Dispatches, November 1998
Gale-force winds were whipping the peaks off six- to eight-foot waves last December when Layne Beachley paddled into the surf on Oahu's Sunset Beach, caught what looked like a promising wave, and suddenly found herself catapulted off the lip, down the face, and into the aquatic equivalent of an industrial-strength wood chipper. When she finally resurfaced from an ordeal that can leave veteran surfers fibrillating with fear, she admitted that, yes, she was "pretty disappointed" by the experience. Turns out Beachley had lost an earring.
The 26-year-old Australian's unflappable approach to the perils of her sport ("When I look at a wave, all I see is the thrill of making it") is matched by the kind of bullish persistence more often associated with, say, door-to-door vacuum-cleaner sales. After her Oahu wipeout, Beachley strode right back into the surf and snatched the 1997 women's Triple Crown. This year, she has won five of the eight World Championship Tour events she's entered, a streak that clinched her the world title in August with a 2,400-point lead over her nearest competitor, Hawaiian surfer Rochelle Ballard. That lead, plus the fact that four-time world champion Lisa Andersen was forced to drop out in July with a herniated disk, sets Beachley up as the favorite for the 1998 Triple Crown, which starts November 5 on Kauai.
In a tour filled with technically flawless small-wave surfers, Beachley has emerged — and distinguished herself — as the doyenne of big waves: the 12- to 15-footers that smash across Oahu's North Shore like runaway express trains and that demand exceptionally powerful torsos and legs to sustain the wild, punishing rides down their faces. "Among the women," says Randy Rarick, executive director of the Triple Crown of Surfing, "she's the best big-wave surfer, without a doubt." Adds Mark Rabbidge, who carved Beachley's boards from 1990 to 1995: "She's the fittest bloody woman on the planet."
The territory in which she practices her specialty has been all but unknown to women for nearly two decades. Back in the 70s and early 80s, of course, surfers such as Margo Oberg and Jodie Cooper were tackling big waves with relish. By the mid-80s, however, the tour had moved on from Hawaii to small-wave venues such as California and Australia, and the women, in response, adopted a more fluid style of surfing that prized finesse over raw power. Only recently, and particularly last season with the advent of the women's Triple Crown on Oahu and Kauai, has the sport once again issued a summons for brute force. "And Layne," says Rarick, "is the only woman who has answered that call."
Somewhat oddly, given her flair for such a bold and seemingly emancipatory enterprise, Beachley insists on crediting much of her success to her boyfriend, Ken Bradshaw, the celebrated surfer who last January caught one of the largest waves ever ridden — a 50-foot behemoth off the North Shore. For the past year, Bradshaw has been pushing Beachley to tackle ever-larger breaks and videotaping her competitions. Whether she's prepared to admit it or not, however, the key to Beachley's prowess clearly comes from within. "She just loves riding big waves," explains Pam Burridge, the 1990 world champion, who has seen Beachley perform a free fall straight down the face of a 10-foot, double-sucking wave. "And she doesn't mind almost getting killed."