SEAN DOHERTY: Women's Surfing Got its Day in the Sun

27 Nov 2018 1 Share

Sean Doherty

Senior Writer

Pic: WSL/Sloane

Pic: WSL/Sloane

Working on a book project with the Abberton brothers a decade or so ago, I remember Jai Abberton had a saying about the surfing life he wanted. Jai, even before all his well-publicised troubles was supremely underground, and that started with his surfing and then went to the streets. He eschewed the crowds and chased swell with nobody around. Jai wasn’t interested in sunny Sundays with sunny Sunday crowds. Jai was all about “Rainy Monday mornings, brah.”  

On a rainy Monday morning today, women’s surfing got its day in the sun.

Just 30 miles apart, two women’s events were running simultaneously, one in diamond-strewn Honolua with a slack-key guitar on the breeze, the other one on the Peahi knuckle a half mile out to sea, the ocean black, the sky leaden, the swell building and doubling up on the ledge. Jaws looked horrific. Surfing it must have been something else.


I set up two screens, risked a seizure watching both, but in reality I was only watching one. Round one was running at Honolua so there wasn’t a lot of consequence about anything. Nobody was losing and we could get back to it. Over at Peahi however, it was all consequence.

The women paddling out today at Jaws did more for surfing equality than any squabble about equal prizemoney. This was confrontingly real. Start thinking of your local spot and look around and try and think of any of your local Big Wave Daves who’d even think about paddling out into that. Find anyone? No? But here were 10 women sitting on the peak on a wild, windy 30-foot day… and taking waves. The best contribution the men made early this morning was Commissioner Snips having the balls to back the women and send them out. From that point it was over to the women. When the women surfed this corresponding event in 2016 it was 10 foot smaller, bluebird, and almost inviting. This was grey, huge and kinda fucking terrifying to just watch.



Brazilian Andrea Moller swan dived out of the lip of a 30-footer, popped up like a cork facing the rocks, had time to say hallelujah, before a second later the next wave mowed her down. It wasn’t pretty. Paige Alms pin dropped from the next one, looking like Flea Virostko at the Eddie just on a wave 10 foot bigger. Keala Kennelly went over the outside rail while trying to wrestle her 10’6” up into the pocket and before she knew it was three waves later in near the boulders. I looked over at Honolua and someone was getting their hair done with the sponsor's product. I pivoted back to Jaws.


The broadcast commentary at Jaws was champagne, best of the year on the Wozzle. Kaipo tangented into a discussion of Satori and the momentary glimpse of truth. The Condor, Pete Mel played it cool and gave a sense of gravity, but Kalama was the star.





Dave Kalama is a Laird-era Jaws OG, done it all, and every comment today contained an unimpeachable slice of big-wave wisdom. I’m halfway through reading Blood Meridian again, and Kalama was sounding like he was commentating on horseback with a blade of grass in his teeth, crossing a simmering Mexican desert pan, simultaneously tracking and being tracked by murderous Comanche. Kalama was The Judge. He had a colour line for everything – “If this is the humans versus the dragons, the dragons would be winning right now” – but he made sense of the lineup for everyone watching, interpreting swell direction and lineup markers and what was actually going on for those of us who haven’t surfed 50-foot Jaws.

Pic: WSL

Pic: WSL

Keala didn’t make a wave but won on the strength of two deep, unhinged takeoffs, but the women all won today. Just how brutal it was, was soon apparent when they guys paddled out. Billy Kemper was a cowboy on the first wave, driving from behind the peak and into a tube the size of a barn. Russ Bierke was then blown off his first wave by the trades, which had really started to kick. He then wished he’d been blown off the next one, instead falling out of the lip and into the void. The swell was building with each set. The 20-second period was running straight over the reef at terminal velocity without slowing. “The rights are raw,” said Kalama, coaching from the booth, “but the lefts have some civility to them.” Instead they called it for the day. Kemper, who’s surfed Jaws since he was a teenager, said it was like 30-foot V-Land.” They’ll come back tomorrow to finish it.


The building swell was good news for Honolua around the corner. We’re so used to waiting for swell at Honolua, and then when the swell comes waiting for waves, and just waiting and waiting but suddenly here was Honolua, pulsing.

The first round came and went with the women still feeling the wave out. Steph Gilmore had the title to lose but fell straight into an unhurried third-gear groove with Honolua. Lakey Peterson however looked a little jinky, losing her read on the wave completely, made worse by the fact that she was surfing against Malia Manuel who was out there dancing.


Lakey’s loss put her into a sudden death heat against wildcard Alana Blanchard, who no one expected to challenge, having just had a baby boy with her man, Jack Freestone. The pair has been living a perfect Kauaian life with their little guy, Banks. I caught the happy little tribe last week in Hawaii. Alana had Banks on her hip, a big kid with dark eyes that look at you like they really know something. Alana was on a blissful motherhood trip and didn’t look exactly like she was ready to turn the world title race on its head.


And yet she did. Her high seven was the best waves Alana has ridden on tour, full stop – top-to-bottom, right on edge and in the pocket from take-off to kick out. Steph watched from up on the cliff and she knew. Lakey fell on a last wave chasing an eight and there it was, Steph Gilmore with a seventh world title.



It’s hard to believe it’s been four years since Steph last won, so commanding is she when she’s on. I spoke with her last week at the airport as she was on her way to California to see whether her Malibu pad had burned or not. We discussed Parko’s impending retirement, and how he – like Steph – has been burdened with the curse of just breezing through the world. “Joel moves through life exactly how he surfs. It’s like he’s got this outlook and this approach to life that makes life look easy.” She spoke of having to play the game this year. She spoke of 30 per cent extra aggression. She spoke of having to act on a stage. She didn’t speak of coach Jake Paterson masterminding this but didn’t have to. She also spoke of how Joel and how one year of all that was enough. She looked relieved today. This one might be the sweetest yet.


Layne Beachley is currently hiking through the Tasmanian wilderness – maybe a coincidence, maybe not – but surely at the very moment the hooter went and Steph was now also a seven-time world champion, Layne stopped for a second, a crow cawed, and Layne began thinking how many QS events it might take to requalify.



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