Erin Carpenter will tell you she’s got a pretty cool job, working to protect the public and our local air quality as an inspector with the County Air Pollution Control District.
But Carpenter’s also had a pretty cool sideline—as a trailblazing, female, competitive skimboarder.
Carpenter, 32, has been with the County for about five years, working first as an inspector with the County’s Vector Control program, which monitors animals like mosquitoes, rodents and ticks that can transmit disease, and with APCD for the last year.
An air quality inspector 1, Carpenter works with APCD’s Mobile Source Program, which protects the public by monitoring and reducing diesel particulate pollution emitted by trucks, buses and heavy equipment.
Sometimes that means working with CHP to check trucks at weigh stations. Other times, she’s traveling to talk with business owners and conduct inspections, investigating air pollution complaints, issuing violations and citations, preparing enforcement reports and documents, and answering questions from the public.
“It’s interesting interacting with people,” she said, “and I feel like we’re making a difference.”
While she spends her days testing the air, Carpenter has spent years testing the water, standing atop a board, skimming over the incoming ocean into short-set waves and becoming one of the first female professional skimboard competitors.
Skimboarding is a little like surfing. But instead of paddling out into the ocean to ride the waves back in, you start by racing down the beach on foot toward the water, dropping your skimboard, jumping on and “skimming” on the incoming water into the waves. Beginners are happy to hydroplane along the shoreline. But the best skimboarders ride into waves, perform jumps and tricks and, like surfers, ride the breaks back in as far as possible.
“So, it’s fun to begin with,” Carpenter said,” because you’re like gliding on water—that’s pretty cool. And then you’re like, ‘Oh, I can, like—jump!’ And it’s even more fun. And then you catch a wave and you feel the power of it. You ask people who surf what they like about that. It’s kinda the same thing, just slightly different.”
Carpenter didn’t glide into skimboarding or her science-related occupations in a straight line, but from an angle.
She grew up in Berkeley, California, far from the skimboarding-friendly waters of Southern California. Instead, she was a street skateboarder who occasionally got to water ski and wakeboard when the family visited their lakehouse in Minnesota.
Likewise, Carpenter didn’t aim for science. She studied art. Carpenter earned a bachelor’s in art at UC Riverside, studying “drawing, photography, stuff like that.”
But college indirectly introduced her to both scientific work and skimboarding. To make money during the summer, Carpenter worked with the Northwest Mosquito and Vector Control District in Riverside. And a boyfriend introduced her to skimboarding, even making her first board out of wood.
“I was like, ‘awww, this is really cool,” she said.
After graduating in 2009, Carpenter moved from Riverside to San Diego to be closer to her grandmother—and the beach. Suddenly, she went from being able to skimboard “off and on,” to being able to do it every day, sometimes multiple times a day. And, even though skimboarding “is like 99 percent guys,” Carpenter said the locals took her under their wing, gave her advice and showed her techniques.
“So, I was kind of watching them, hanging out with them, practicing a lot, falling a lot and kinda picked it up,” she said.
Fast, too. By 2010, a friend encouraged Carpenter to start competing. At that time, Carpenter said, there was a small amateur girls division. However, in the ensuing years it “ramped up” into a professional competition. Again, friends pushed her to move from amateur to the professional realm with the United Skim Tour (UST).
Carpenter modestly says she’s never won a first-place prize, but she has won a second, a third and fourth place in different tournaments, competed in Laguna Beach, Newport Beach, Santa Cruz, and ranked as high as 5th overall in point standings in the UST’s women’s division in 2014. Erin also introduced her wife, Lorena, to the sport as well. Lorena now also competes in the UST.
Of course, the downside to physical competition is the inevitability of injuries—and not just getting dinged up by a flying skimboard, wiping out, or being pounded into the sand by the surf.
Last year, Carpenter had to have hip surgery.
“Yeah, I had hip surgery, at 31,” she said with a sardonic chuckle. “I just got back on the board like a month ago.”
Carpenter said right now she doesn’t know if she’ll ever compete again, but she’s pretty sure she’s going to continue to skimboard.
“It’s highly addictive,” Carpenter says with a big smile, her voice rising in a sonic ‘you know?’ “The only way I can describe it, is the better you get, the more fun it is.”
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