It’s been just 8 years since the first competitive big wave surfing event was held for women. We’ve come a long way!

Last Monday, November 26th, 2018, 12 women competed for the third time in history at the Pe’ahi Women’s Challenge in Maui, Hawaii. Keala Kennelly took first place.

But let’s back up…

In 1963 one of the foremost big wave surfers of his time, Buzzy Trent, told Surf Guide Magazine, 

“Girls do fine when it comes to housework, raising children, doing office work, doing the twist and even riding the ankle snappers at Malibu. But one thing I can’t stand is girls riding (or attempting to ride) big waves.”

Not long after this statement one women made it clear just how wrong Buzzy was. Bonzi Betty Depolito is famous for charging massive Waimea Bay and Sunset Beach, Oahu, Hawaii, in the 70’s and 80’s. She was one of the first women recorded to have ridden an 18-20 foot wave. She still charges to this day. 

Photo: Daily Motion

Mavericks, CA, USA

Later, in 1999, Sarah Gerhardt became the first women to surf the terrifying big wave in Mavericks, CA. (Sarah was the first woman to surf on a surfboard. Five years earlier the wave was body boarded by Sarah Lucas). Ironically, this was also the same year the Titans of Mavericks competition was promoted as “Men Who Ride Mountains.” Nearly 20 years later and for the first time in history, women are scheduled to compete in this year’s World Surf League’s Big Wave Tour event stop in Mavericks. The holding period for this competition started November 1st and runs through March 31st. If the conditions cooperate, women will compete this year for the first time. And receive equal pay, another first.

Sara at Mavericks. Photo: Adventure Sports Network

Nelscott Reef, OR, USA

The first ever Women’s big wave event was held in 2010 in the frigid waters of Nelscott Reef, Oregon. Big wave charger Keala Kennely walked away as the first ever women’s big wave event winner. In 2014, when Nelscott Reef was made an official part of the Big Wave World tour, Bianca Valenti became the first women in history to win a women’s big wave surfing world title. 

Keala at Jaws. Photo: Sachi Cunningham

Jaws, Maui, Hawaii

Keala also took first place in last week’s Women’s Pe’ahi Challenge in Jaws, Maui, Hawaii. This was the third time the competition has included women, but the first time women received the same prize money as the men. Shortly after the women surfed the competition was called off due to unsafe conditions. Almost no one was making their drops as wave heights reached some of the biggest in history along with outrageous winds notorious at Jaws. Big wave charger and Maui native, Page Alms walked took the women’s title at Jaws in 2016 and defended that title successfully in 2017. A total of 12 women smashed through barrier in this years competition. Here is the list of these warriors: 

Silvia Nabuco, Isabelle Leonhardt, Keala Kennelly, Bianca Valenti, Emily Erickson, Raquel Heckert, Jamilah Star, Andrea Moller, Paige Alms and Justine Dupont.

Paige Alms at Jaws. Photo: WSL / AARON LYNTON

Waimea Bay, Oahu, Hawaii 

In 2017 the first ever women’s only big wave surfing competition (men are not included) was scheduled for Waimea Bay, Oahu, Hawaii. The Queen of the Bay, sponsored by Red Bull, was however postponed until 2018 because conditions did not provide the necessary swell. The competition waiting period just ended last week for 2018 with the same fate. With luck, the Queen of the Bay will run in 2019.

The competition is on honor of Hawaiian Queen Ka’ahumanu, who was also a surfer. The queen is well known for defying the ancient Hawaiian laws which called for strict divisions between men and women.  This Hawaiian Queen committed a crime punishable by death when she insisted on sitting at the table with the king to dine. 

Nazret, Portugal 

Let’s not forget world record setting Maya Gabeira of Brazil. In 2013 she suffered a life threatening wipeout in Nazret. But she came back last October to set a world record by surfing a 68 foot wave. While Nazret has yet to hold a big wave surfing competition for women, you can be sure it won’t be long.

Maya’s World Record Wave. Photo: Surfer Magazine

Puerto Escondido, Mexico

The Puerto Escondido Cup joined the fight for women’s equality this year by including a women’s heat for the first time ever. Bianca Valenti surfed away with the title while fellow female big wave chargers represented Mexico, Brazil, Guatemala, Hawaii and USA. (Isabelle Leonhardt, Raquel Heckert, Polly Ralda, Emily Erickson, and Keala Kennelly respectively) 

Woman surfing big wave

Bianca Valenti charging massive Puerto Escondido. Photo: Melanie Williams

The Legacy Continues

From Queen Ka’ahumanu breaking gender laws, to Bonzi Betty proving women could surf the same waves as the men, to Keala Kennely coming out as a gay surfer, to Page Almas dominating at Jaws, to Bianca Valenti leading the charge for equal pay for women in surfing, the ball has just begun to roll. Women’s Big Wave Surfing has been around for decades, but the world has just started to take notice. Well world, there is a lot more where that came from!

About the author

Melanie Williams

I am a writer and wanna-be big wave surfer. Surfing is my muse. I write about it and how it’s teaching me to live better. I hold certification as a nutritionist, personal trainer, yoga instructor, and lifeguard instructor. My story “100 Days in Mexico” of how a solo road trip surfing my way through Mexico changed my life can be found here www.melanielainewilliams.com

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