On a blustery Friday last November, as a thirty-foot swell was building on Maui’s north shore, word quickly spread through the surfing world that the Pe‘ahi Challenge—the surfing contest at the notorious break popularly known as Jaws—was on. Thirty-six of the world’s top big-wave surfers had been anxiously awaiting the green light. Among them were a dozen women from six countries.
It was the first year the World Surf League opened the door of its Big Wave Tour to women, and these trailblazing athletes were ready to paddle into the monster surf to make a statement:
We can do this.
The swell continued to build as the first women’s heat began. Right away a cleanup set mowed down all six women in the water. By the time the heat was over, two women were headed to the emergency room with torn ligaments in their knees. During the second heat a wave tackled one woman from behind, snapping her board in two, and another woman was knocked out of competition with a sprained knee. Only three women made it to the finals. In the end, Maui local Paige Alms took home the championship trophy and the $15,000 prize. “I was stoked beyond words,” Alms says.
Big-wave surfing was once a man’s game. But as the first women to compete at Pe‘ahi demonstrated, they can hold their own—and take their lickings—in extra-extra-large surf as well as anyone. Still, only a handful of women surfers are drawn to ride the world’s largest waves. They are an internationally mixed, tight-knit group, and they support and cheer each other on. As pioneers on the frontier of this potentially deadly sport, they organize their lives around the ocean’s call. “On a good wave you want to scream your heart off,” says Andrea Moller, a Brazilian who now lives on Maui and was one of the first women to surf Pe‘ahi. “You wait months and months for those few seconds.”
The roots of women’s big-wave surfing include a little girl whose father was an amateur astronomer. He moved his family to Hawai‘i Island in the late 1970s because he wanted to be close to the observatories atop Mauna Kea, but the family ended up homeless, camping in beach parks. “I spent my early years unsupervised, playing in the ocean,” says the now-grown Sarah Gerhardt. “That started everything.”
By the time Gerhardt was seven, her mother was dealing with increasingly degenerative muscular dystrophy. But her mom made a bold move, taking her two daughters to San Luis Obispo, California, so she could attend graduate school. By then quadriplegic, it took her seven years to complete her master’s degree in counseling. Meanwhile, Gerhardt cared for her, sleeping by her side, helping her get dressed every morning and accompanying her to college at night.
Gerhardt herself suffered from severe asthma and allergies, which frequently sent her to the hospital. She didn’t make it back to the beach until the seventh grade. As she and a friend played in the frigid water and watched surfers ride the waves, her allergies vanished and something shifted inside of her. “I felt so alive and all my troubles disappeared,” she says. “That was profound, because I had a lot of troubles.” She was determined to try this magical, liberating sport. It took her two years to procure a wetsuit and surfboard, and when she did she gave little thought to the fact that she would be the only girl out there. “I didn’t have the social awareness to be aware of the fact that I was doing anything pioneering,” she says.
Gerhardt thrived in the water, and she became the first female surfer to paddle out at some of the gnarliest California surf spots. “I think it was due to my mom’s fierce determination to overcome terrible circumstances,” she says. “She didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Her life was such a positive, compassionate, passionate life, and that’s really what was instilled in me.”
In 1999, Gerhardt became the first woman to take the intimidating drop at Mavericks, the infamous Northern California big-wave surf spot. At the time, she was also working on a PhD in physical chemistry, which she earned in 2003. Now 42, she and her husband (also a big-wave surfer) are raising two kids, and she teaches chemistry at Cabrillo College. Her love of the ocean is unabated. “I have a really hard time going a day without seeing it,” she says. “I have arranged my life so I can go swimming between classes or do a quick run or practice yoga. When I do get a chance to be in the water, I’m ready to go.”
Having an unusual childhood seems to be a catalyst in the development of big-wave surfers. Take Alms, for in-stance. When she was seven, her mom sold their house in Victoria, British Columbia, and they flew to Australia, where they traveled the country and camped in a Volkswagen van for ten months. On the way back they stopped on Maui to visit her aunt and uncle, then decided to stay.
Alms learned to bodyboard that first year. When she was ten her aunt gave her an old surfboard, and she taught herself how to surf. Three years later, at age 13, she won the under-17 division of the US Surfing Federation National Championships in Oceanside, California. Planning to become a competitive surfer on the global circuit, Alms competed in many contests during her teenage years but found the events disappointing. Most of the locations were beach breaks with waist-high waves, not the reefs and big waves she loved. She eventually called it quits.
