Raquel Heckert on Riding the World’s Heaviest Waves

Big wave surfer Raquel Heckert is perhaps best known for being one of the best female barrel riders on the planet. Raquel is on the cutting edge of what women are able to do in the surf.

 

Raquel Heckart Getting Barreled
Raquel Heckert gets barreled in Hawaii. Photo: Longerina

 

A competitor on the World Surf League big wave tour at Jaws (the only WSL competition to include women which has run to date), an invitee to to the 2019 Mavericks competition (which will include women for the first time), and a competitor in the first ever big wave competition to include women in Latin America, The Puerto Escondido Cup in 2018. Raquel is charging giants and leaving a legacy.

At just 25 years old Raquel is younger than many of the other women competing in these events. But you would never guess she has fewer years of experience when you see her surfing.

 

Raquel Heckarts Puerto Escondido Cup

 

From Humble Beginnings

At age 13, living a half an hour from the beach in Rio De Janeiro Brazil, Raquel was fascinated when she saw surfing for the first time. She begged her dad for a surfboard. He found a used board complete with fins, wax, a leash and bag for about $40 USD. This would become Raquel’s first board. 

“I asked my dad, please if you can afford it, can I have a surfboard? It was flat like a door and so old and yellow but I didn’t care, I was so stoked.”

 

For the next two years, Raquel would take the bus to the beach to go surfing whenever she could. But her local break was really just a beginner wave and very inconsistent. She recalls trying her hand at a nearby beach break but it was a heavy shorebreak, like many Brazilian surf spots. As she messed around in the whitewash, she idolized Bruno Santos, one of Brazil’s best big wave tube riders. She only knew of two other female surfers that paddled out in those heavy waves. They were a bit older.

She would sit on the beach and watch barrel after barrel being ridden by experienced surfers. “I fell in love with surfing by watching them.”

 

Raquel Heckart Hawaii
Raquel on one of Hawaii’s outer reefs. Photo: Waves magazine

 

Not Your Typical Teenage Girl

Then when Raquel turned 15, she forfeited the traditional coming-of-age party that most Brazilian girls have.

“They dress like princesses and change their clothes like three times. I told my grandpa (who helped a lot financially with me) that I wanted to go on a surf trip instead to Fernando de Noronha.”

Fernando de Noronha is a small Brazilian island with a Hawaiian like reef break. Now home of a WSL QS 6000 event. It is known as little Hawaii and Raquel had always dreamed of visiting Hawaii.

This was the beginning of serious stoke for Raquel. After this, she began leaving family behind for months at a time to go stay six hours away with older surfers, at a beach town in Sao Paulo. She began competing in local competitions but always took second.

 

Raquel Heckert Tube Riding
Doing what she does best!

 

I remember one time the boy winner got a brand new surfboard and I got a skirt that didn’t even fit around my ribs. It was always like this, the boy would get a something super cool like a ticket to Peru and we would get clothes the store didn’t even want. I can’t believe we are just getting to equal prize money now. 

 

The Life of a Traveling Surfer

Disenchanted with competitions Raquel wanted to travel to see more places to surf. She dreamed of going to Peru but she didn’t want to go alone and didn’t know anyone going there. At the age of 18, she saved up some money and was ready to go on her first international trip. She knew of a couple of bodyboarders from her local beach going to spend the summer in Puerto Escondido, Mexico. She asked if she could tag along.

But she had no idea what she was getting herself into. She had never even seen pictures of Puerto before.

“When I got there I was like, ‘Whoa, that’s heavy'”

 

Getting Pounded

But she paddled out day after day anyway, constantly taking beatings. Bloody noses and bloody shins, each day she’d come back from surfing and her friends would ask her what she did to herself today. By chance, she happened to be staying in the same building as local big wave rider Coco Nogales. She was frothing so hard to be able to surf like him that she admits to spying on him a little as he would ready himself for surf sessions on big days.

 

Raquel Heckert Puerto Escondido
Raquel Heckert in the Puerto Escondido Cup 2018

 

“One day I paddled out on a day that was very big for me. Silvia Nabuco was on the peak. She was like, ‘Raquel, what are you doing here, you crazy!’”

 

I was like, what the heck, what am I doing here. That day was like other level. But I wanted to be there just to feel it.

 

So she pushed herself. She asked for advice from more experienced surfers and studied their movements. She also says she continued to get smashed, a lot!

 

Raquel in her impact suit before the Puerto Escondido Cup
Raquel in her impact suit before the Puerto Escondido Cup

 

The more you surf the more your brain learns (how to wipeout) automatically. I was learning.

 

Charging Hard Without Sponsors

At 21, Raquel’s Grandfather agreed to help her with a flight to Bali. But when she got there her boards never arrived. She was forced to borrow boards. But looking back on it she sees this as a blessing because a lawyer friend helped her to get the airline to pay for her lost boards and with that money she bought her first ticket to Hawaii, the big wave capital of the world.

