLips Womens Surf Thea McDonald-Lee Jaws Surf Girls Salty Lips

“How you get from the top of the cliff to the bottom – Jaws” || Photo: Thea

SaltyLips Womens Surf WSL Women's World Tour Thea McDonald-Lee Surf Girls Salty Lips

“In Hana, your fruit comes from the trees, not a grocery store” || Photo: Thea

SaltyLips Womens Surf WSL Women's World Tour Thea McDonald-Lee Surf Girls Salty Lips

“Sally Fitzgibbons always trains before the sun rises … here she’s at Winkipop” || Photo: Thea

SaltyLips Womens Surf WSL Thea McDonald-Lee Surf Girls Salty Lips

“That time Medina won a World Title” || Photo: Thea

SaltyLips Womens Surf WSL Thea McDonald-Lee Surf Girls Salty Lips

“Tents, couches, back seats of cars. Airports, boats, and hotel room floors. I slept in some pretty funny places last year” || Photo: Thea

SaltyLips Womens Surf WSL Women's World Tour Thea McDonald-Lee Surf Girls Salty Lips

“The girls finally get an event back in Hawaii” || Photo: Thea

SaltyLips Womens Surf Thea McDonald-Lee Scotland Surf Girls Salty Lips

“Surf in Scotland … never again!” || Photo: Su McDonald

SaltyLips Womens Surf WSL Women's World Tour Thea McDonald-Lee Surf Girls Salty Lips

“Downtime at the Swatch Pro in France” || Photo: Thea

SaltyLips Womens Surf WSL Women's World Tour Thea McDonald-Lee Surf Girls Salty Lips

“Blessings over Snapper Rocks” || Photo: Thea

SaltyLips Womens Surf WSL Women's World Tour Thea McDonald-Lee Surf Girls Salty Lips

“Laying a wreath in memory of the 20th anniversary of the death of Mark Foo” || Photo: Thea

SaltyLips Womens Surf WSL Women's World Tour Thea McDonald-Lee Surf Girls Salty Lips

“That time Steph won 6 world titles” || Photo: Thea

SaltyLips Womens Surf Thea McDonald-Lee Surf Girls Salty Lips

“With the kids on my first ever trip away – 10 years on and I still haven’t gone home” || Photo: Lou Gray

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