Meanwhile, when she was 15, an older friend paddled out with her to surf giant waves on an outer reef. She loved the feeling of having survived the big waves on a big board, and the fact that she was the first girl who had ever surfed out there. When her surfing peers and the boys she grew up with started paddling out at Pe‘ahi, she didn’t want to get left behind. “I was like, ‘Hey if these guys can do it, I’m pretty sure I can, too,’” she says. She’s been paddling out at Pe‘ahi every winter since.
If Alms has a natural inclination toward big-wave surfing, Emily Erickson has a genetic predisposition. Born on O‘ahu, she is the daughter of the big-wave surfer, waterman and retired North Shore lifeguard Roger Erickson, who twice participated in the Eddie Aikau contest, the big-wave invitational at Waimea bay.
Erickson left O‘ahu at age six when her family moved to the East Coast. Then her parents split up, and she had no communication with her father for a decade. After coming back to O‘ahu to attend the University of Hawai‘i, she reconnected with her dad and started busing up to the North Shore to bodyboard at Sunset Beach. “Dad had these big old boards sitting there,” she recalls. “I ended up surfing the old single-fins and hanging out with the older dudes at Sunset.” Her favorite board to this day is a 9’11” gun that her dad shaped a few years after she was born. “It is a perfect fit for me,” she says.
Erickson, who describes herself as eccentric like her dad, lives in a tiny house nestled under towering mango and avocado trees a few blocks from Sunset Beach. She says that her time in the ocean has been the best form of therapy after a tumultuous childhood. “It has helped me figure out a lot of things,” she says. “I used to be super shy and have a hard time expressing myself, but the ocean has given me a thousand different ways to do that.”
Roger Erickson is now seventy and doesn’t surf anymore, but his legacy lives on in his daughter. “Our family has a genetic leaning toward getting big rushes,” he says with pride, “but she has upped the genetic code to the extreme. She’s caught bigger waves than I ever did.”
Andrea Moller also had a rather unique childhood, growing up on Ilhabela, a small Brazilian island three miles off the coast. “There were no traffic lights, no malls and no movies,” she says. “I spent my childhood windsurfing, and we started swimming to the mainland when I was twelve. My childhood shaped who I am today.”
Moller came to Maui to attend community college and took up surfing. After she met Maria Souza, celebrity surfer Laird Hamilton’s ex-wife, the two took up tow-in surfing. “The boys had not been receptive to us,” she says, “so we put our tip money together and decided to buy a jet ski since no one would give us a ride. We started to surf the outer reef, and it became an addiction. There were no limits any-more.” Fifteen years later Moller says she has seen huge progress. “Now we’re friends with all the guys in the water,” she says. “We all drink a beer at the end of the day.”
All big-wave surfers must train for the punishing conditions and long underwater hold-downs. The dangers are real, and the women all have war stories and scars to prove it. Alms dislocated and fractured her shoulder three years ago while surfing a twenty-footer on a windy day in Mexico. She went back to surfing six months later, but she says it took her at least a year to get her confidence back.“That was a huge eye-opener,” she says. “That one really shook up my soul.”
Alms trains with a cadre of local surfers four or five times a week, working to increase her strength, balance and coordination. One of her more unconventional training routines involves holding her breath and running as far as she can on the ocean floor while carrying a big rock. She does this to build her cardiorespiratory endurance and breath-holding capacity. During summer, the off-season for big-wave riding in Hawai‘i, if she’s not traveling on her own dime to some far-flung surf spot, she likes to longboard or prone paddle.
Big-wave surfing can be a matter of life or death. Indeed, several male surfers have died over the years in big waves. Some of the big-wave-charging women have had close calls. This is how Moller describes the experience of a typical wipeout in giant surf: “I feel like my eyes are coming out of my face, and my arms and legs are getting taken away—there’s so much water volume and so much speed and so much force. I calm myself so I’m not desperate for air, hold my head to avoid whiplash and curl into a ball.”
Bianca Valenti, whose surfboard was broken in two during the Pe‘ahi Challenge, has a unique mental method for surviving wipeouts. “I try to be light as a feather and take myself to another place,” she says.“I pretend I’m a spirit animal, like a duck or a spider monkey, and I tell myself, ‘I love this! This is going to be interesting!’”
