Inside the World Surf League’s First-Ever Big-Wave Competition for Women
On Friday, November 11, with a solid swell that surpassed 30 feet, the World Surf League called its first big-wave contest of the Pacific Northwest swell season at Pe'ahi, aka Jaws, in Maui. This was the second time the competition was run, but this year was different: it included the first-ever female surfers to compete in a WSL big wave event.
San Francisco surfer Bianca Valenti, the designated WSL athlete representative in charge of coordinating with surfers about the event, and I flew out to join the participants: 12 women hailing from South Africa, Australia, Guatemala, Brazil, Hawaii and mainland U.S.. They competed in two 45-minute preliminary heats and an hour-long final on the same day as the men’s contest—a victory for women’s surfing on the heels of lobbying efforts from female surfers and pressure pressure from the press to host an all-women event.
Valenti and I stayed with Paige Alms, who famously rode the first barrel ridden by a woman at Pe'ahi in January 2015, and who ultimately took first place in this year’s event. Here’s a look at the historic day, and what it meant to women who made it happen.
Photo: Many surfers paddle out through the rocky shore pound to get to the break at Jaws, though on competition day some chose to conserve their energy and get a ride. The contest attempted to limit the boat and Jet Ski traffic during the contest, but it still looked like Water World out there as the sun rose.
2015/2016 WSL Big Wave World Tour Champion and athlete representative Greg Long displayed his superior skills during the first heat of the men’s event. Long donated his own money to support the purse for the final contest of the Big Wave World Tour at Todos Santos in 2010. His leadership has been a driving force in the professionalization of the sport for men and women.
Keala Kennelley is no stranger to competition. Kennelley spent a decade ranked in the top 10 on the Association of Surf Professionals World Championship Tour and broke the gender barrier at the WSL Big Wave Awards last year when she won the Pure Scot Barrel Award among a field of men for a ride at Teahupoo, in Tahiti. Kennelley's score was the highest in the heat, but she suffered a knee injury on this wave and watched the finals from the hospital.
Australians Laura Enever (left), currently ranked 10th on the World Championship Tour, and Felicity Palmateer, currently ranked 20th on the tour, came to surf Jaws for the first time for this competition. Both women fearlessly dropped into this wave during the second preliminary heat.
The wind and chop knocked Enever off the wave shortly after the drop, but Palmateer was able to hold on into the flats through an avalanche of white water.
Paige Alms dominated the competition. While many competitors—male and female—had trouble making it past the howling wind on the drop, Alms had no trouble keeping her weight forward and landing air drops, like this one in the second preliminary heat.
Paige Alms rode all the way into the channel, getting the highest score among the women during the prelims.
Felicity Palmateer smiles as she prepares to compete in the finals.
After winning the contest, Paige Alms takes a moment to express pure stoke during a post-competition interview.
It was important to the women that their event be held on the same day as the men's in order to share the viewing audience. The Pe'ahi Challenge was the most watched event for the World Surf League last season, and this year's was expected to nearly double, thanks to the addition of the women's competition. Sharing the day also enabled the athletes to cheer for, and help each other throughout the day. From left to right: Felicity Palmateer, Tammy-Lee Smith, Paige Alms, and Laura Enever watch the men's final from the competitor boat.