Star-Bulletin Features

Tuesday, August 17, 1999

By Kathryn Bender, Star-Bulletin
Young women like these three at Kewalo Basin Park are
beginning to dominate some local surf breaks.

Who you calling chick?

As more wahine take to the waves,
they are not necessarily creating a
kinder, gentler surf break

By Greg Ambrose
Special to the Star-Bulletin


n the not too distant past, the sight of a wahine surfer paddling out to the lineup would elicit a smile from the overwhelmingly male crew, pleased at the prospect of someone they could snatch waves from with impunity.

Times have changed.

Out There Male surfers now cringe as colorful flocks of young wahine paddle out on longboards and scoop up every wave in sight. Nowadays, the guys know that when the girls paddle out, it's tita time, with no mercy asked and none given.

"They are more aggressive, you just have to let them go," says Hawaii Surfing Federation director Reid Inouye. "Especially all the longboarders. Now they come out in packs, laughing and having fun and catching all the waves."

And it's not only the guys who are victimized by the roving girlgangs, says Ben Aipa, pro surfer, shaper and surfing coach.

"Because they are girls and the guys will back off, some of the women that have surfed for years are getting aggravated, because the young girls are paddling harder and faster and getting all the waves.

"I see a lot of girls leaving their boyfriends behind, loading up the truck and going longboarding. Some of the guys think it's OK when the girls paddle out, until they start grabbing all the waves."

Young Waianae surfer Melanie Bartels has proven her mettle against the world's best pro shortboard surfers in the heat of competition, yet has been exasperated by the new crew of tanker girls. "I hate that when they paddle out on longboards and take all the waves, that kind of sucks."

There always have been outstanding female athletes in traditional sports, but assertive confidence is now the trademark of an entire generation of fearless young women.

Except for a period in ancient Hawaii, the surf has mostly been a boy's club, a testosterone zone where wahine were patronized, barely tolerated or actively exploited.

But the wahine have broken down the doors. "Girls are pushing each other deeper," says Bartels. "They are getting more intense, and better. Girls are just owning it now. They are better than some of the guys."

By Kathryn Bender, Star-Bulletin
Tiare Thomas, 16, waxes up her board before heading into
the waters of Kewalo Basin Park.

Kauai pro surfer Keala Kennelly has seen the transformation in her short lifetime of wave riding. "At a photo shoot in Narrabeen (in Australia) six girls were in the water, tearing things up. The guys in the water watching the girls ripping thought 'Wow, these chicks are getting all the waves.' So they started jockeying for waves, like they didn't want the girls to show them up, the full ego thing.

"As much as the guys push girls like me to surf better and faster and stronger, girls definitely motivate guys to surf stronger. If a girl is in a heat with a guy, the guy will surf 10 times as hard so he won't lose to a female.

"As an amateur on Kauai still surfing in boys' heats, guys hated to have me surf with them. Their buddies would give them a really hard time if they lost to a girl."

Roxanne Saffaie knows that none of the guys in the lineup are going to hand her any waves. "When I go out at Kaisers where you have to really compete for waves, I have earned the respect for being out there all the time. I don't drop in on anybody, and guys give me respect for that.

"I don't go out and back off on a wave. I think it's mine, and I'm going to go for it. At first they drop in on you and test you. If you're catching your waves, they think, 'She can handle.' "

Boundaries are being crossed every day as women are towed into Hawaii's mysto cloudbreak waves, and dominate the lineup when the surf at Sunset Beach gets big. Rochelle Ballard, Megan Abubo, Lisa Andersen and Layne Beachley surf better than 90 percent of the planet's male surfers, and an army of their surfing sisters are following their example.

"There are a lot more girls that charge," says Ballard, a world tour pro surfer from Kauai. "They are getting more aggressive, more assertive, but not even close to the guys in ability or aggression. The girls can still be polite."

Kennelly puts into perspective the idea of girls being impediments in the waves. "Kooks are kooks regardless of whether they are boy or girl. It's great for the sport to have more women in it, it can only make it grow, and the prize money can only grow. The sponsors should realize that we are the ones who shop and buy."

Haleiwa pro surfer Abubo is another of the young crew who are raising the performance level during competition and free-surfing sessions. "These days we're doing more crazy things. Now it's not just one girl in the lineup, you see a bunch of women surfing. It's cool."

Most young wahine surfers have not endured the antagonism or chauvinist gallantry that greeted their surfing sisters in years past. Still, what must it be like to paddle out into a lineup filled with wave riders who consider you the weaker sex?

"Surfers are gorgeous, they are tanned and healthy. Of course you want to be surrounded by 30 guys," says North Shore surfer Leah Metz.

Even with the dramatic increase in women ascending in sports and business, wahine might not have taken to the waves in such irresistible swarms if not for a pair of material developments. The resurrection and refinement of longboards allows wahine to overcome their paddling disadvantage, and new designs in surf wear put them into the waves in greater style and comfort.

"They got board shorts, which opens it up more for girls to go in the water," says Aipa. "The longboard has opened it up even more."

Rather than being annoyed or threatened by the tsunami of wahine surfers, many guys are enjoying the ride. Kauai surfer Bruce Irons has watched with keen interest as the waves have filled up with girls. "It brightens up the lineup. Some of the girls are reckless, they're amazing, they go for it. I just watch them and enjoy the show."

Big Island pro surfer Shane Dorian also has been amazed by the increasing number of wahine wave riders. "It's cool, it's good for surfing. On the North Shore in winter you see tons of little kids surfing Pipe, Waimea, Sunset on big days, and girls are following suit."

Perhaps the greatest measure of just how many wahine are flocking to the waves is their participation in surf contests. A few years ago on Kauai, Kennelly and others had to compete against the boys because they couldn't round up enough girls to fill one heat.

"Now, talking to my friend Coral McCarthy, a longboarder on Kauai, she said 'Oh yeah, you know that Roxy event had a hundred something girls,' " says Kennelly.

More than 250 wahine entered China Uemura's most recent longboard contest in Waikiki. At Makaha, Buffalo Keaulana's Big Board contest has enjoyed similar growth in wahine participation, while the Triple Crown of Surfing has added another event to its stable of North Shore winter contests.

And yet, there is a price to be paid for the new assertiveness among wahine surfers.

"I just entered China's contest, and it was very aggressive," says Diane Tachera. "The feeling was less aloha spirit in China's event."

World champion Layne Beachley is thrilled by this new wave of wahine surfers, with a caveat. "I am happy to see that, as long as they still respect the locals and the guys in the water. It's great to see the assertiveness of the younger girls, but that can be taken for cockiness. They'll learn."

Ah yes, the dark side. It would be naive to think women are welcome every time they paddle out.

Waikiki beachboy Rabbit Kekai has seen the waves at Queens slowly fill with wahine over the decades, and sometimes the invasion makes his blood boil.

"The ones that can handle, who know what they are doing, there is no problem with the guys. But these days, you get 10-minute ukus out there, bailing out in front of you, causing a hazard for themselves and everyone."

But Ballard is excited about the future.

"It's really good to see these girls with good technical style and ripping," says Ballard, who was astonished last summer when 15-year-old Sophia Mulanovich from Peru gave her a whipping in a world tour contest in South Africa.

"It's neat to see these girls out there looking at us and thinking, 'I'm going to be better than them.' And pushing themselves. And by the time they get to our level they will be twice as good as us."

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