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Vol. 20, no. 1
February/March 2017

 

The Women in the High Tower 
Story By: Alexander Deedy
Photos By: Dana Edmunds

The swell is hitting ten feet at ‘Ehukai, the beach fronting the world-famous break called Pipeline. A meaty tourist—more a line-backer than a surfer—is in a losing battle against a rip current, getting pulled out to sea. All eyes turn to the lifeguard stand, where the rescuer is already on her way. Suzy Stewart had helped swimmers in distress in California and along O‘ahu’s southern beaches, but never on the North Shore during the bruising winter season. This is her first. She grabs her rescue board, charges across the sand and paddles out. In a lucky lull between big sets, she reaches the drowning man, rolls him on top of the board and paddles for shore. Glancing behind, Stewart sees a big set coming and knows that if it breaks while they’re too far out, the rescue will be over. Stewart paddles with everything she’s got, and just as the set breaks, she slides to the tail of the board to keep it from flipping. When the white water hits they wobble, then level out and ride the foam to the beach.

That was in 1995, and for the next decade Stewart watched over notorious North Shore breaks like Waimea, Pipeline and Sunset Beach, the last of which she worked so often that Hawaiian waterman Brian Keaulana started calling her “Sunset Suzy.” Tall, blond, with skin tanned and weathered from countless hours in the sun, Stewart is one of only two women ever to have worked regular shifts as a lifeguard on the North Shore during big-wave season.

Breaking into the brotherhood that protects one of the most treacherous seven miles of beach in the world wasn’t easy. Stewart remembers being told (falsely) that there had never been a female lifeguard on the North Shore and there never would be. She sometimes walked along the beach with her long hair tucked underneath a jacket. “I was so frustrated that I was a girl, that I was a woman, because I knew if I was a guy they might give me the chance,” Stewart says.

O‘ahu’s North Shore didn’t have lifeguards until 1968, when surf chargers Butch Van Artsdalen and Eddie Aikau were tapped to make rescues. Those patriarchs recruited young, talented watermen who were at home in giant surf to join the team. There weren’t many women riding big waves at the time, so years went by without any women in the unit. Today there are only ten female lifeguards (out of about two hundred) in O‘ahu’s Ocean Safety and Lifeguard Services Division. New recruits are evaluated on their skills and placed where they’re needed. No matter where lifeguards are stationed on O‘ahu, they have to pass a series of timed tests that includes a combined thousand-yard swim and thousand-yard run in under twenty-five minutes. Once hired, they have to jump into the most dangerous of ocean conditions to bring people back to land. Lifeguards sometimes fill in at beaches when help is needed, so women have occasionally worked days on the North Shore, but there are not any women currently stationed in District 3, the North Shore towers. Chelsea Bizik, a young lifeguard working on O‘ahu’s Windward side, says that each district has beaches that present unique challenges. “There’s no easy spot,” she says. Still, becoming one of the elite among the male-dominated club on the North Shore is a special distinction shared by only two women so far.

The first was Debbie Wayman, who worked every tower on the North Shore but was most regularly posted at Ali‘i Beach Park in Hale‘iwa between 1983 and 1984. Even today, at 57, Wayman’s physicality is rivaled only by her boundless energy. Born in 1959, Wayman grew up on the Mainland and O‘ahu during a time when women stayed home. But she wasn’t one to stay put; she wanted to go where the boys went. So her grandfather took her fishing, to construction sites and to baseball games. “Just give her a pair of pants and a shirt, she’ll be fine,” he’d say. “I was like his sidekick,” Wayman says. As a teen she spent most evenings roller skating a mile-long loop around her house eight to ten times before returning home and going to sleep.

Wayman first saw surfing in the 1960s on ABC’s Wide World of Sports while she was living in Nebraska. Fascinated, she took her sled outside and tried to surf the alley behind her house. Wayman was ten when her family moved to Hawai‘i and settled in ‘Ewa Beach. With little to do, she took up the sport. At the beach the neighborhood boys would tell her, “Go home and cook rice!” In the water they never let her have a wave to herself. Undaunted, Wayman paddled out farther than any of the guys. In retrospect, she says, that helped her become such a strong paddler that she could later hold her own with the men on the North Shore.

Wayman went on to join the Makaha surf team, win the state championship and turn pro. At one time she was ranked among the top three female surfers in the nation. When Wayman lost interest in competitive surfing, she switched to lifeguarding. “It was just a natural progression,” she says. At the time, in 1983, Wayman was living on the North Shore and lifeguarding south shore beaches at Ala Moana and Waikiki when she got a call from North Shore lifeguard captain Joe Mills. “Debbie,” he said, “I like you work Pipeline.” Wayman had been asking around about a position on the North Shore to spare her the drive across the island. But Pipeline?

“I go, ‘Whaat!?’” Wayman recalls.