 

Most people who are sponsored have everything covered. No, I’ve never had that.

 

Raquel continues to finance her passion on her own, working along the way. She currently provides adult day care to the elderly while charging massive waves in Oahu. Once in a while, some one sees her ripping at Pipe and offers to help cover a flight but essentially she’s doing this without help. But for Raquel, it has never been about the money. It is about the waves.

 

 

Raquel Heckart Barrel Riding
Raquel says, “Surfing big waves was something very natural that came to me.'” Photo: Longerina

 

Surfing big waves was something very natural that came to me. A curiosity about barrel riding. People inspired me naturally, I think it was like God putting them in my way. My dad and mom don’t understand anything about this – why am I staying far from home, why I would get hurt and it would be ok. It was what I was born to do.

 

Competitive surfing for women

Raquel has tried the QS game that many female rippers opt for, but for big wave barrel chargers like Raquel, it’s not a good fit. She entered the women’s QS competition at Pipeline in 2017 but since the women’s contest is held at an awful time for Hawaii (the end of March), the conditions sucked.

“It didn’t look like pipe. It was closing out, there were no barrels.”

She said conditions they day before were actually pretty good but some of the girls and contest organizers were nervous about sending the women out there. Raquel says any of those girls would have been fine but since they rarely get a chance to surf Pipe, they were intimidated by its reputation.

Fellow female big barrel charger Keala Kennelly, left the QS tour when the best barrel spot, Teahupoo, was removed from the women’s tour. Raquel also has paid the price for the lack of opportunity given for women who charge hard in the tube.

 

Racquel Heckert and Keala Kennelly
Racquel Heckert and Keala Kennelly two of the best female big tube riders in the world

 

Big Wave Competitions

In 2017 Raquel had a career breakthrough when, at the last minute, she was invited as an alternate for the women’s big wave competition at Jaws. It was the first time she ever had her travel expenses paid. She didn’t compete that year but just last December she was finally given a chance in the 2018 Jaws competition.

However four days before the competition she injured her knee. When she arrived she had to borrow a board from fellow female charger Polly Ralda.

 

But it was the worst Jaws ever. Waves that I would have never been out surfing in. It was closing out. On small days you don’t paddle for closeouts, imagine a huge day!

 

With Polly’s too thin board and an injury shadowing her confidence, Raquel was just happy to survive. A 50 foot clean up set caused her board along with those of Paige Alms and Justine Dupont to be lost on the rocks. A jet ski also suffered the same fate on that set. Justine suffered injuries to her shoulder and knee. “Thank God nothing happened to me,” said Raquel, “He protected me.”

Raquel was unhappy that the women were forced to surf on that day in those conditions. There was only one more men’s heat held right after the women’s and then the contest was called off for the day because it was clearly too dangerous.

 

Raquel Hechart in the channel at Jaws
In the channel at Jaws. Photo: Waves Magazine

 

Listening to the Body

“We are humans, not machines” Raquel says. When conditions are heavy she prefers to watch for a long time until her body gives her the green light. She says women have to be especially mindful of their bodies when it comes to doing something so physical. Just being a woman means there are certain times of the month when we don’t feel 100%. Raquel says, like any women, she has days where she has to evaluate if it’s a good idea to paddle out or not.

 

The Future for Women’s Big Wave Surfing

“I’m stoked that we have women’s competitions, I just wish they would have them on days that would be surfable, that we wouldn’t have to feel like we are just surviving.

Raquel says equal pay in surfing is something that should have been done a long time ago. It is crazy that it is just now happening.

“Equal pay is awesome, but hopefully we can surf in good conditions. Let the men surf in whatever conditions they want to but hopefully, the competitions can be held for an additional day so the women can surf in conditions they feel safe in. The men have a big wave competition in Portugal [where this is no women’s competition] why not add Waimea or Todos Santos just for the women?”

 

Raquel Heckart Surfing
Photo: Waves Magazine

 

An excellent question Raquel! One thing is certain, whether or not women have equal competition time, Raquel will be out there charging, with or without sponsors. She was born to ride massive tubes, and tube ride she will!

 

Inspire Us!

From a $40 used board to the North Shore of Hawaii, thanks for inspiring us all Raquel! We will all be cheering for you as we watch your adventure unfold!

Follow Raquel on Instagram

 

 


 

Read more interviews and articles with the women of big wave surfing:

Bianca Valenti Interview – Charging monster waves and fighting for equality in women’s surfing
The Fight for Gender Equality: A summary of the movement in women’s big wave surfing
The Shannon Reporting Interview: Sexism, surfing Nazaré, and staying vibrant
Women’s Competitive Big Wave Surfing: A new and long overdue era
Big Wave Women surf historic event at huge Puerto Escondido
International Surf Competition Hosts No Women’s Division: A story of inequality in surfing

 

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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