Erickson, riding an unfamiliar quad-fin board instead of her beloved single-fin, nevertheless went for broke at Pe‘ahi. Taking off on a bomb, she tried to make the drop, but a stiff offshore gust caught the bottom of her board and flicked her into the air. As she slid down the wave’s face, the wave crashed down upon her. The impact tore the ligaments in her knee and ripped her calf muscle from the bone. Undaunted, Erickson says she’s intent on getting back into the big waves as soon her wounds heal. “The ocean has definitely taught me that you can’t be afraid to go for something,” she says. “Fear of failure is what holds you back from true creativity.”
Moller endured a similar injury in 2016.“During that winter, every swell was perfect and glassy, so I would work a forty-eight-hour shift and then surf four days straight,” she says. “By February my body was probably surfed out, but it was impossible to quit. I had just gotten off work at 6 a.m. and only had a few hours. A wave came and I made the drop. It was bumpy, and the wave broke right on top of me, detaching my hamstrings from my hip bone. I was bedridden for almost two months.”
A year earlier Moller had won the World Surf League’s women’s best-performance award. “I went from being the champion, the warrior, to being nobody,” she says. “It was so humbling. It gave me a whole new perspective on why I love it so much. Why did I go back? I almost died, could have been paralyzed. That’s how much love we have for the ocean.”
That passion is primarily self-supported. Sponsorships for big-wave surfers—especially women—are few and far between. It’s hard for companies to make money off events that are held in a public place like the ocean, and the vagaries of long-range surf forecasting make publicity a challenge. And then there’s the traditional view of women surfers to take into account. “Traditionally, the surf brands have only supported the bikini model look for women,” Valenti says. “For the athlete surfer it hasn’t been easy to find support.”
That’s why you can walk into the Paia Fish Market and find Alms behind the counter, taking orders for fish tacos. Tall and blond with the powerful shoulders of a seasoned paddler, Alms is soft-spoken, thoughtful and mellow. She smiles readily. She loves swimming with her dog and raising vegetables in her backyard garden. And she works as many jobs as it takes to support her surf habit, including taking care of invoicing, e-mail and social media at her boyfriend’s surfboard factory and fixing the occasional ding for friends.
Erickson also works several jobs to support her surfing, including modeling and waiting tables at a sushi bar in Hale‘iwa. “Sponsorship has not been an option for me so far,” she says. “Women are given some clothes and expected to put a sticker on their board and give up the rights to all their photos. I’m like, ‘Are you kidding? I don’t need your clothes—I’ve got three jobs.’” She says that if companies would offer travel money and help pay for insurance, she would be interested, but for now “it feels good to work for what I’ve got.” Sometimes it’s hard to come back from surfing twenty-footers to waiting tables, she says. “But it’s taught me to be flexible with life.”
Moller works as a paramedic and lives with her daughter and husband on a forty-acre farm in Ha‘ikū, where they have three horses, two goats, four cats and three German shepherds. With five years of medical training behind her, she works forty-eight-hour shifts on what she calls “an adrenaline-driven job,” helping people in medical emergencies. “It’s part of my personality to seek a rush,” Moller says, perhaps stating the obvious.
Valenti co-owns an Italian restaurant with her dad and has carried on a family tradition by becoming a specialist in Italian wines. She says the restaurant’s healthy food supports her physically, and the flexible nature of restaurant work allows her to surf when the time is right. “We all have to cobble our lives together,” she says.
The women’s desire to make big-wave surfing easier for the next generation to pursue has led many of them to get involved with youth mentorship programs. Several of them participate in a newly formed non-profit organization called Super Sessions, which is dedicated to female empowerment through big-wave surfing. Alms and her friends organize the XOXO Beach Festival, an annual event that pairs Maui girls with professional waterwomen to learn about surfing, paddleboarding and what can happen when you follow your dreams. Moller organizes an annual event called Imua Keiki O Ke Kai (“go forward, children of the sea”), which brings ocean athletes together with special-needs kids to spend time on the water aboard canoes, paddleboards and jet skis. For some of the kids, it’s the first time they’ve been in the ocean.
The women hope these kids will experience the same joy they themselves find in the ocean. “For us, big-wave surfing is not about the trophy,” Moller says. “It’s not about the photo and it’s not about the fame. It’s about that happy feeling when you’re singing out loud in the car while you’re driving back home. That’s why I like these other women so much—we all have the same addiction.” HH