Story by Derek Ferrar
Photos by Dana Edmunds
It’s July on a dune-fringed beach in southern France, and Hawai‘i’s Carissa Moore is pacing back and forth in the scaffolded competitors area of the second-to-last contest of the 2011 women’s surfing championship tour. Having made an astounding six finals and won three tour events already, Carissa is well ahead in overall points for the season. If her nearest rival, Australia’s Sally Fitzgibbons, fails to advance through the semifinal heat out in the nicely peeling head-high beach break, Carissa will clinch the title.
Time runs out with the blast of an air horn, and suddenly Carissa is the youngestever world champion of women’s surfing, and the first from Hawai‘i in thirty years. She does exactly what you might expect an 18-year-old who likes tweeting about puppies, retail therapy and “boy drama” would do: She buries her face in her hands and squeals. And then jumps up and down. “It’s crazy!” she blurts as the cameras pile on. “I’ve had this goal written on my door, and it’s been waiting there for a long time to be checked off. I can’t wait to go home and cross it out!”
In the testosterone-drenched world of professional surfing, where hellmen will be hellmen and naked aggression is a virtue, Carissa, or “Rissa” to her friends, is a beacon of sweetness and light — albeit one liable to hand you your ass in a heat and then gush about what an honor it was to surf with you.
“She’s a refreshing face of humility and kindness,” eleven-time men’s champion Kelly Slater told ESPN back when Carissa was just starting to light up world tour events. “And she’s arguably one of the best ever at her age, in any sport.”
The consensus in the surf world is that Carissa, with her ability to flow smoothly through a range of maneuvers from sick power gauges to progressive, above-the-lip air work, has the potential to carry women’s surfing to a whole new place. She can handle heavy “waves of consequence,” and she can find the barrel—traditionally weaker points in women’s surfing.
Having grown into a solid, five-foot-seven frame, Carissa can summon the kind of raw power that’s more typical of the men’s tour. She’s recently started towing into mammoth waves at places like Maui’s notorious Jaws, and this past winter she became the first female surfer ever to be invited to compete in the men’s Vans Triple Crown contest series on O‘ahu’s North Shore, one of the most coveted events in surfing. While she didn’t advance out of her first heat in either the Reef Hawaiian Pro at Hale‘iwa or the Vans World Cup of Surfing at Sunset Beach, she did finish ahead of one Aussie pro and pulled off a “man-sized” hack in solid overhead surf at Sunset, leaving little doubt that she belonged in the lineup.
“If anything, Carissa was being a little too polite out there,” says the tough and tattooed former world champ Sunny Garcia, who surfed against her in the four-person heat at Sunset, ultimately claiming victory on a buzzer-beating wave that he said he “bullied” his way past Carissa and the other surfers to catch. “If the waves had been really good, I think Carissa would have done a lot better,” he says. “To me she’s really bridged that gap between men’s and women’s surfing, and I think she could compete with the best of the men.”
If Carissa had beaten him, Sunny says, “I would have paddled in with my head up, because I would have lost to a great surfer. It would have been a honor to lose to her, even if it wasn’t an honor I especially wanted.”