Keala Kennelly Wins the First-Ever Big Wave Surfing Contest at Nelscott Reef in Oregon

Keala Kennely drops in at the first-ever Women’s Big Wave Contest in 2010′s Nelscott Reef event. Photo: Richard Hallman/Freelanceimaging.com


The Inertia

I’ve never surfed Maverick’s.

I like to do my big wave surfing in boardshorts. That’s just me. I was actually psyching up to give it a go a few winters ago, but then Sion died and that put me off it again.

That said, there have been quite a few women who have surfed Mavericks. Sarah Gerhardt was the first way back in 1999, followed by the free-spirited Jamilah Star and in recent years Savannah Shaughnessy has put on some outstanding performances out there and really raised the bar.

So the question came up at this year’s Maverick’s Contest opening ceremonies: Why not include women this year?

If they did, I would absolutely participate. The way I see it, this is the only way I would want to surf Maverick’s – mostly because there would be enough jetskis and water safety in place. The reason my fellow Hawaiian, Sion Milosky is no longer with us is because of the strict thrill-craft laws at Maverick’s; there were not enough skis in the water watching surfers’ backs that day. That is a deal-breaker to me. I am very calculated about the risks I take in big waves. Safety is a priority, and the only reason I could confidently push my limits on that epic paddle day at Jaws this winter was because I knew I had Sean Ordonez on a ski watching my back.

For big wave contest organizers, including women in big wave events creates some conflicts.

The first consideration is a scheduling conflict. In most cases contests only have one day to run the whole event, and there is a limited amount of daylight available. This problem is not exclusive to big wave events; a lack of swell during contest windows is what ultimately killed the ASP World Tour event at Teahupoo. That started a domino effect of losing Women’s WCT events in challenging waves. This has seriously hurt the Women’s WCT Tour.

The other conflict that has prevented women’s inclusion into the Maverick’s Contest and the Eddie is the fact that there are so many men who want to compete. Most of them never get an invitation. I hate to say it, but there is a huge alternate list of hungry guys who will probably go bigger and take off deeper than any of the women.

So I get the reasoning behind why women have not been invited.

People ask me all the time “Are you going to be in the Eddie this year?” and my response has actually been something to that effect of: “No, they haven’t ever invited me (or any other woman). But if they did I would feel really bad to be taking a spot from one of those guys knowing that they’re surfing at a higher level than me and the only reason I am getting a spot in the event is because of my extra X chromosome.”

I’ll be honest. I would be really intimidated to compete against the top male big wave surfers in a big wave event. I used to compete against the boys when I was growing up, and you can’t believe how much more aggressive and motivated they are to win when there is the possibility that they could lose to a female.

That’s all fine when it’s a small wave event, but in big waves the stakes are really high and there is enough going on in the water without throwing in a battle of the sexes. Although I have to say, the majority of the top male big wave surfers have been incredibly gracious and encouraging to the women big wave surfers.

There actually was a big wave event that included women. It was the Nelscott Reef Big Wave World Tour Event in Oregon in 2010. The women were given an exhibition heat, and although the turn-out was disappointing (only 3 women showed up), I felt like the heat itself was a big success. I, Savannah, and Mercedes all caught a few bombs. We made history, it got a lot of media attention including a write up in the New York Times, and women’s big wave had a surge of momentum from the performances that day.

It’s unfortunate that we had such a small turnout for the women’s exhibition heat at Nelscott, because it has been used against women during conversations like these.

What’s even more unfortunate is the main reason most of the women didn’t come was a financial one. The majority of female big wave surfers is sponsorless and was unable to justify spending money they didn’t have to go to Oregon and compete in a women’s event with no prize money.

When it comes to including women in the Maverick’s event this year, I understand and empathize with the pros and cons on both sides, but I think if they were able to have a women’s exhibition heat during the break between the last Men’s Semi-Final and the Men’s Final so that it didn’t disrupt the schedule and we ensured a decent turn-out of women (which is very possible because most of the women that would be invited live in Northern California, and I know my home-girl Paige Alms from Maui would make the trip) it could be something really amazing to watch.


  • Ciaran

    Good on you Keala, I admire your bravery both in the water and taking this stance which may not be popular with some women. But I have to question why you think that it would be amazing to watch female surfers at Mavericks when you say yourself “I hate to say it, but there is a huge alternate list of hungry guys who
    will probably go bigger and take off deeper than any of the women.” I don’t care what the sex is of the surfers I watch is, I just want to see hard charging.

  • Lilly

    Thank you, Keala. Very Interesting to read your insights from the inside. I especially found humorous and accurate your observations and personal experience surfing/competing with men.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ananda.lee.319 Ananda Lee

    Thank you for your insights! I wish you & all the other brave, big wave riders all the best!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Serge-Dedina/100003114745057 Serge Dedina

    Very honest and insightful commentary Keala. Thanks for sharing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/leslie.kerby Leslie Kerby

    That’s right! Thank you Keala.

  • Dandaman

    Honesty and guts. Interesting how they come hand in hand. LOVE this woman.