Laura Macauley at The Right. Laura Enever at Shipsterns (and The Right). Carissa Moore, Caroline Marks and Vahine Feirro at Teahupoo. Collectively, they're among some of the most recent high-profile women to challenge themselves at the world's heaviest waves, specifically slabs.
Now, there's riding big, tall outer reef bombs that rumble in from the horizon. Then there's scratching into a sub-sea level beast that's sucking out over shallow, sharp, unforgiving reef. They're two different kinds of wave-riding entirely. To be sure, both require skill and bravado, but because of their dramatic, violent nature, slabs are especially spine-tingling. And for the women listed above, as well as other hard-chargers around the planet, chasing these mutant waves is about more than just survival surfing.
"While surfing big waves on the North Shore, where I spent most of my youth and serious surfing years, I was out on a big day when someone I do not know said something to me. I still hear his words today," tells Patti Paniccia, one of the most pivotal contributors to the rise of women's professional surfing in the 1970s. "Just as a big set was coming in, he looked at me and pointed to the channel saying in the nicest and most sincere way, ‘Better paddle, girly. You're right in the lineup.'"
"Oh, I paddled alright...straight to the peak of the biggest wave of the incoming set," she continues. "I broke my favorite board on that wave, but I would do it again in a heartbeat. I will never forget the sheer determination and drive his remark gave me."
In 1976, Paniccia was recruited by Fred Hemmings to help him form the International Professional Surfing -- the precursor to today's WSL.
"He said to me, ‘I've just asked Randy Rarrick to head up a men's division. Why don't you join us and run a woman's division?'" she recalls. "I said ‘yes' and made $100 a month."
Paniccia was certainly not the first or last woman to put it all on the line in heavy conditions. In the ‘60s it was the grace of Joyce Hoffman that broke boundaries. Following in the footsteps of her pioneering father, Walter Hoffman, and uncle, Flippy, at a young age Joyce was introduced to the power of Makaha and the North Shore, the big-wave frontier of the era. In 1968 she became the first woman to surf Pipeline.
Hoffman helped set the stage for women like Paniccia, Rell Sunn, Becky Benson, Jericho Poppler and others to assert themselves into the conversation during the earliest days of professional surfing in the ‘70s. By the ‘90s, icons of the sport such at Layne Beachley and Keala Kennelly were towing into huge waves and challenging themselves at demanding reef breaks such as Cloudbreak and Teahupoo. And, of course, Kennelly's performance during the "Code Red" swell at Teahupoo in 2011 is now the stuff of legend.
Today, women like Macauley, Enever, Moore, Marks and Feirro continue to push their personal performances in life-threatening conditions at locations like The Right, Shippies and Chopes. In doing so they are driving the whole sport of surfing forward.
The fraction of surfers around the world -- male or female -- that chose to take on these type of waves is small compared to the global population of wave-riders. Most of us want nothing to do with these aquatic beasts that could seemingly atomize you in an instant. Give me six-foot J-Bay all day long. But for those trying to help make evermore sense of the unridden realm, the challenge and risk is real -- but the reward is huge.