Two Time World Champ Carol Philips, Was Among the First Women to Surf Pipeline

It was the day after the biggest swell of 2020-21 season. The biggest to hit Oahu’s North Shore in years. Just hours earlier Waimea Bay was at closeout conditions and Pipeline was maxed out. The swell had come down just enough that day to be manageable at Pipe, still showing 15 feet plus on the faces. Carol Philips, big wave charger and two-time Bodyboard World Champ, had her board in the car and protective clothing ready to go. Oh her way to check Pipe she stopped off to chat with me, or “talk story” as we say in the Hawaiian islands. 

Carol Philips Pipeline
Carol Philips at Pipeline

While 2021 may have been the first year ever that women surfed in a WSL Championship Tour event at Pipeline (it was just recently announced that women will have an annual event at Pipe + a local QS event!!), women have long been charging its heavy waves. Carol Philips was among the first. Before she started a successful surf school in the middle of a major recession or ran for Hawaii state legislator, or even before she organized the first-ever women’s surfing event at Pipeline, she was surfing the Banzai Pipeline among the men. 

“I didn’t even feel like I was a girl.” Carol Philips says. “As a matter of fact, I kinda had Pipe for a season to myself before all the Brazilian girls showed up. Then I was like, ‘What are women doing out here?’ Because I had always looked at the boys and they were my mirror, so I never felt any different from them.” She said the men were happy to welcome her to the line-up.

“The men have always been supportive in the line up on the North Shore, at least in my experience. When I was out there in the big waves I felt like everyone kind of had a level of respect. Surfing [among the guys] never was an issue for me.”

There is another story of sexism. We got called all the names.

But Carol is sure to add one big caveat. “Except when we were trying to start the first woman’s contest at Pipeline. Then it’s a whole other story. There is free surfing, having a good time, riding waves, being a part of the surfing tribe–then there is putting 60 women out at Pipe, closing down the surf for a day or two, 14-year-old girls taking off at eight foot (triple overhead) backdoor and pulling in. There is another story of sexism. We got called all the names. Not by everyone, there were a lot of gentlemen who were classy surfers. But a small majority was less than sweet.”

Starting the First Women’s Competition at Pipeline

It was 1989 and Carol noticed there were no options for women to compete. When she decided to organize a competition for women at Pipeline, shutting down the waves to the men for two days, she said she heard everything from “Women can’t surf” to “We are trying to make a living and you girls are just wasting the waves.” Never mind the fact that there were already several other men’s competitions running at Pipeline at the time which shut down the waves to both men and women free surfers. Some men even went as far as going after the event sponsors and filing lawsuits. “It was unbelievable!” .

Carol Philips Pipeline
After surfing for her entire life, Carol is a big believer in covering up for sun protection.

Carol knew what the law said. She disregarded everything the men were trying to pressure her with, went to the city, said “This is the law, give us the permits.” The city agreed and issued the permits. But at the time the City of Honolulu was making calendars only one year in advance. Because there was so much opposition to the contest many sponsors would be apprehensive to put money out for a contest that might not get permits due to its strong controversy. This made getting sponsors a nightmare. Carol says it still is a nightmare. It was very difficult to plan anything with the financial backing up in the air. But that didn’t stop Carol Philips from running the competition for the next 15 years.

Boss Lady and Political Activist, Carol Philips Does it All

Carol spent the next several years involved in politics, partly as a result of all the connections she made through contest organizing. She served a four year term (2005-2009) with the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women, an appointment made by the governor. Endorsed by the environmental advocacy group, the Sierra Club, Carol ran for state legislator against an entrenched incumbent and came within a few votes of winning. 

If the ocean owns you, it owns you. I did not choose surfing, surfing chose me.

And more recently (since 2007), Carol has been running her surf school, North Shore Surf Girls. It was a huge risk for her to start a new business during the great recession of 2007-2008. But it was the right thing to do and it worked. During the course of this interview, even in the middle of the pandemic, Carol’s work phone never stopped ringing. She says it is wonderful to be back in the water. “If the ocean owns you, it owns you. I did not choose surfing, surfing chose me.” Now with the knowledge she gained through the political process, Carol has been able to be a huge advocate for gender equality in surfing.

Equality for Women in Surfing Competitions

In 2019 Carol, along with other female big wave chargers, Keala Kennally, Raquel Heckert, Betty Dippolito and others, worked closely with the Honolulu city council to ensure that for every men’s surfing competition an analogous women’s competition would be held. 

North Shore Surf Girls
At home in the ocean, giving lessons.

