One of the most exciting things about the Women's Championship Tour is the speed at which the level of surfing improves each year. It does not seem to rely on generational change. Instead, each season sees the top athletes reinventing and refining their approach. A perfect example is the time the women have spent -- many for the first time -- on the North Shore of Oahu, the most intense series of lineups on the planet.
Despite the disruptions to the Hawaiian leg, opening the season with a historic Championship Tour event at Pipe and the Vans Digital Triple Crown to follow has been a reason for women to put time in on the North Shore. There have been women charging these lineups as long as there have been men, but this year was the first time in recent memory that so many of the world's best female athletes made such a concerted campaign.
"I first surfed an invitational [at Pipe] when I was about 12 but I have probably only had about 10 sessions out there before this winter. I put a lot more time in knowing we had the event out there," Tatiana Weston-Webb said.
"It's a dangerous wave and usually when you get to the end of the year, with the tour schedule, I just want to spend some time at home," said the world no. 3, who recently came runner up in the Vans Digital Triple Crown and won the Fan Vote award.
While it has historically been established as a kind of annual pilgrimage for each generation of up and coming male surfers to travel to Hawaii, this culture hasn't really been customary for women in recent years. Of course, there are women who have put in some serious time in these line-ups and this year has seen an opportunity to build on this as the standard for women coming on tour.
"It's a group effort, the girls that have paved the way like KK [Keala Kennelly] and Rochelle Ballard, Layne Beachley and now, all the girls are so supportive of each other," Tati said.
As young surfers like Isabella Nichols join the tour having spent very little time on the North Shore, spending time surfing waves like Sunset has had a pretty profound impact on her surfing.
"Sunset is the hardest wave that I've ever surfed in my whole life and I feel like once you do that and once you kind of wrap your head around that then it helps with the process -- you can take the same process somewhere else that's hard to surf and use that same process and kind of figure out how to surf it," Isabella said.
"I feel like that three weeks that I spent there was the most beneficial period for me training wise, even though I felt like I didn't actually perform as well as I would have liked to. I got to surf bigger boards, I got to totally change how I thought about surfing.
"I think in the sense that it's not just preparing us for surfing Sunset and Pipe, I feel like it prepares us for surfing any kind of wave that's challenging," she said.
Bella explained that coming through the ranks of the ‘QS that there hadn't really been a requirement for women to perform in heavier waves so she came on Tour somewhat of a small wave specialist. She talked about Bronte Macaulay and how she would likely be much more comfortable on the North Shore having grown up in West Oz. I asked Bella what impact she thought there might be on women's surfing if it became standard and necessary to be comfortable at waves like Pipe and Sunset in order to match the level of surfing on the World Tour.
"I'm from the Sunshine Coast and we have tiny waves breaking off a sand bottom and then going to Hawaii it's a total contrast, so I'm so out of my depth. I loved the challenge. The whole time I was there I was so mentally strained and I had so much mental anguish. If I got a good wave or got a good turn it felt better than anything else," she said.
"I know watching Tati and Carissa out at Pipe in my head I'm like, ‘they're going to start doing that now and maybe I'll start doing it'. It's the same in the sense as when girls started doing airs. I feel like everyone looked at that and thought ‘we have to start doing that' and now the younger girls are absolutely dominating doing airs.
"I feel like that will probably be the same thing happening with surfing gnarly waves. It starts when they're young. I feel like you don't have any fear when you're young and I feel like if those young girls now look up to those girls doing it then they'll start to progress," Isabella said.
This Hawaiian winter has felt like a preparatory period for winters to come, as we ready ourselves to see the next crop of female surfers travel each year to the North Shore and foster this growing culture of surfing heavy waves.