Men have been competing in The Eddie at Waimea Bay—a big wave competition in honor of legendary Hawaiian surfer Eddie Aikau—for over 30 years. Now, for the first time, women have a chance to compete at the legendary surf spot on Hawaii’s North Shore at Red Bull’s Queen of the Bay, honoring Queen Ka’ahumanu. Ka’ahumanu was the first Hawaiian woman to literally take a seat at the table with men—an act punishable by death when she defied tradition and took her place as an equal.
“Waimea Bay is an iconic surf spot,” says event co-director Wrenna Delgao, a 29-year-old big wave surfer who has lived in Hawaii for nearly a decade. “Hawaiians brought surfing to the rest of the world—this is the birthplace of surfing—and a lot of people say Waimea Bay is the birthplace of big-wave riding. It’s where the passion for big waves was born in a lot of surfers; it’s one of the best big waves in the world.”
To compete there is to engage profoundly with surf history, and women have been working for a while to have the chance to do so.
Women have been surfing big waves for generations—and the event director, Betty Depolito, has been surfing Waimea since ’79—but the surf industry at large hasn’t always shown up to represent the women in the same way it has for men, often neglecting to tell their stories, support them financially as well as they do male surfers, or invest in their community across all surf disciplines, including big-wave surfing. Queen of the Bay is a step in that direction.
The first time women came together for a big-wave competition was in 2014, at Oregon’s Nelscott Reef Classic. Bianca Valenti, a 31-year-old big wave surfer and one of Queen of the Bay’s athletes, recalls the event having just eight female competitors in a full heat. The next year, Valenti had a hand in bringing together the first-ever all female big wave surf event (which was not specifically a one-day competition, as Queen of the Bay will be) at Mavericks. Thirteen women came together for the session—”all the women we knew of who wanted to surf Mavericks at the time,” according to Valenti.
Since then more have join the ranks. The roster for Queen of the Bay features 30 athletes, from France, Brazil, Chile, Guatemala, Australia, South Africa, Japan, Portugal, Hawaii, and the continental U.S. The athletes continue to make huge strides in the world of big wave surfing: Keala Kennelly became the first woman invited to the Eddie last winter (as an alternate competitor—an injury replacement position, but the 2016/17 contest didn’t run due to lack of proper swell), women were finally permitted—at the demand of the California Coastal Commission—to compete at Titans of Mavericks, and women continue to take home awards at the World Surf League’s annual multimedia big wave competition, the XXL Big Wave Awards.
“Every time there’s a big event there are more and more people who are interested, or who are coming up saying ‘Hey, I do that too, I want to connect, I surf, I want to learn.’ People are inspired! It’s that whole role model thing—you can’t be what you can’t see,” says Valenti. “One thing that I have always really loved about competition is that it becomes your community, your culture, your friends. It’s so powerful every time we get to come together, even if its only one day a year, and get to be with the people who love what you love. And now there are a bunch more girls coming out. Anytime you can get together with your tribe, especially when you’re a woman, you feel solidarity and it strengthens and grows and empowers the movement.”
Making a big-wave competition happen isn’t easy. Depolito has been trying to put this event together for years—writing letters, applying for permits, and regularly getting shut down. Once, she was granted permits for March and April, just outside the normal window for big wave conditions at Waimea. Organizers have to get permission from the city and state, secure sponsorship, bring in athletes from around the world, develop safety precautions and emergency response plans, find vendors who are willing to set up shop at the drop of a hat for the competition, and advertise the event to spectators and press. Above all, athletes and organizers have to deal with Mother Nature.
“There’s still a lot to be figured out with big wave surfing events because of the nature of, well, nature. For example, if you research the Eddie, for however many years it’s been scheduled it’s only run nine times,” says Valenti. With a two-month long waiting period—October and November, not months Waimea is known to get cranking— for a big enough swell, and, at the moment, without the right conditions in the forecast, there’s a decent chance the women’s contest won’t run. But that’s just how it is with big-wave contests. That doesn’t mean athletes and directors don’t have high hopes for the next month and a half.
“This is bigger than all of us. It’s bigger than this event. This is really about progression, women having an opportunity to show what they’re capable of, to progress this sport, and it’s kind of cheesy, but to inspire future generations of wave riders. You can do this,” says Delgado. “I was talking to this woman on the beach, this Hawaiian woman, and she asked ‘Do you have any Hawaiians in the contest?’ and I was like ‘No, you know, there are just no girls out there that want to go for it.’ And that’s the point of this contest. To give that inspiration, that goal to work towards; ‘You can get here too, if that’s what you want, if thats the passion you have.'”
Delgado was careful to note that the event means to go beyond “Boys vs. Girls.” Both she and Valenti believe the most powerful way to elevate women in a sport that is 90 percent male is simply to uplift other women, be that by supporting women-run brands, welcoming other women in the lineup with kindness and support, or, of course, by creating communal spaces that showcase women surfers’ talent and help them build community.
“It’s a dream come true for so many people,” says Delgado. “It’s incredible.”
Photo by Matt Paul photography