“Seeing what has happened in the last year has been amazing. Women are everywhere this year!” The Sunset Beach contest that is normally for men only was scheduled to include women for the first time in the 2020-21 season (but was canceled due to COVID 19). The Van’s Triple Crown of Surfing went digital, allowing women for the first time to compete and win prize money. And the women were able to finish the Maui Pro at Pipeline (due to a shark attack in Maui). This was the first time ever that women competed in a WSL CT event at Pipeline. Carol is careful to give credit where credit is due. Her surf school website, North Shore Surf Girls, states “Credit must be given to North Shore Council Women Heidi Tsuneyoshi, who introduced Resolution 20-21, which urged the City Department of Parks and Recreation, and the State Department of Land and Natural Resources, to adopt new permit rules for contest promoters to allow more women to compete. The efforts of Banzai Betty Depolito, who has for years run women’s surfing events and advocating for more events for women can’t be understated. In addition to the efforts of the Committee on Equity in Surfing and Pro surfer Keala Kennelly.” Undoubtedly Carol was instrumental in influencing this historic change. 

women can do whatever they want in their fields. There are no longer these male-dominated places where they can’t go.

“In women’s surfing, the most stressful part is the financial backing. Women’s surfing needs a financial champion.” Carol references the 2020-21 Women’s big wave surfing competition, Red Bull Magnitude, saying, “Red Bull has always been a progressive company. In the bigger picture, the equality of women makes the planit healthier.” 

Women's equality in surfing
Carol and other female surfers are honored at the capital for their “inspiration and opportunities they are providing for girls today and generations to come, and for their exemplary sportswomanship with one another.”

“The cat is out of the bag on women’s surfing! I just saw an 11-year-old girl surfing Waimea Bay. And here is the beautiful thing about all the women, girls and old ladies out there surfing: The self-esteem that they will have for the rest of their lives will say, ‘Watch out world’. I’ve been in situations where some genetically challenged male is giving me shit and I just think, ‘It doesn’t even matter because I already know what I’ve handled in the ocean.’ So I’m really excited for these women because of that huge self-esteem they are getting that is going to last them for their whole lives” And it’s about time this world has a fresh crop of women who really believe in themselves and support one another. Carol pointed out that when the world sees female surfers charging into big waves “it shows that women can do whatever they want in their fields. There are no longer these male-dominated places where they can’t go.”

Wipeouts and Close Calls

Someone like Carol Philips is bound to have some great surfing “War Stories”. I asked Carol about some of the gnarliest situations she’s found herself in. She tells me a few jaw-dropping stories. 

Bali

Bali is one of Carol’s favorite places to surf. One day while surfing 10-12 foot Uluwatu she found herself in the situation you never ever want to be in on a big day at Ulu’s; with a broken leash. “People were saying how big is was but I was like, ‘I don’t care, I’m a Hawaiian, I’m out there!’” She got one wave and then her leash broke. “I don’t know how I made the cave!” .

“Were you terrified?” I asked. “I think I was just survive-afied. It reminded me of my first time at big Pipe, when I first started years ago. A set hit me and I had to swim in. I was just talking to myself, ‘just swim girl’. No lifeguards came to rescue me!”.

Carol Philips Pipeline
Setting up for the pit at Pipeline

Waimea

The first time she saw Waimea she wanted to go out there one day. Even as a kid when she would drive by she heard it’s call. But that same surf spot that changed her life with its seductive call almost took her life years later.  She was surfing Waimea at close out size, a size that only occurs once every few years. Kelly Slater warned her of the size as she was paddling out. But she was already determined to surf.

Emi Erickson
Emi Erickson on the cover of Free Surf Magazine in 2021. Surfing in similar conditions to the day Carol Philips just barely made it out alive.

As one of the largest sets of the day rolled through Carol found herself just barely scratching over the top of a closeout. Every surfer who has ever pushed her comfort zone knows that feeling of “ohshitohshitohshit” whilst paddling, literally, for her life, hoping by some chance the wave will show mercy and let her over the top. Take that feeling and amplify it several times and that must have been what Carol was feeling as she paddled up a wave with a 40 foot face. She barely made it. As she surfed down the backside of the wave she calculated how she might make it in if she had to straighten out on a closeout. She calculated that she wouldn’t, make it in that is. Long before floatation suits and jet skis, all Carol wanted in that moment was her mom. That day slowed her down a bit. 

But I had fins on!

Another wipeout at Waimea found Carol with a snapped leash being plunged into the depths. It was pitch black. She had no idea which direction was up. She finally figured it out when her foot struck a rock. She felt relief when she saw light above her, only to realized how far she still had to go before reaching oxygen again.  “That’s insane Carol!” I shrike. To which she calmly responds, “But I had fins on!” As if that makes it a walk in the park. I’m beginning to realize just how humble this badass is.

Pipeline

She had another close call at Pipe on a big day, the video of which is now infamous. Carol chose a bad wave and had to straighten out. But the wave caught her fins, picked her back up to the top of the wave and then sent her over the falls. It was like wiping out twice on the same wave. Then by some act of grace her board board popped up next to her, even though the leash had broken. Not being one to go in on a wipeout she paddled back out for more. 

Growing Up Hippie

I was curious how Carol Philips got the confidence not only to charge massive waves amongst the men. Also how she hosted surf competitions in the midst of haters lashing out. Even how later, she ran for office against entrenched incumbents and later still, to start a new business at the height of a recession. She tells me about being homeschooled by a hippie mother, in the back of a valley: “There was no media infiltrating everybody’s brains. I didn’t have any preconceived ideas that I couldn’t do whatever I wanted.”

