Ultimate Renegades | Meet the Women Changing the Face of Big Wave Surfing
We look at the incredible impact that Paige Alms, Keala Kennelly and others have had on the surf scene as a whole
We’ve teamed up with Jeep, who are celebrating their 75th anniversary this year, to shine a spotlight on some of the ultimate renegades from the world of action sports - past, present and future. Female big wave surfing is an unusual pastime to say the least, and the women who do it are all renegades to varying degrees. They're out there breaking new ground, and going where few others will, or even can. Their stories make for fascinating reading.
Forget the golden beaches and blue skies of Baywatch for a moment - surfing is a sport for the tough. For people with not just physical grit, but the mental strength to paddle out at six in the morning and wait for a wave that may never come. Balancing on a board, being pounded by breaking waves or held underwater for what seems like an eternity... any kind of surfing takes some serious steel.
But there are is still a handful of people for whom even this isn’t enough. People who want to push the boundaries of what’s possible. Big wave surfers, who want to ride the kind of swell that gives mere mortals nightmares.
Mostly, this is an overwhelmingly macho world, but amongst the few people who are brave enough to do battle with these thunderous slabs of ocean there stands a select group of women. Perhaps all the more remarkable because there are so few of them, these women are true pioneers, pushing the sport forward in an area where the risks far outweigh the meagre financial rewards.
History whispers the name of heroines who have taken on and beaten big waves in years gone by. But it’s only with the arrival of the internet that the world has really seen female big wave surfing in all its terrifying glory. Which is why all the incredible women on this list hail from the modern era. These are five of the best big wave surfers in the world today.
1) Paige Alms
To suggest that there’s a famous name in female big wave surfing would be to ignore the fact that it’s an activity that exists almost entirely out of the glare of the media spotlight. However, if there was one name synonymous with riding monster waves, it would be Paige Alms.
Relocating from British Columbia in Canada to Maui when she was just nine years old, Alms took to surfing easily. Six years later, she rode her first big wave at Ho’okipa, and was hooked from there.
Paige now regularly takes on the biggest waves that nature can summon. In 2015, she rode the infamous Jaws – a 60ft beast of a wave that rears its head when conditions create a perfect storm in Maui. It’s a ferocious lump of water that has been measured as the largest wave of the year more times than any other.
"In a world where competition surfing sucks up most of the sponsorship money, Paige Alms still funds her love of big waves by doing odd jobs"
Only a handful of people on the planet can claim to have surfed it. Paige Alms was the first woman to ever tame it, threading the needle with her board as the wave arced over her head, water thundering all around her. The face not only of women’s surfing, but surfing full-stop was changed forever that day, and it was Paige Alms that did it.
But if the feat made Alms famous in surfing circles, it didn't make her rich. In a world where competition surfing sucks up most of the sponsorship money, Paige Alms still funds her love of big waves by doing odd jobs: DIY, painting houses, working on building sites, and teaching surfing.
2) Keala Kennelly
In big wave surfing the stakes are high and wipeouts, injuries and taking a beating from mother nature are simply part of the job. However, Keala Kennelly bears more scars than most.
In 2011, the Hawaiian-born surfer was staring down the most famous, and one of the deadliest waves in the world: Teahup’oo in Tahiti. The swell there at the time was so nightmarishly large that’s now simply referred to as Code Red. It still gets spoken about with hushed reverence now. Filled with respect, but never fear, Kennelly conquered it. Three days later, however, the story was different.
Still at Teahup’oo, and surfing in a memorial competition for the late Andy Irons, Keala went in to take on the big wave once again. This time the gods of the wave were less kind, and Kennelly wiped out hard, getting pushed down my the incredible weight of the water onto the razor sharp reef below.
"Kennelly suffered horrendous injuries, including a deep gash on the side of her face, and another on her scalp, both of which required surgery and 40 stitches to repair."
Kennelly suffered horrendous injuries, including a deep gash on the side of her face, and another on her scalp, both of which required surgery and 40 stitches to repair. The image of Kennelly in hospital prior to having surgery is the first thing that appears when you google her name, and it’s one that burns itself onto your retinas when you see it.
But to regard Kennelly simply as the woman that surfed that one wave and got that one scar is to do her a disservice. She’s been charging big waves since 1998, when she won the Gotcha Black Pearl competition also at Teahup’oo, a title she’s gone on to collect three more times between 2000 and 2003.
Kennelly broke more new ground when she became the first woman ever to be towed into the same wave in 2005. She's continued to set the standard for female surfing in the years since, becoming the winner of the first ever all female big wave contest; the Nelscott Big Wave Classic in Oregon in 2010.
