Hitting the Open Sea with Thembi

Thembi Hanify is irrevocably trans-Atlantic. Hailing from Australia, the graphic designer and founder of the surf zine, Emocean, has had stints in NYC before landing a few years ago in Los Angeles. While out on the West Coast, she's become a champion to diversify the sport that's synonymous with white culture - surfing. We sit with her to discuss. 

Hi Thembi, you’ve got quite an interesting backstory. Could you give us a cliff’s notes into your background?

  • I’m a half South African, half New Zealander, Australian graphic designer and art director. I grew up in Brisbane, Australia and moved to the States almost eleven years ago. I lived in NYC for my first eight years, and then made the move over to California in 2019 in search of warmer weather and right hand point breaks. In 2020, alongside Mariah Ernst, I began working on Emocean - an every person surf magazine championing diverse perspectives, radical creativity, relatability and empowerment.

We love your name - could you give us a bit more color on the origin? 

  • Thembi is a Zulu name and it means ‘promise to’ or ‘trust’. My dad is South African, hence the choice. I love my name but I do have a fake ordering name for when I can’t be bothered explaining the spelling or pronunciation (silent ‘h’!)… Ann, which is my mum’s middle name.

Given your Aussie background, Your relationship to the outdoors is probably a bit more synchronous to your day-to-day existence. With the lush landscapes and beachside haunts, did your childhood see a lot of outdoor activity? Was it encouraged by your parents or something that really came about in growing up ‘down under’?

  • Oh definitely. Growing up in Australia was 90% nature time as a kid, or at least just outside time. I remember having so many big magical backyards to play in, and regular trips to the beach and the bush. I think it was encouraged by my parents but also just inherently part of the Aussie way of life. And we didn’t have screens back then (tablets, smart phones), aside from Saturday morning cartoons on the TV, so we were constantly outside, moving around, interacting with nature and using our imaginations to play.

So you were previously in NYC , and like many,have made the sojourn over to sunny California. Would you say this move really stemmed from a need to closer to the outdoors?

  • 1000000%! In my last four years of NYC I was living in Rockaway Beach, so that was a step towards being closer to nature. But there was still a lot of noise (constant planes screaming overhead from JFK), trash and hustle and bustle there. It honestly took me about six months after being fully settled in California to ‘come down’ from that anxious, frenetic New York City energy and enjoy my new, slower, nature filled life. Where I’m living now in Ojai also really reminds me in parts of Australia. It’s a very comforting feeling.

We’re loving the work you’ve got going with EMOCEAN, and its ethos certainly has a lot of synergy with what we’re doing here at ITA, primarily in it’s focus of bringing a more inclusive narrative to all things surf (and of course, us the outdoors). What was the driving force to bring it to life?

  • The driving force behind Emocean definitely came from a dissatisfaction and honestly a low key rage at the incredibly non-diverse way surf media has developed basically up until this point. It came from over time diving deeper into surfing and its history and being simultaneously awed by learning how the ’sport’ had developed technically, and frustrated and disgusted by the veins of misogyny, homophobia and systemic racism that ran throughout it. I had experienced this personally too growing up in Australia. I never properly learned how to surf there because of the intimidating overly macho, male dominated vibe when I was younger. I only learned properly when I was in Rockaway, circa 2015, with a very supportive crew of mostly women.

What would you say are some of the major barriers to entry when it comes to surfing? Some do see it as a rather inhibitive sport if not for all the equipment, but also the braggadocio that seems to surround the sport.

  • There are so many barriers to entry if you think about it. Financially it can be prohibitive in terms of the cost of equipment or rentals, especially if you live in a climate where you need to surf in a wetsuit. The cost of lessons can be prohibitive too, as well as the cost and logistics of transportation (with a surfboard) if you don’t live right by the ocean. Historically BIPOC folks have been systematically pushed out of living in coastal enclaves, as well as being segregated and banned from beaches. There are also safety barriers in terms of being able to swim - there’s a whole study/story in itself there to unpack around why a lower percentage of Black people are taught how to swim and be safe and confident in the water compared to white people. Then of course there are the mental barriers - feeling that the ocean is scary (it definitely can be!), not feeling strong enough, coordinated enough, feeling embarrassed of making mistakes in front of people, not feeling like you will be accepted in the lineup. The list goes on! This is what I really wish would sink deeply in for the established surf industry and media… sometimes I don’t think people fully feel the gravity of their privilege in being an influential part of that world and in being able to pursue surfing on the regular.

Of the places in LA, what are a few spots that some of our readers could look to for their first foray into the surf? 

  • Beaches in Venice and Santa Monica definitely provide a great spread out area to practice popping up in white wash and catching your first waves. Venturing out of LA, San Onofre is a really chill, spread out, forgiving, rolling break to progress into ‘going down the line’ (going left or right along the face of the wave, as opposed to going straight into shore). Up near me, personally I love C Street, and Rincon. The crowds tend to be a lot more chill in Ventura County than in LA or Malibu. C Street is great for beginners, and even though Rincon has a reputation as a more ‘performance’ wave, it can be super duper fun and chill on smaller days. You just have to know how to read the buoy conditions because there is no cam (on the app ‘Surfline’ - which gives you swell, wind and tide conditions for each break, and many breaks have a live camera view).

Being away from home must be incredibly tough. Where are you keen to visit once we’re finally able? 

  • Oh my gosh, incredibly tough! I used to go home pretty regularly but since COVID hit, it’s near impossible for me to get back. Once I’m able to, I’ll be making a beeline to Australia to see family in Brisbane, Sydney, and Margaret River, then I also really want to do a camper van surf trip around New Zealand, and go and visit my mum and stepdad in Samoa.

We’re sure you’ve got a pretty solid playlist to go along with the mountain rides and coastal jaunts along the PCH - any go-tos that you’ve got on repeat currently? 

  • My boyfriend recently discovered a very groovy Japanese recording called ‘Pacific’ (by Haruomi Hosono, Shigeru Suzuki and Tatsuro Yamashita). It’s kind of surf themed Japanese instrumental pop and it’s a vibe. We listened to it while we were cruising around in Hawaii on a little holiday recently.

What is your idea of #timewellspent?

  • I’ve been thinking about this a LOT lately. My personal ‘downfall’ tends to be becoming fixated on things needing to be done a certain way, on a certain time frame, and everything being very goal oriented etc. Ironically I’ve realized that this really only hinders me most of the time. Being rigid and perfectionist only makes me feel stressed and anxious, and definitely makes me procrastinate and panic last minute. It sounds cliche but my focus has really been on balance, flexibility, surrender, and right intention. To honestly really embody and live these values requires a lot of work… well at least for me! So time well spent for me is relaxed, balanced, joyful and dynamic. Whether that be in ‘work’ or ‘play’. And of course, time well spent for me is with the people I love, in the places I feel most at home.