The Path to the Red Bull Queen of the Bay
Celebrating Kanaka Wahine in History and the Women who Surf Big Waves Today
A new movement of women big wave surfers has emerged over the past several years. Surfing down the face of waves taller than 60 feet and pulling into barrels that could easily fit a train, their feats have eclipsed any doubts that women could tackle the biggest and heaviest waves on earth. Driven both by practicing legends of the sport as well as a new breed of women that’s hungry to pioneer new waves and new heights, their numbers are thick. Justine Dupont, Emily Erickson, Keala Kennelly, Maya Gabeira, Paige Alms, Sarah Gerhardt, Andrea Moller, Bianca Valenti, Bethany Hamilton, Nicole Pacelli, Polly Ralda, Makani Adric and many others are part of the movement that looks not only unstoppable, but is gaining momentum. Keala Kennelly surfed the biggest barrel of 2015 at Teahupo’o, out-surfing the men. Emily Erickson surfs Waimea Bay on a single fin. Bethany Hamilton charged Pipeline pregnant with one arm, then tackled Pe’ahi six months after giving birth. Maya Gabeira died surfing a 70-plus foot wave, and then came back to life to keep surfing. The Red Bull Queen of the Bay, the first ever Women’s Waimea Bay Championship, symbolizes a culmination of their feats, bringing women who surf big waves together at the birthplace of big wave surfing.
The Red Bull Queen of the Bay event is held in honor of Hawaiian women who have paved the way for all surfers, and specifically celebrates the spirit and accomplishments of Kuhina Nui Ka’ahumanu. Born in the 18th century on the island of Maui, Queen Ka’ahumanu was the most influential female figure in Hawaiian history. Far beyond being the favorite wife of King Kamehameha I, Queen Ka'ahumanu redefined the perceived roles of Hawaiian women and ruled as the first woman leader of Hawaii. Defying the kapu system’s separation of men and women, this strong Hawaiian monarch and surfer sat at the table and dined beside the king, changing gender relations in Hawaii forever and ushering in a new era of equality and aloha. In this spirit the women of the Red Bull Queen of the Bay contest will sit at the table, to humbly showcase the raw beauty found in the surf of Waimea Bay, and to demonstrate the strength and grace of the women who ride her waves. The event will celebrate the aloha and mana of all who have come before, and represent a return to the spirit of past women to make new history together.
Women’s big wave surfing has a long and thrilling tradition. Kanaka wahine, native Hawaiian women, have been riding the roughest peaks far out to sea since before any written history. Hawaiian woman paved the way for many women and girls of diverse backgrounds from every continent except Antarctica, to joyfully charge big waves.
Isaiah Helekunihi Walker, author of Waves of Resistance, describes women’s prominence in Ancient Hawaiian mo’olelo, or legends and oral history. In the majority of Hawaiian surfing mo’olelo, women are not only the star characters and protagonists, but are celebrated for their power, skill and dominance. Mamala the Surfrider is one specific legend from Honolulu. It describes the Chieftess Mamala surfing the largest waves off the south coast of Oahu, while people lined the beach to applaud her. Historian Ian ‘Akahi Masterson notes woman figures in Hawaiian mythology along with Mamala, “who hold their own in the surf, displaying great prowess, beauty and mana—chiefesses like Keaomelemele of Kealohilani, Keleanuinohoanaʻapiʻapi of Maui, Hinahanaiakamālama of Hilo.” Walker notes that empowered female surfers and equality in the waves is surfing’s true roots, and that a lack of respect and honor is a twisted product of decrepit colonial social norms.
In 1896 Australian native, Honolulu resident and author and archeologist Thomas Thrum wrote an article entitled, “Hawaiian Surf Riding.” He described the role of women in surfing during the late 19th century and noted that in Hawaiian history and legends, it was more often that, “the gentler sex carried off the highest honors."”
The oldest known surfboard in existence is a paipo held at the Bishop Museum, which belonged to a 16th century Hawaiian chieftess named Kaneaumuna who lived at Ho’okena on the Big Island. Princess Ka’iulani, the last heir to the throne of the Kingdom of Hawaii before the overthrow and occupation, was an avid surfer and rode a 7’6 alaia made of koa wood. Princess Ka’iulani surfed against the missionary’s decrees, helping to keep surfing flourishing in Hawaii, and even showcased her surfing in Brighton Beach, England to onlookers’ astonishment.
In the modern era of surfing, Linda Benson from California was the first woman to surf Waimea Bay in 1954 at age 15. The Gidget movie stunt double borrowed a 10-foot gun on an 18-foot day, not waiting to be left out of surfing that day with her friends. Joyce Hoffman was the first woman to surf Pipeline and also surfed big Makaha. Also of note were Margo Oberg and Lynn Boyer, who surfed big Sunset Point consistently and stylishly in the 1970s.
Phyllis “Jill” Dameron Albrecht was the first woman to be a regular at Waimea Bay and be considered a peer of the male big wave riders of her time. In 1977 she was the first bodyboarder, male or female, to surf big Sunset Point and Waimea Bay and she continued to surf there daily for years. According to Ken Bradshaw, Albrecht was so consistent that contest director George Downing could call the Eddie Aikau contest based on whether Albrecht was in the lineup or not. She loved Waimea at 15 foot and up, but drew the line at 20 feet, “if Phyllis is out, it's not big enough for an [Eddie] contest.”