3) Maya Gabeira
You don’t get called the Super Woman of Surfing for nothing, but Brazilian born Maya Gabeira has more than earned the accolade. She’s won the Billabong XXL Big Wave Award no fewer that five times - including four times in a row between 2007 and 2010.
That you need bravery, determination, strength, belief and commitment to surf big waves is a given, but it can still cost a person a lot. For Gabeira it almost cost her her life.
In October 2013, Maya was in Portugal with friend and fellow surfer Carlos Burle. The pair were there to tackle a swell at the infamous Nazaré break. Reports ahead of them heading out suggested that the wave was at a potentially all-time height. They took to the water and were presented with what some claim was a 70-foot wave. Others estimate 100-feet. Whatever the numbers say, it’s gone down as the biggest wave in history.
"It’s gone down as the biggest wave in history."
While Carlos was toed in, catching both the wave, and subsequently headlines, Gabeira fared less well. She wiped out on the face of the colossal wave, getting pounded by the wall of water on her way down. Wave after wave pinned her down beneath the sea.
Surfacing face down in the water, Gabiera was overcome by exhaustion, and was close to drowning. The pounding had also left her with a broken tibia. But this was a woman who couldn’t be stopped. Just hours later, she posted a picture of herself on Facebook, giving the thumbs up to her fans.
Undeterred by the near-death experience, Gabeira headed back to Nazaré little under two years later to face the ocean again. The weaves were significantly smaller – somewhere in the region of ten feet that day, but given the power of the place these were still incredible steps for this big wave riding heroine.
4) Sarah Gerhardt
While maybe less well-known outside of surfing circles that the other women here, Sarah Gerhardt is arguably the pioneer of women’s Big Wave surfing as we know it today. The one who broke the glass ceiling, and showed anybody willing to take note that the impossible was possible - all it took was someone to do it.
She got her first taste of Big Wave riding as an 18 year-old while studying at college in California. Within a few years, and with her appetite for monstrous water truly whetted, she moved to the Hawaii and the iconic North Shore – home Banzai Pipeline, one of the heaviest, deadliest big waves in the world.
Undeterred by the reputation of the fierce waves this otherwise idyllic corner of the ocean can produce, she regularly went out in huge swells, honing her craft. In early 1996, she became the first woman ever to be towed into a big wave.
"The photos sent a message to all that saw them that there are no limitations in surfing if, like Gerhardt, you have the tenacity to try what has never been done before."
However, it was when Gerhardt moved back to California that her place in women's big wave surfing was cemented in the history books. It gave her the chance to test herself against Mavericks – a wave so ferocious that it routinely registers on the Richter Scale when it breaks. Waves anywhere between 25 and 60 feet are commonplace there.
In 1996, she did what many had considered impossible, and became the first woman ever to surf the mighty Mavericks. The pioneer caught successions of huge waves, and local photographers soon started to pay an interest. The subsequent photographs soon filled the pages of surfing magazines around the globe, sending a message to all that saw them that there are no limitations in surfing if, like Gerhardt, you have the tenacity to try what has never been done.
5) Rochelle Ballard
Rochelle Ballard is regarded by many as the best female barrel rider in the world, and along with numerous TV and film roles, and sustained success on the world tour, she has left a lasting mark on the surfing world.
But it’s the fact that this groundbreaking surfer took the acclaim and notoriety onto big waves that earns her a place on this illustrious list. By not only tackling big waves, but slaying them, she broadened the acceptance of female big wave surfers around the world.
"She's clocked up more vertical feet on raging ocean walls than most surfers have had beach barbecues."
Having lived on the famous Hawaiian North Shore for much of her life, she’s regularly done battle with monstrous slabs of water both at home and around the world, clocking up more vertical feet on raging ocean walls than most surfers have had beach barbecues.
It’s not just her love of big waves that makes Ballard stand out however. It’s the fact she was actively putting herself out there to promote the women's big wave movement. As a high profile surfer, she was aware that the recognition she received for riding these monsters would not only inspire more women to do so, but show the world that big wave surfing wasn’t just the domain of a few elite men.
The Jeep Ultimate Renegades
We’ve teamed up with Jeep, who are celebrating their 75th anniversary this year, to shine a spotlight on some of the ultimate renegades from the world of action sports – past, present and future. In this second installment of the series we shift our attention to surfing, asking big wave surf legend Andrew Cotton to pick out his ultimate renegades.