Thu, 4 April 2019

The macho world of big wave surfing had better sit up and take notice. Women are bustin' down the door and the times, they are a'changing, writes Craig Jarvis.

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MIGHTY MAYA: Gabeira broke the world record for the biggest wave ridden by a woman. Photo WSL

It was a strange reminder of where we are with big waves today - a solid day at Bay View in Hermanus in the past, several years ago. It was a mean-looking day, with dark skies reflected in dark water.

Strong NW winds gusted across the giant, straight lines bearing down on the take-off reef. It looked do-able, There was a bit of peer pressure to paddle out.barely. There was a bit of peer pressure to paddle out. There were a few surfers in the water, three to be exact, and at that stage no-one knew the correct rock to jump off further up the point. Everyone was still launching into that hideous gully that fills up and then drains out in a gurgling, frantic mess. All in, it was totes uninviting. My suit was on and it was time for the rock jump into the gully of death. A giant set washed through the take-off zone and cleaned up everyone and everything in its path, surging up the gulley like a Hermanus tsunami.

Even the seal colony at the end section was duck diving. There was no way I was out there. It was time to jog back to the bakkie and get out of my wetsuit as quickly and quietly and as unobtrusively as possible. This was a day for unashamed spectating.

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CRAZY KENNELLY: Keala is pushing the outer limits of surfing for women. Photo WSL / Hallman

While perching on the rocks with the bay view, I noticed that there was one person in the water sitting quite wide. A big set swung wide and the surfer went. Goofy-footed, the surfer looked great until a bump appeared and the surfers’ board popped a wheelie and wiped out. Still, fine effort, I thought.

“That's a woman,” said someone on the rocks, “There are women out there.” That person was obviously alluding to my feckless avoidance of the paddle-out, while she had made it out.

Big wave surfing is mainly the domain of machismo and testosterone. Surfers who charge have a propensity to lightly laud themselves and peers with vainglorious adjectives of bravery, and lunacy in the face of danger. It’s an Old Boys Club, where they can gather after the hunt, drink mead and regale each other with the stories of orc battles and dragon kills.

The women, however, are quietly edging closer with a lot less clamour for attention. They are surfing bigger waves. They are paddling out to the big wave spots. They are having a go. Caitlin Moir has a go at Dungeons, Kom and Sunset and Tammy Lee Smith has a go whenever she can, wherever she can.

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MUCH MOIR: Caitlin pulls into a gaping barrel at Dunes a couple of years back. Photo Richard Johnson

So much has the big wave movement for women exploded globally that last year, three big wave events were set aside for women, with two comprising the women’s Big Wave Tour - at Jaws and Mavericks. The WSL has been plagued with accusations of sexism since the Ballito Pro in Durban last year. But this is better. It helps clarify the global perspective of our professional sport, and the vision ahead.

The third women’s big wave contest at Jaws ran in maxed out conditions.There was a time when Pe’ahi was in the "cannot paddle" realm when arm power was never enough. The only way to catch a wave was to get towed in. Nowadays, it is the prime paddle-only big wave venue in the world. Last year, the third women’s big wave contest at Jaws ran in maxed out conditions. So much so, that the men's was called off after one heat in a giant, building swell. Paige Alms was the two times defending champion, and was all-out to get a hat trick until Jaws decided to give them all - the men and women - a proper beating.

Alms said she would not have paddled out if she was free surfing. But it was a contest, and there was a lot on the line. The 2018 Women's Jaws Challenge ran in conditions way bigger and more dangerous than that ignominious day at Waimea in 1986, when Bryce Ellis and Gary Green woesed out of a heat in the Billabong Pro that cost them vital credibility on the pro tour. They're different spots, to be sure, but the comparison about who is deciding to surf what just shows the immense strides taken by women.


PAIGE BY PAIGE: Paige Alms won the Jaws Challenge for the first two years. Photo WSL / Van Kirk

Justine Dupont's 5.50 was the highest score of the day. However, she wiped on another wave and severely dislocated her shoulder. Her focus and dedication, in particular her Nazaré training regime, makes her one to watch.

But it was that madwoman Keala Kennelly who prevailed. Part of her contest experience was to endure the Her sheer tenacity and courage earned her huge respect across the spectrum.most horrific, jaw-dropping wipeouts, but her sheer tenacity and courage earned her huge respect across the spectrum. Plenty of women charge out there, and the next big wave season (this year and 2020) will no doubt see another advance in confidence and skill, with plenty on the line - the lure of prize-money and a legitimate world title. The Mavericks Challenge - at one of the scariest big wave locations in the world in Half Moon Bay - did not run this year, so Kennelly wins the world title by dint of her win at Jaws. Mavericks always gets a few women out there when the waves are good, having a go at the big sets and jostling with the men. These chargers, like Bianca Valenti, get their fair share of waves on big days by pushing hard and by not letting the men walk over them.

That the World Surf League has recognised this and the fact that the women are just as reputable in the big stuff, resulting in this tour, is a massive step forward for the sport. The third big wave event - the Red Bull Queen Of The Bay at Waimea Bay in Hawaii - also did not run (last year) due to a lack of swell.

For Red Bull to recognize the presence of women surfing The Bay, and for Betty Depolito and Wrenna Delgado to get this contest together and all the approvals and go-ahead from the notoriously permit-obsessed North Shore stakeholders and regulators is an incredible achievement in itself. When the Queen of the Bay does run, hopefully this year, fasten your seat belts.

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JAWS OVERBITE: A committed Justine Dupont planes out at Jaws last year. Photo WSL / Hallman

The WSL lost the permit to run an event at Pipeline, and Quiksilver and the Aikau family closed down the Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational, listed as a WSL Specialty at the time, over a disagreement that has never been officially publicized but is assumed to be about money.

Pulling off a surf event can at worst be a serious clusterfuck of egos, hidden agendas, greed and dogma. At best however, a surf tournament can be a glorious version of what Duke Kahanamoku might have had in mind all those years ago. Let’s hope the Queen Of The Bay is the latter.

And by the way, the woman who was surfing Bayview that day was Brazilian charger Maya Gabeira, the current Guinness Record Holder for the biggest wave ridden by a woman.


MAYA WORLD RECORD: Maya Gabeira has bravery beyond most men. Photo WSL / Van Kirk

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