Becky Burt just how her name sounds: adorable, perky, energetic, smiley. She’s the kind of girl I always envied—not because of her gorgeous, naturally blonde hair or her button nose or giant blue eyes and flawless face, but because of her sense of freedom and belonging to this Earth in a completely untethered way.
I met her in a local coffee shop last week for our interview. Burt strolled in carrying her own coffee mug cupped in her hands. “I hope they don’t mind that I brought my own coffee in,” she said as she looked over at the barista, lifted her mug, and shrugged apologetically. “I just make mine with coconut oil and ghee, and I’m pretty sure they don’t have all that here.”
We sat down at a corner table and I began prying her with questions. I had heard of Pink Pineapple Surf School, Burt’s brainchild, but did not know of Burt until a mutual friend told me about her. Her story is such a happy and hopeful one that I needed to learn more about it and share it with the world.
Born in Texas and raised on the Jersey Shore, Burt grew up splitting her free time between the beach and the soccer field. Taking her high school soccer team to the state championships twice, she was offered an athletic scholarship to the University of Vermont. Knowing her next four years would be committed to the field if she accepted, Burt opted to forgo the scholarship and spent the year following her graduation from high school traveling as much of the coastal world as she could before finally settling in Hawaii and enrolling in a university there. Most of Burt’s travels came by way of Surf the Nations, a nonprofit organization that brings the joy of surfing to impoverished coastal areas while simultaneously helping the people in various ways such as building schools, medical facilities, and homes.
One Surf the Nations trip brought Burt to Alexandria, Egypt; she claims this trip changed her outlook on being a woman. Although Alexandria is considered a modern city, the women and children Burt worked with everyday seemed far from cosmopolitan. They were timid, modest, and, if of age, burqa-clad. It was a major challenge getting the local government there to allow the girls to participate in the surf camp and competitions. Burt claims it was the full body wet suits they provided the girls with that made it possible. It was in Alexandria that Burt heard rumblings of female genital mutilation and witnessed firsthand the grave injustices and inequality girls and women face there.
Burt spent her first few years post-graduate living on the North Shore of Oahu, the surfing capital of the world, and working full time at the Surf the Nations headquarters there. Eventually, she felt the tug of the Jersey Shore pulling her back, and she returned to her hometown of Manasquan, New Jersey. She worked as a freelance graphic designer and, when the weather permitted, taught surfing with Hammer Surf School, a large, well-established surf camp with locations up and down the Jersey Shore. Burt was one of a select few female instructors in a sea of men. The girls who came for lessons accounted for less than a quarter of the class and they clung to Burt. They were intimidated and apprehensive and much different, Burt observed, than the aggressive slew of boys.
“It was always a competition with the boys. Who did better that day, who caught the best wave,” Burt explained. “With the girls—maybe because it was such a small group of us—it was all about cheering each other on, helping each other. It was about having fun.” Becky remembered when she first started surfing,”It was all about the guys. You couldn’t even go to certain areas, of course where the best breaks were, because they would bully you. My girlfriends and I always preferred finding our own spot, without the guys screaming at us, ‘Go! Go!’ We just wanted to hang out together and have fun.”
The following summer, after working at Hammer Surf, Burt started her own little surf school, which she called Pink Pineapple Surf School and offered private lessons to girls on nothing but pink surfboards. Word soon got out and popularity soared, making it impossible to keep up with the demand for lessons. The next summer season, she hired six additional instructors and offered group lessons, surf camp style.
She found herself still battling for space with the guys. Hammer Surf and Summertime Surf had all the available surf spots on the beach. Pink Pineapple finally found their own little niche at the inlet, which proved a perfect fit: smaller, more peaceful and less aggressive, just like the girls themselves. The only problem was, because of limited space, she still could not keep up with the demand. “I wish I could take them all,” she said, “but, between getting towns to give me permits, finding enough female instructors and beach space not occupied by Hammer and Summertime, it’s really difficult.”
Burt was giddy talking about what a special place Pink Pineapple is. “I love watching the girls gain confidence and have fun and support each other, like a team. They never felt that way when boys were around. Boys always have to better. They compete against each other, and that’s not what surfing is to me. Surfing is about losing yourself to something bigger, letting go and embracing the moment.”
After, yet another hugely successful summer, in September 2014, Burt suffered from what was diagnosed as a mild traumatic brain injury resulting from a freak (not surf-related) accident. After being released from the hospital, Burt found herself alone and severely confused. She couldn’t go back to work; she could barely leave the house. Every mundane task, from getting dressed to making coffee, became daunting. Suddenly, she was experiencing debilitating panic attacks and horrible confusion. As the months wore on, her “invisible injury,” as Burt refers to it, threw her into a severe depression.
“I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t drive. I could barely leave the house. I just wanted to escape my brain. I didn’t even know who I was anymore.” She attempted suicide twice before seeking help again. Reassurance came when doctors explained that this was all the affects of mild brain trauma. The word “mild” doesn’t do the injury justice, as the effects of it are brutal.
When spring arrived, and with it, some mild weather, Burt willed herself to get to the beach. “The ocean brought me solace,” she said, “And I knew I had to keep Pink Pineapple going.” Although summer 2015 was a challenge for Burt mentally, she persevered, thankful that she had the ocean everyday to give her peace and strength. “I knew my best then wasn’t truly my best, but it was the best I could do at the time. My staff was great. The girls were great. It turned out to be our best summer ever.” A big smile washed over her face and her eyes lit up. “Baby steps, you know? It’ll keep getting bigger and better, but there’s no rush. Baby steps.”
Burt’s brain is back to normal these days, and for that she is grateful. “It opened my eyes a lot, my injury. I never understood the fear some people had when getting on a board that first time. I used be like, ‘Just do it. No big deal.’ But now I know. Sometimes, even the littlest thing can be really frightening.”
Pink Pineapple Surf School is one of the few girls only surf camps on the East Coast. And although you have to go all the way to the Jersey Shore to check it out, it is well worth the trip. If the area is not in your travel plans, hang tight: Becky plans to expand, eventually setting up spots all over the nation and beyond. But, remember, this is a surfer girl we’re talking about. No rush. Baby steps.