Phyllis "Jill" Dameron Albrecht was the first big wave bodyboarder. In 1977 she became the first person to bodyboard Sunset Point and Waimea Bay on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii. Albrecht surfed big waves consistently for years without reservations, without sponsors, and for the pure love of it. According to Bernie Baker, Hawaiian local and surf journalist, photographer, and contest director, “Phyllis was the first boogieboarder, man or woman, to really do something on the North Shore. She was out there putting it on the line, before any of the names you're hearing now. She’s a character too.”
What Baker means by “character,” could mean any number of things. Dismissing the “glide” other bodyboarders preferred, she liked to “bounce” on her bodyboard, skipping down the face of huge waves, sometimes even bouncing over other surfers. She experimented with bodyboard design, sometimes cutting holes or attaching weights to go faster, drilling finger-hold death grips and fastening double leash set-ups. Once when the waves were 40 foot and rising out at Waimea she rescued a fellow bodyboarder, the only other person out, who had lost his fins and board and was drifting towards the cliffs, saving his life. Another time she lost her board and a fin at Sunset and had to be rescued by a friend. Albrecht would cover herself head to toe in olive oil, because “it makes me go faster.” Albrecht was sexy as hell, with a statuesque body difficult to describe and impossible not to mention, and attitude that went beyond even the outermost limits of pure fun.
Phyllis Albrecht, maiden last name Dameron, prefers to be called by her stage name “Jill.” She grew up in Honolulu, Hawaii and first started surfing at Sandy Beach on the southeast side of Oahu as a kid. Albrecht’s mom would drop her off after tennis practice, she would bodysurf the powerful barreling beach break, and a friend would drop her off at home after sunset. According to her childhood friend Edmund Pestana, “she ran Sandy Beach in her high school days,” in the early seventies, “she was a ball of energy and had so much fun doing it.”
Albrecht eventually procured a surf mat, and would drop the mat into the sandy barrels of Makapuu Beach, on the eastern coast of Oahu. When the Morey boogie board came out, Albrecht was one of the first three people to get one, along with Jack Lindholm, founding father of the drop knee. Albrecht also remembers putting together the early boogie board kits.
When I first sat down with Albrecht at her chic and expansive Honolulu high-rise apartment, she assumed I wanted to know about her considerable bodyboarding gear configuration, refined daily over four decades. Starting from the top, she has a custom-made surf hat, white, with extra flaps sown onto the sides and all Velcro covered in order to prevent hair entanglement. Albrecht wears a rash-guard and two wetsuits, with extra elbow patches and a cargo pocket on the front for storage. The hat ties onto the zipper on the second wetsuit. Gloves. She wears scuba fin socks, adjusted so that the seams run along the top and bottom of the foot instead of the sides, to minimize chaffing. Her fins are slighter larger that one’s usual size, but the sock provides padding, tied together with a fin leash. All of this is designed to maximize comfort for three to six hours at a time in the water, which Albrecht still enjoys every time there is swell, up to six to eight foot Hawaiian, or double to triple overhead.
“If your fin is too big you’re not swimming your fin, your fin is swimming you… ok. That's all I got. What else do you want to know?”
I ask about Albrecht’s experiencing surfing big waves.
“Oh, that was a long time ago.”
She is an underground day zero charger. The only information footprint about her is a sublime appearance in Stylemasters by Greg Weaver and Spyder Wills, a section in The North Shore Chronicles by Bruce Jenkins, and canonizing sentiments in the comments section of the internet. Albrecht also has zero perceptible ego and no interest in any sort of legacy.
Carol Philips, bodyboarding pioneer, the first woman to charge big Pipeline, the first to compete against men at Pipeline, two-time US Bodyboarding Champion, and first woman to hold a permit for a women’s contest on the North Shore, says that Albrecht was, “The first woman in big surf.”
“When I promoting women’s bodyboarding, she was an important part of that for me. Here is this lady, who is just charging beyond belief, and for the purest reasons, not trying to get famous, not trying to have any sponsors, just out there riding waves. And really huge huge huge waves. She was completely humble about it all, no ego, she was friendly and gracious and not stuck up. That really impressed me.”
“She is the godmother of bodyboarding.” Albrecht also bodysurfed Pipeline once or twice a year, but only, as she assured me, at six foot.
Albrecht surfed daily during the 1970s and 1980s and was the only true big wave, big day female surfer of her time. She worked nights from 9 P.M. to 2 A.M., and would wake up in the morning and drive north from her home in Honolulu to ride. The only time she didn't surf is if was near unsurfable and no one else was going out.