With regard to the women’s competitions, she said she didn’t think she was breaking any barriers, she thought she was filling a need. There wasn’t a competition, the law said there could be, so she simply stepped up and did it. And all these years later life has come full circle and Carol Philips was able to sponsor the 2019 version of the same competition she started all those years ago. Her surf school, North Shore Surf Girls, was able to step up to sponsor the contest that “Bonzi Betty”, Betty Dipolito, is now running. 

Carol Philips Bodyboarder
Carol bottom turns at Back Door

Carol Philips in the Blockbuster Hit “Blue Crush

Carol had a small speaking roll in the cult classic movie, Blue Crush, a major Hollywood movie filmed on the North Shore of Oahu featuring female professional surfers as protagonists. The story is based on The Maui Surfer Girls. Carol played herself as the event coordinator for the surf competition. The movie actually used her contest staging from her bodyboard competition. The producers paid for the staging but Carol, being the woman she is, said that wasn’t enough, they needed to pay her for the rights to use her event permit as well. All that money went to pay for the contest. So her contest that year was basically sponsored by Blue Crush. She said the movie was awesome because it was a sports movie featuring women, not just women, surfers, that became a blockbuster hit. The movie ended up being the inspiration for starting her surf school. 

Environmental Advocacy

Carol is a passionate environmental advocate. She says everyone should be an environmentalist. She points out that COVID has given the planet a break and she hopes the “new normal” is actually a “better normal” (our thoughts exactly!), where people focus on what’s important – relationships, not stuff. “COVID is mother nature’s way of taking charge and slowing down something that has gotten too out of control – which is human behavior. We are not just on the earth but we are of the earth. We have to see ourselves as part of the whole.” Carol is a big advocate of composting. Her boyfriend teases her, “Most girls want purses but you want a composter”. Carol says she wishes it was a law for people to compost. One of her current political agendas is to give people tax deductions for doing composting. 

The Average Person Can Make a Difference by Eating Plant Based

Three years back Carol and her boyfriend started a (mostly) whole foods, plant based diet. The environmental benefits of eating a plant based diet cannot be overstated. For Carol’s household, they found their trashed reduced by two thirds because they were not buying anything packaged. She has done the math over and over. She found that it costs only $12/person/day to eat organic fruits and vegetables, and this is in Hawaii where food prices are often double what they are on the mainland.

How To make the Switch

Carol doesn’t recommend that people switch from a standard diet to a plant based diet all at once. She says to start by replacing one meal with a green smoothie. The next step is to start eating a salad everyday. She says to have heaps of veggies with some legumes. “Once you put the good stuff in first it fixes the appetite so you’re not craving the junk. Salads push on the stomach wall and make you feel full, versus a cheese which is very calorically dense but only fills a fraction of your stomach so you have to eat more.” The third step Carol advocate is to eat an early dinner and a late breakfast, essentially this is intermittent fasting, giving the digestive system a break. Intermittent fasting is not only good for the body it is a good reminder to an instantaneous gratification culture that it is ok to do without for a while. Just because you can have something doesn’t mean it is best for you or for the environment.

Advice for Women – Skin Protection and Motherhood

I always like to finish my interviews by asking what advice the interviewee would have for the younger generation. For surfers, Carol says the most important thing is to take care of your skin. Carol says the women of surfing are so beautiful and she doesn’t blame them or take offense for wearing their Brazilian bikinis. “But when they are older they are going to wish they had covered up more.” She says wearing protective clothing is the key.

Carol Philips sun protection
Total sun protection. Carol is all smiles after a sessions at Pipe the day after this interview.

Carol is often in the water 4-5 hours per day with her surf school. You can find her in yoga tights, a long sleeve rashguard, gloves, neckgattor, sunglasses, and a hat. The only part of her skin exposed is on parts of her face. For this, she uses Vertra Mineral Based Sunscreen. It’s reef safe and stays on great in the water for an extended time. (If you are looking for a good surf sunscreen we have reviewed a ton of reef-safe sunscreens and have discount codes for you).

when they are older they are going to wish they had covered up more

For non-surfer and women in general, Carol says get your education, it’s the best thing you can do for yourself. And the other big piece of advice Carol has for women is “Live your dreams, but don’t forget to have your baby.” 

It’s almost ironic, as I listen to the recording of the interview while typing this now, I notice that I had to ask her to repeat herself when she said this because my baby is screaming in the background. I’d been feeling a little surf starved with a newborn this winter. So it was exactly what I needed to hear. “It’s good to be a woman and there is nothing wrong with taking care of your kids. Live your dream AND have your baby, DO IT ALL!”.

With that we had to wrap up, Carol didn’t want to miss the tail end of the swell at Pipeline. We look forward to seeing what Carol will be up to next. Checkout the blog on North Shore Surf Girls to keep up-to-date with all of her latest projects. 

Carol Philips surfer
Carol Philips at Pipeline the day after this interview 2/16/2021

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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