First Big Wave Contest for Women

Richard Hallman for the New York Times

Savannah Shaughnessy, left, and Keala Kennelly at the Nelscott Reef Big Wave Classic in Oregon.

Published: November 5, 2010

LINCOLN CITY, Ore. — Women have surfed some of the biggest and scariest waves known to man. They have challenged the towering peaks at the break called Mavericks in northern California. They have elbowed into the crowded wave lineup on Hawaii’s North Shore. They have pulled into heavily loaded barrels of water at Teahupoo in Tahiti. But they had never had their own big wave contest — until Wednesday.

With a smattering of locals and members of the news media, flocks of pelicans, a spouting gray whale and some of the best male riders in the world looking on along the central Oregon coast, three women charged down 20- to 25-foot-high waves in the first female heat of the Nelscott Reef Big Wave Classic, one of five stops on the male-dominated Big Wave World Tour.

Fittingly, Keala Kennelly, a 32-year-old from Hawaii, took the first drop down a wave and went on to win the Top Chick trophy over Savannah Shaughnessy of California and Mercedes Maidana of Argentina in what was a casual competition on a rare clear November day.

Kennelly was the first woman to ride Teahupoo, with the aid of a Jet Ski tow, and she extended her fame outside of the surfing community by playing herself and streaking down slick, tubular waves at Hawaii’s Pipeline in the surf movie “Blue Crush.”

“I’m superstoked for women’s surfing today,” Kennelly said. “All the girls charged, and nobody sat out on the shoulders and waited.”

The Big Wave Tour director, Gary Linden, said he thought female surfers would expand the sport’s reach.

“If we have beautiful women surfing big waves, people are going to want to know about it,” Linden said.

Officially an exhibition, with no prize money, the competition had the look of something that was thrown together at the last minute. All competitors, men and women, learned only last Saturday that a low-pressure system in the North Pacific was throwing off sizable swells and that the event would be scheduled for Tuesday. Men had been invited as early as Oct. 1, but many of the women learned only a week before the event. As a result, there were some noticeable absences, including Sarah Gerhardt, who in 1999 became the first woman to surf Mavericks; Brazil’s Maya Gabeira; and Jamilah Star of California.

But it was a coup to get Kennelly, a staunch warm-water surfer who winged toward the frigid 55-degree waters of the Oregon coast with a determination to advance the cause of women in the sport. She stopped by a FedEx distribution facility in Honolulu to scoop up a wet suit that had been mailed to her just before hopping a plane to Portland, Ore. She arrived at Lincoln City at 4 a.m. Tuesday, the day she was scheduled to compete.

“I kept jumping up out of bed on Tuesday and screaming ‘What time is it?’ ” she said. “I did not want to miss it.”

The women were slated to ride Tuesday afternoon between the semifinal and final heats of the men’s competition, carrying on in 25-foot swells that produced staggering 40-foot — and even a few 50-foot — wave faces, as the swells hit the rocky Nelscott Reef. The men looked like ants streaking down mountains to the hundreds of spectators watching with binoculars and gawking open-mouthed from the Lincoln City cliffs.

But as the day’s toll began to mount — broken surfboard leashes, damaged and sunk Jet Skis (used to ferry surfers back and forth from the beach) and shaken surfers — organizers and competitors thought better of making Tuesday the historic day. A pivotal moment came when the women had donned their wet suits and headed to the beach, only to run into Tim West, a Mavericks veteran who had gone airborne during his heat and then was held underwater by the wave he had tried to ride and the one after it. He was so rattled that he skipped his next heat, and on the shore his eardrums were still crackling like tinfoil.

“He looked scared and said, ‘I don’t want to tell you how big it is,’ ” Maidana said. “This is a guy who absolutely charges the waves at Mavericks.”

Linden, sitting out in the wave lineup on a jet ski and scurrying out of the way as big sets of breakers came through, said he envisioned a women’s heat turning into “a disaster.” Over the radio, he agreed with the women that their heat should be delayed until Wednesday.

A moment after the decision came, a photographer and his Jet Ski driver lost power in their vehicle, were rear-ended by a massive wave and then got swept end over end all the way to shore by the breakers that followed. The photographer, who damaged a knee ligament, said he “thought I wasn’t going to make it, twice.”

Kennelly, long a pioneer among women surfers, said that at some point it was smart to acknowledge the differences between men and women.

“We’re giving up 50 and 60 pounds to the guys,” she said. “They’re much stronger paddlers, and, even then, they were struggling Tuesday with the off-shore breeze and being blown back off the waves like a kite. Think of how it would have been for a girl weighing a buck-oh-five. It would have been like aNascar crash — good entertainment, but not so good for us.”

In Wednesday’s relatively lighter conditions, the women still stared down wave faces four and five times their body length and a breaking point that shifted around the reef and had them skittering out of the way and struggling to set up on waves.

“I’ve never been so pounded on my head in my life,” Maidana said.

At the end of the heat, Shaughnessy lost an edge at the top of a wave, and it snapped her board in half.

Still, there were some golden moments. About halfway through the hourlong heat, Shaughnessy and Kennelly took off down a 20-foot face and split in opposite directions. With just a few minutes left — and many shouts of encouragement from the spectators on the shore — Maidana finally streaked down her first two waves of the day.

Afterward, on the beach, the three competitors talked about a bigger field next year and even a full-fledged big wave tour for women.

“There has to be a women’s tour,” Kennelly said, offering to show up for more events even though she has sworn off judged contests in favor of chasing big swells around the world. Kennelly said she would also like to see more categories for women in the annual Billabong XXL Global Big Wave Awards competition, which rewards riders caught on film in some of the hairiest surf.

Male surfers agreed it was high time for women to have a competition like this to compete in.

“These girls are putting in time around the world,” West said, “and they deserve more.”


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