When she surfed Sunset she would park at Bernie Baker’s house. Bernie and friends could watch from the porch as Albrecht took the biggest drops at Sunset when it was over 25 foot. She would go straight down to the bottom, and the crew watching from the porch would pray that the wave didn’t go over on her. She would somehow squeak by.
Anytime she got a monster wave she would talk to anyone anywhere near her as she swam back out. They wouldn’t know who she was, they would have no idea what she was, and they had no idea where she came from. They just knew she was starting a conversation with them, and she would finish the conversation. Even if they had nothing to say, she would keep chatting all the way to line-up.
Albrecht sat just to the inside of the pack, and would catch bombs that those on the outside missed just by virtue of being five to ten yards further out. As she got better and more comfortable in big surf, she occasionally would drop in without looking back. If she did burn someone, odds are it was big wave maestro Ken Bradshaw.
Albecht would always yell back to Bradshaw from the channel, “I didn't know it was you! I’m so sorry. I didn't know!” He would grumble but everyone knew each other, so it was hard to get mad at a friend. After surfing Albrecht would walk all the way up the beach to the house with her fins on, dragging her bodyboard on the ground, cute as could be.
“Why big waves?” I asked.
“Basically to keep my weight down and it was exciting. And I didn't mind the drive when it was an hour. Now it’s more than an hour.”
“But the waves you surfed… it was beyond what any bodyboarder or any woman had ever done before.”
“Well, you surf the south shore in the summer, and the north shore in the winter. That’s what you do.”
“What did you love about surfing big waves?”
“Well, it was fun to jump around, and it was good exercise.”
Phyllis invented a big wave bodyboarding technique called “the bounce.” Albrecht dug handles and finger holds in her board on the tops and sides, so that she could lift the board up and glide through the air, making distance on big waves with a lot of water moving up the face. “You gotta jump scoop kick jump scoop, to skip over the top of the wave like a dolphin. You get further faster. You kind of don't know what you’re doing but it’s working so you keep doing it.”
Using this technique Albrecht was able to jump three to four feet in the air, and could clear over other surfers if they were paddling.
“What about drop knee?”
“Drop knee slows you down. I wanted to kick and keep going.”
“Did you ever consider a sponsor?”
“No. I can afford my own board. I mean, it's a boogieboard, its not that expensive. I take it to the limit with them but they last me. Besides I don't need a boogieboard- I need my time to do what I want. Plus I wanted to try other boards.”
“You were never interested in doing any contests?”
“I would just surf and go home. I was never into the contest thing. I never hung out on the north shore. I hang out at my house and sow. I have other things I love. I watch tv.”
“She would never hang, she would shred and split!” says North Shore photographer, actress, and designer Shirley Rogers.
Albrecht loved to surf Waimea Bay, but only under 40 foot, saying she felt a big difference from 35 foot up to 40 foot. This was before surf forecasting, but she could feel the difference when the rip started running up the face. Albrecht put in hours out at Waimea, sometimes surfing the whole day, nabbing maybe four waves. Albrecht was out one day when it was rising turned 50 foot.
“I got one wave that was so huge and I was so scared I stayed on it all the way to the trees at Waimea. Somehow the way the backwash was, it didn't suck up and hit the sand, it sucked up and just hit water and I got washed into the trees. The wave splashed up onto the highway. I was holding the branches as the water sucked out from under me.” The highway winds around the beach and up the cliffs framing the bay.
Albrecht inspired the next generation of chargers, both female and male, as well as her own peers. “I used to watch old surf films and I would see this hot chick rushing, it made me want to bodyboard,” says Jason Bitzer, North Shore Lifeguard since 2007 and professional bodyboarder.
Ken Bradshaw and Albrecht surfed big waves together, “She had an amazing freedom. She was a dynamic woman, so feminine and uninhibited. She was absolutely unique. I am glad to have known her and glad to have experienced life with her. I will never forget Phyllis as long as I live.”
Accounts of Hawaiian women surfing bigger waves in the wooden board era, pre-1950s, are numerous. The first is Mamala the Surf-Rider from a pre-oral Hawaiian legend. She was a chieftess who would surf on the south coast at Waikiki or further west, “Very skillfully she danced on the roughest waves. The surf in which she most delighted rose far out in the rough sea, where the winds blew strong and whitecaps were on waves which rolled in rough disorder into the bay of Kou.” The oldest known surfboard to exist, a wooden bodyboard called a paipo, was discovered in 1905 and belonged to Hawaiian Princess Kaneamuna who lived in the mid to early 1600s. Also notable is Ka’ahumanu, a woman who lived from 1768 to 1832, who loved the ancient version of jet-ski step offs, called lele wa’a or canoe leaping. She’d push off the outrigger canoe with her wooden surfboard and ride the wave into shore.
