Big wave surfing has been on the rise for the last few years as brave big wave surfers push themselves into larger and larger waves around the world. But the most apparent change in big wave charging is the new crew of women who are breaking boundaries in the heavy water realm.
Who is the best female big wave surfer? That’s hard to say. But one thing’s for sure, this crew of women have taken it to the next level. They’ve become regulars in big wave lineups around the world like Jaws in Maui, Mavericks and Ocean Beach in Northern California, and Puerto Escondido in Mexico. Most of them are un-sponsored, and have formed a tight-knit community sharing each other’s stoke and progressing their skills in huge waves. Instead of complaining about the surf industry’s exploitation of the younger bikini-clad surfers with less skill, these women are putting their heads down and paddling into history.
Here is a list of five women that are doing big things in big wave situations at the moment. This list is not a “Top 5” list, but rather a group of women pushing each other and inspiring others. Of course, there are too many to list here. Women like Sarah Gerhardt (first woman to surf Mavericks in ’99) and Rochelle Ballard (90’s Pipeline charger) laid the groundwork for these women to stand up on, and relentless big-wave ripping from Jamilah Starr, Emily Erickson, and Andrea Moller should be noted as well.
Paige Alms – Paige made big news on January 22nd, 2015 when she caught the biggest barrel ever ridden by a female anywhere in the world at Jaws, Maui. The video of the wave went viral, and it cemented her name in the history of surfing. Many say it was the best wave EVER ridden by a woman! That wave didn’t come easy though. Years of practice and training at her home in Maui got her to that point, and determination and courage allowed her to paddle over the ledge. The wave was a big moment for Paige, but an even bigger moment for women’s surfing worldwide. We can’t wait to see what Paige does during next year’s season at Jaws!
Maya Gabeira – Maya is perhaps the most famous big wave woman in the world. The Brazilian beauty is the sixth highest paid female surfer in the world and doesn’t even have a surf industry sponsor (Billabong dropped her in 2012). Her sponsorship dollars now come from mainstream brands Renault, Red Bull, Nextel, and Vigor. This sets a benchmark for women to look outside the industry for sponsors that see the value in their efforts and results. Maya is also well-known for her horrendous, death defying wipeouts. Her unsuccessful attempt at huge Nazare in Portugal actually killed her in October, 2013. Luckily for us and her, Carlos Burle was there to pluck her from the water, resuscitate her, and bring her back to life.
Savanna Shaughnessy – Savanna is well known in Northern California as the woman in charge at Maverick’s and Ocean Beach. She first paddled out at Mavs when she was only 16! She is the inspiration for the Outer Bar Girls (crew of Ocean Beach female chargers) and always has the biggest smile in the lineup at Mavs. She routinely takes off deeper than most of the guys, deep in The Bowl at Mavericks, and was the only woman invited to the Titans of Mavericks Big Wave Contest.
Keala Kennelly – “KK” is the original fearless female big-wave charger. She has been pushing the limits and turning heads since the late 90’s. She is the most decorated of the bunch, with countless wins on the World Tour and a runner-up finish to the World Title after being in first place most of the year in 2003. Keala quit the tour in 2007 and now commits herself to chasing huge swells at Teahupo’o, Tahiti, and at her home in Kauai. Keala has had a lifelong sponsor with Billabong and dabbled in acting and as a DJ. In 2011, Keala made international news after an unfortunate wipeout during the “Code Red” swell in Teahupo’o resulted in a massive face gash. She has since healed and is charging harder than ever.
Bianca Valenti – Bianca hails from Orange County, California, not known for any big waves. After graduating from UCSB, Bianca spent time in Mexico at the biggest beachbreaks in the world honing her skills. The 5′ 4″ SoCal girl then moved to Ocean Beach, San Francisco six years ago and is a regular in the lineup when things get heavy. She won the first ever big-wave contest for women at Dive N’ Surf Pro at Nelscott Reef, Oregon last year and won the SeaHawaii Pipeline Pro over big names like Rochelle Ballard and Keala Kennelly in 2012. Oh yeah, she’s completely un-sponsored and charging for the love of big waves!