Avril (last name unknown) was also a big wave charger of the same period. Avril was known to surf Backyards Lefts on some very large days. During one of the days that Albrecht was surfing Waimea Bay, Avril was surfing Backyards and died dropping into a huge wave.
Rell Sunn surfed inside Waimea Bay at Pinballs at 8-12 foot with her friend, the gentle and accomplished surfer and shaper from California Cher Pendarvis. Pua Mokuau from the Westside of Oahu was an accomplished waterwoman, one of the first woman lifeguards in Hawaii (Sunn was the first). Mokuau regularly surfed Makaha well over 10-foot, and was not only a part of the elite Hawaiian watermen of the time but their equal. Mokuau was the only woman on the “Rescue Four,” the Westside jetski rescue unit with Brian Keaulana, working water patrol with him at Pipeline contests.
Red Bull Queen of the Bay co-director Betty Depolito surfed Waimea Bay regularly starting in 1980, pioneering the way for the women who surf Waimea Bay today. Australian Jodie Cooper became the first woman to regularly surf Backdoor and Pipeline, then Kauai native Rochelle Ballard would later set a new bar for mastering tube-riding.
Australian Layne Beachley paddled and towed into a variety of harrowing waves, becoming the first well-diversified female big wave rider. On December 22, 1997, she was towed into 20-foot waves at Phantoms, considered the largest ever surfed by a woman until that point. She also surfed Outside Log Cabins, Todos Santos in Baja, California and was the first woman at the heavy Australian slab Ours in 2009.
In 1998 Brazilian Andrea Moller became the first woman to tow-in at Pe’ahi in Maui, and then the first woman to paddle it. Jamilah Star won the first Billabong XXL Big Wave Award given for 2004/2005, often surfing Waimea Bay with her friends Kim Hamrock and Jen Useldinger. Starting in 2006 Brazilian Maya Gabiera set a new bar for women’s towing, winning five XXL Billabong Awards. She is one of the best jetski operators, male or female, in the world.
Kauai native Keala Kennelly took big wave surfing to the next level. Kennelly was the first woman to tow into Teahupo’o in Tahiti, enjoying it during the recent Code Red swell in 2013. She was the first woman to be invited to the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational in 2016. She also won the 2016 XXL Barrel of the Year Award, the first woman to win an open-category award.
The women of the contest are all practicing legends of the sport and have contributed to its progression in a myriad of ways; Carly Wilson, Shakira Westdorp, Bianca Valenti, Jenny Useldinger, Jamilah Star, Kiyomi Sheppard, Savannah Shaughnessy, Tammy Lee Smith, Momo Sakuma, Gypsy Ann Russ, Polly Ralda, Emilia Perry, Felicity Palmateer, Nicole Pacelli, Kelta O’Rouke, Remi Nealon, Silvia Nabuco, Andrea Moller, Blake Lefkoe, Sheila Lee, Raquel Heckert, Tayla Hanak, Brittany Gomulka, Sarah Gerhardt, Michael Fregonese, Emily Erickson, Justine Dupont, Easkey Britton, Paige Alms, Joana Andrade, Jessica Anderson, Makani Adric. They all surf big waves purely for the love of it.
Most of accomplishments of women’s big wave surfing have been self-funded. The women have battled prejudices, stereotypes, illegal discrimination, nasty threats and a shocking dearth of magazine and film coverage. However, there have bright moments of coverage and support in modern women’s big wave surfing, and many moments that show unequivocally women’s self-reliance and depths of their power and love.
The day was overcast with light wind, and the waves were breaking mid-sized North Shore Outer Reef at 10 -12 feet. It was a very manageable size for Red Bull Queen of the Bay co-director Wrenna Delagado, nothing critical. Delgado caught a wave, riding it to the absolute end, then relaxed and exhaled, watching the wave disappear back into the ocean. Delgado wasn’t yet a mother, but reflecting back on it after the birth of her first child, she said, “It was probably the kind of day I’ll be looking for now that I’m a mom. But I don’t know what I’ll do with big waves now, I’ll just have to see when the first swell comes around. My daughter is my life now, but I also want her to know her mama for who she really is.”
Soon after this overcast day on the Outer Reefs, the City and County of Honolulu Parks Department awarded Betty Depolito and Wrenna Delgado a permit to hold the first ever women’s Waimea Bay contest. Both women have set the stage for a further return to surfing’s roots as well as its progression. Betty Depolito is a pioneer for women’s surfing in both production and big waves. Wrenna Delgado is a big wave surfer who seeks to build a platform to showcase the beauty and strength of the women who ride big waves, creating positive role models who will foster the dreams of the next generation into the realm of possibility.
*Note- thank you to Claudia Woo and Cher Pendarvis for sharing their knowledge. Any corrections or addition to this very brief history are excitedly welcomed, please email firstname.lastname@example.org