Linda Benson from California was the first woman to surf Waimea in 1954 at age 15. She went out for one wave. Joyce Hoffman was the first woman to surf Pipeline, and also surfed 15 to 18 foot Makaha. Margo Oberg surfed big Sunset consistently in the 1970s along with Lynn Boyer. Even though Hawaiian waters were traditionally the province of men and women together, and women weren’t new to the waters of the North Shore, Phyllis found the realm of big waves to be a “cold, cold” place.
Albrecht was a lone wolf of her time, there were no other women bodyboarders out there so she didn't have backup. As Bernie Baker put it, “She didn't have anyone to share the experience with. Just us guys. And it’s hard to get into a convo with us guys, about what her day was about.” Whatever she did, she did it alone.
At first the other surfers bullied her, throwing their boards at her. “Some guys would be like, I don't want her on my wave, what if someone on the beach if grading me, ha! They thought it wasn't macho to have some girl on a soapdish riding in front of them. They’d think, it depletes my wave, it depletes me, it’s an insult to me. When people yelled at me, I would say I want a wave too. I’m out here to ride waves. You don't own the ocean. I just didn't really give a shit.”
At one point National Geographic was filming a documentary on big wave surfing. They shot at Waimea Bay but had to discard quite a bit of footage, because every so often Albrecht would go skipping through the line-up of men, ruining the entire sub-narrative of the documentary. If Albrecht, a woman, was out there, it couldn't be that difficult and dangerous right?
Was Albrecht a woman above? Was she an exception to the rule that women aren’t as strong or brave as men, or a norm that somehow managed to break through the regressive and oppressive modern norms to pre-history levels of gender equality?
One thing is clear: when Albrecht was surfing the biggest waves ever tackled by a woman, she was bodied.
“The first time I ever saw Jill she was walking to Waimea Bay from the Catholic Church parking lot and I though, that is the most fit and strong woman I have ever seen,” says Carol Philips.
Albrecht’s body was ambrosial, so femininely virile in appearance that no matter what she was wearing, no matter the cut of her bikini or coverage of her wetsuit top, it would have looked to anyone born of Judeo-Christian background, simply amoral. She was a strong 5’9. She wore the smallest bikinis in the biggest surf. Some speculate that her surfing prowess came from the power of her sexuality. She could make men do what she wanted. If she kicked for a wave, others in the line-up would back off.
Albrecht once kicked out to big Sunset, a war zone, where an outside set could detonate like a bomb at any moment. On a whim she took off her top. It is reported but unconfirmed that Peter Cole, the most venerated big wave surfer, who surfed big waves throughout the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, fell off his board at looking upon her. “She spun a lot of people out,” said iconic photographer Jeff Divine.
“People that know, know. I was a dancer,” Albrecht worked in nightlife because it enabled her to be financially independent and surf all day. Her husband Roy drove her to work, she danced, and he would pick her up, then back for sleep or they would get blueberry pancakes for breakfast.
Albrecht was the first woman to put years in, day after day, in big waves. She was out in the water on a bodyboard on days when many who had better ocean abilities and understanding wouldn't go. “My hat will always be tipped to her for doing what she did,” says Bernie Baker. “The day she hung up her guns, there was nobody to become the town sheriff. She closed the door. Anything else since then, is surfing, not bodyboarding.”
Phyllis Albrecht was everything a surfer ought to be: she was tan, she was sexy as all hell, and she didn't care about anything else in surfing besides riding waves. In an industry and a world that loves to hijack women’s sexuality, encourage it’s repression, distort it for marketing, Albrecht was her own woman. She never became any archetype or heroine or even an anti-hero, because made her own money and was just about the ride.
As Carol Philips said, “Phyllis did it because she loved it, she wasn't trying to make a point. She was just going for it.”
There is easy poetry in a woman so wild and fearless. When asked how she did it, Albrecht said, “I’m true to nature and what I’ve always done, sandy beach and deep water. Mountainous, something I could ride with a nice channel. I just wanted to have fun. I may die tomorrow so I’m going to do what I’m going to do.”
Albrecht has been described as “a legend and a menace.” Albrecht is a legend because she did it first, she did it best, and there has never been another. Albrecht was a menace to the dull, established and often backwards North Shore of her era, operating as a renegade against constrictive norms, ahead of her time, far ahead even of our own time. She embodied everything a surfer could be, and should be, to society.