It’s exceedingly rare for a surf contest to hold the attention of even a dedicated lifelong surfer, let alone a landlubber with no interest at all in oceanic board sports. But this week, a spectacular, snarling big-wave break far off the coast in Maui, known appropriately enough as Jaws, was a can’t-look-away spectacle of bone-rattling surf for two solid days during a “competition.”

I put competition in quotes because when the waves are as life-threateningly large as they’ve been at Jaws, it’s about survival more than winning any kind of contest, even though there are winners and losers.

This event marked the third time in history that the Jaws contest held any form of a women’s draw, but it was the first time in a pro contest that women surfers earned as much as their male counterparts, a historic event.

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It was also the first event I’ve ever seen in which I fully expected a competitor to die. It was that dangerous.

The waves at Jaws on Monday morning were practically unsurfable. Perfect, sure, but so big, moving so fast, and in such succession, it overwhelmed the human physical and nervous system, regardless of gender. When dawn broke, wave heights were a consistent 20-foot-plus, with a strong offshore wind roaring up the face of the waves and extending skyward into great rooster tails of spray reaching 70 feet in the air. The swell was rapidly building, too.

With both a women’s contest and a men’s contest to run, event organizers sent the women out first thing in the morning. And they paddled out into a maelstrom. It was carnage from the first air horn.

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Jaws first came to the surf world’s attention as a decidedly tow-in only spot, considered too big and fast of a wave for a surfer to paddle into with their bare hands. It’s only been in the last decade or so that bravado and a nod to tradition have meant paddling surfers have elbowed out surfers strapped onto boards towed by jet skis. And for the most part, it’s been men doing all the paddling.

It was also the first event I’ve ever seen in which I fully expected a competitor to die. It was that dangerous.

Recent years have seen the world’s best women chargers fearlessly tacking Jaws, but never have they surfed waves as monstrous as what we saw on Monday. In early heats, Maui’s Paige Alms, last year’s winner, shined, as did France’s Justine Dupont. Dupont though, a favorite going in, was mowed down on an early wave and nearly had her arm ripped from her body, suffering a severe shoulder dislocation. She was rushed to a nearby hospital. The rest of the competitors bravely flung themselves into oblivion, some making waves, most not, while diving beneath building-sized waves growing bigger by the minute.

By the time the finals rolled around, it was beautiful madness. Forty-foot-plus waves poured in as if being pumped out by a sadistic machine. Keala Kennelly, the event winner, took home the title even though she didn’t successfully complete a wave. Over and over she’d scratch into a blue freight train, spring to her feet, then go airborne, hovering for a moment in the maniacal winds, before free-falling multiple stories to the watery cement below. It didn’t matter. The judges were so impressed (rightfully) with her courage and strength she easily claimed the crown.

Minutes later, the world’s best male big-wave surfers paddled out. They made it through just one heat before the event was whistled dead, called off for being too dangerous. Something I’ve seen only once before in 25 years of contest watching. Meaning the women just 30 minutes prior were surfing waves that were probably bigger than any men’s big-wave contest has seen in something like two decades.

I watched almost the entire contest with my hands in front of my face, wondering after every horrific fall, broken surfboard bobbing in the whitewater, if the surfer would surface again, even though they mostly wear inflatable vests now to rocket themselves to safety. They always did. It was the bravest display of surfing I’ve ever seen.

“The conditions were extremely challenging,” Alms said after the event. “I probably wouldn’t have been surfing in those conditions if it was a free surf [not a contest].”

“I just got the ass-kicking of my life,” Kennelly said after the final. “I thought I broke my back and was seeing stars down there. I had no CO2 to inflate and I also had no board that I was attached to because my leash broke. So I started seeing stars and thought, ‘I’m gonna black out and die because they’re not gonna be able to find me.’”

There’d been much handwringing amongst the brass at the World Surf League, the governing body of professional surfing, about pay scales between men and women competitors, before the recent announcement that genders will be paid equally. Will people tune in as often to watch the women surfers, many wondered?

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I’d turned it off halfway through the men’s event, if that’s any indication. The women’s surfing was plenty exciting enough for one morning.


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