She heard through the rumor mill that some of the guys were upset that a woman had been assigned a North Shore spot, but Wayman shrugged it off and set about proving she belonged there. There was a good crew at Pipeline, and Wayman’s job was to back up the guys. The surf was big but not huge on her first day at ‘Ehukai when she saw a Mainland visitor caught in a rip current. Wayman grabbed her rescue board and went after him. She paddled through a big set, and when she reached the guy she put him on her board and headed to shore. When they made it back, he hung his head in shame and walked away. “He didn’t want to be rescued by a woman,” Wayman says. Rather than get annoyed, she just walked back to the tower and laughed with the other lifeguards.

For about a year and a half, Wayman had regularly scheduled days on the North Shore, before she went back to lifeguarding in Waikki and Ala Moana. She eventually left lifeguarding to join the Honolulu Fire Department in 1989—one of the first five female firefighters on the island.

When Wayman was working the North Shore, she says, she had no idea she was the first woman with regular tower days during the winter. She didn’t care then and she still doesn’t. 

“I was just doing my job,” she says. “It’d be more impressive if I was a secretary. It’d be more impressive if I did something totally out of my nature. But God created me to be strong, and I roll with that. That’s who I am.”

Stewart grew up in Arizona but she always loved the ocean. At 15 she traveled to Hawai‘i and caught her first wave in Waikiki. At 19 she moved to the Islands and first saw Sunset Beach. The surf was going off, the sun glowed on the water and Stewart was captivated. “I have to be here,” she remembers thinking. “I just felt this pull, a magnetic thing.”

She tried studying physical education in college, but statistics proved too much when the waves were calling. So Stewart spent a few years lifeguarding—California in the summer and Waikiki in the winter. In her mid-twenties she settled on the North Shore, but the commute to town wore her down. She burned through three or four cars and didn’t have money for another. One night she got home and broke down. All she wanted was a chance to lifeguard on the North Shore.

Stewart knew the North Shore lifeguarding captain and lieutenants from the surf lineups, so she went into the office with an ultimatum: Give me a chance or I’ll quit lifeguarding. Captain Bodo Van Der Leeden didn’t have grounds to refuse; Stewart’s test times were always in the top ten in the department. Within her first few days on the North Shore, Stewart was lifeguarding at ‘Ehukai when she made her first rescue—the linebacker—and word spread: Maybe this woman can handle.

Lifeguard Kerry Atwood grew up on the North Shore and entered the unit as a 22-year-old. He spent much of his career at Waimea, a bay renowned for behemoth waves, a place Atwood likes to call “the pinnacle of life.” He had worked with female lifeguards on the North Shore during the summer months but never in winter. When Atwood heard about Stewart, he was skeptical. He knew Stewart had lifeguarding experience in California, but that held little weight in District 3. But Atwood came around. “In the first few months of working with Suzy, I was 100 percent convinced that she was totally capable of doing the job,” he says. “She had the water skills, she had the surf knowledge and,” perhaps even more important, “she had the ability to talk people out of making bad decisions.”

There’s one rescue in particular Atwood remembers whenever someone mentions Stewart. It was late December in 1998, and the surf at Waimea was reaching fifteen feet—huge but not big enough to close the beach. Atwood, Stewart and fellow lifeguard Tom Jenny had been making rescues all day. Exhausted by day’s end, when the sun set the three announced a final warning before heading home. Atwood was already in his car when a Japanese man ran up and started pounding on his windshield. Atwood grabbed his fins and ran back down to the beach, where he heard screams for help from out in the bay. 

There was a part of Atwood that didn’t want to go in. The light was fading, and the lifeguards had already announced they were leaving. Who would still go in the water? Atwood went anyway, diving through the towering shorebreak. When he reached the drowning swimmers, he turned around—and there was Stewart. “I’ll never forget that,” he says. “That really, really made me set her apart. She had my back.”

Both Stewart and Jenny had seen the man running toward the parking lot seeking Atwood’s help. Stewart grabbed a bodyboard from a kid on the beach and followed Atwood out. When she reached Atwood and the swimmers, they all held onto the board and waited for Jenny, who had a rescue board, to reach them and ferry the swimmers back to land. All three lifeguards received a Certificate of Lifesaving Merit from the state for their actions on that day.

For many, a career in lifeguarding has a shelf life. Unable to imagine herself making big-wave rescues at 50 or 60 years old, Stewart stopped lifeguarding in 2005 and started Sunset Suzy Surf School on the North Shore. Most mornings she leads a surf lesson for a few hours. Then, when there’s a swell, she surfs in the afternoon. Stewart runs surf and junior lifeguarding camps for youth every summer, but she shrugs off the idea that she was any sort of pioneer for female lifeguards. Instead, she deflects praise to the men and growing numbers of women who are continually pushing the limits of surfing, riding bigger or more challenging breaks.

Mark Dombrowski, a lifeguard who watched over Waimea Bay for nearly forty years, describes Stewart as the kind of person who flies under the radar, always passing on credit even when she deserves praise. He often sees Stewart around the North Shore, usually after she’s been surfing. It takes a special kind of person to lifeguard the North Shore, says Dombrowski, especially if they moved there from somewhere else. “She’s always dripping wet,” Dombrowski says, “with her dogs and her boards, even if she’s not working. She’s constantly in motion and doing stuff in the water. She loves it.” 

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