Rell Sunn, the queen of queens. Photo: Jim Russi

Rell Sunn, the queen of queens. Photo: Jim Russi

The Inertia

There are many women who stand out as individuals who are constantly pushing the progression of surfing forward. Among these, ten figures emerge in my mind as strong individuals who have contributed a significant change, ushering women from bikini-clad beach bunnies to formidable forces to be reckoned with in the water, and showing the rest of us that, yes, women can be great surfers.

1. Rell Sunn

You don’t get a nickname like “Queen of Makaha” for nothing. A true waterwoman, Rell Sunn brought grace and power to surfing, rendering it an art as much as a sport. Gliding along the surface of the water, she embodied the essence of what it means to be deeply in touch with the wave and the ocean. She was Hawaii’s first female lifeguard, a trailblazer of women’s professional surfing, a consummate diver, and a veteran of the Molokai channel.

Lisa Anderson, raddest surfing mom ever. Photo: ASP/Poullenot/AQUASHOT

Lisa Anderson, raddest surfing mom ever. Photo: ASP/Poullenot/AQUASHOT

2. Lisa Andersen

Perhaps no one has shown the world that women can really rip like Lisa Andersen. Often competing against men (and beating them), Andersen pushed the sport to an entirely new level. I will never forget the day I went out to the mail box to go get my Surfer magazine and there was Lisa Andersen on the cover with the headline “Lisa Andersen Surfs Better than You.” Before Andersen was on the scene, there were no girl’s board shorts or rash guards, barely any wetsuits for women, and there was no Roxy. Four time world champion, Andersen is largely responsible for creating a market for women’s surf gear.

Victoria Kawēkiu Kaʻiulani Lunalilo Kalaninuiahilapalapa Cleghorn. Photo: Wikipedia

Victoria Kawēkiu Kaʻiulani Lunalilo Kalaninuiahilapalapa Cleghorn. Photo: Wikipedia

3. Princess Kaiulani

Without this defiant Hawaiian princess, there might not even be surfing at all. Talk about owing a debt of gratitude for this woman’s bravery! After the Missionaries came to Hawaii, oppressed the people and outlawed surfing, it was Princess Kaiulani who went against decrees, paddled out, and lead her people back to their roots in the ocean and surfing.

Margo Oberg at Makaha, 1968. Photo: Grannis |

Margo Oberg at Makaha, 1968. Photo: Grannis |

4. Margo Oberg

Considered to be the first professional female surfer, Margo Oberg came up through the ranks of men during the shortboard revolution. With her lithe build and long flowing lines, Oberg pushed the boundaries of surfing just as the industry was sporting more challenging, shorter, and maneuverable boards. In 1975 professional contests started and she was the first female competitor.


5. Gidget
Wait a second. Gidget is a fictional character. She’s not real. Frederick Kohner’s book “Gidget”, is based on a real person. That real person is Kohner’s daughter, Kathy and the fictional world she was living in was the real Malibu beach crowd of the 1950s. Gidget/Kathy/Kohner exposed surfing to the mainstream and created an enduring and indelible pop culture that is still felt today. From book to film to TV series, Gidget ignited a string of Hollywood beach movies, fashions, and language that lead to the way we think about surfing today.

Keala Kennelly (Haleiwa, Hawaii, USA) rides the biggest tube ever challenged by a woman surfer at Teahupoo, Tahiti on July 22, 2015. The image is an entry in the 2016 WSL Big Wave Awards.  Exceptionally large surf has been experienced worldwide in 2015.

Keala Kennelly. Photo: Tim McKenna. ‘Nuf said.

6. Keala Kennelly

Quite possibly one of the fiercest and most outspoken (thank goodness) competitors in professional surfing, Keala Kennelly makes Teahupo’o look like a walk in the park. A truly gifted athlete who has (without standing on a soapbox) spoken up about the inequalities between male and female professional surfing, Kennelly is courageous, viable, and also a pioneer.

Sarah Gerhardt First Woman to Surf Mavericks

Sarah Gerhardt, the first woman to surf Mavericks.

7. Sarah Gerhardt

Sarah Gerhardt was the first woman to surf Mavericks in 1999. Since then, many women have followed in her footsteps, showing the world that women can also be big wave surfers, charge hard, and take on nature’s strongest forces.

8. Marge Calhoun

Marge Calhoun is considered the first female surfing champion. After taking the Makaha International surf contest, she continued to pioneer female surfing in Hawaii. Marge was inducted into the Huntington Beach Surfing Walk of Fame, in 2003.

9. Isabel Letham

Taught to surf by the Big Kahuna himself, Duke Kahanamoku, Isabel Letham took her first wave in 1915 at Sydney’s Freshwater Beach. Already a consummate swimming, life saver, and swim instructor, Letham helped to introduce surfing to Australia by being “the first Australian to ride a surfboard”. Regardless of some disputing this claim, Letham undeniably left her mark on the world of surfing.

Layne Beachley. Photo: WSL

Layne Beachley. Photo: WSL

10. Layne Beachley

Last but certainly not least, seven time world champion (and the only surfer, male or female to do it six consecutive times) Layne Beachley rose through the ranks and showed the world time and time again what a “sick cutback” looks like. Not only can she shred, she is also amongst the first of women’s big wave surfing.

Where would the entire surfing world be without these women and many more like them? I know that when I open a surf magazine or click on websites, still see no pictures of women surfers except posing provocatively in a thong, I think of these women and what they’ve done for this thing I love so much—surfing. I think of these women and I am grateful.

Obviously, there are some exceptionally influential women who are not included in this list, so please share your thoughts and celebrate them below!

  • Jeff Spencer

    Linda Benson for one. Always better to title such articles as ‘Ten of the Most Pivotal’ rather than ‘The Ten Most Pivotal’. And always better when you don’t number your picks since surfing has always been a personal expression of our relationship with nature and not a contest between surfers, today’s over the top commercialization of a lifestyle and passion not withstanding.

    • sabrinamorris

      Liking the comment. There is no doubt there is a whole host of women surfers who have really impacted the art form, sport, spiritual journey, or whatever name the experience of surfing is given. Those names have largely been buried in our surf culture. I’d like to unearth those names and remind our brethren that surfing was also built on the backs of women too. They took us deeper and more radical and contributed. I’ll do a part 2 and include more of them 😉

      • Jeff Spencer

        Sabrina, I understand the intent of your article and would only say that the real importance of all the great women you listed is simply that they surfed. By just going surfing they empowered other young women to paddle out and take their rightful place in the line-up.

        As a great grandfather I want all my girls to have the confidence to paddle into the line-up of life as well as a nice day on the ocean. Check out my dear friend Mary Osborne. Not only is she one of the best surfers in the water she’s a great example of using surfing to propel girls to a greater level of self confidence in life. Here’s hoping your writing will be pivotal in that regard. Aloha.

  • freerider

    Rell Sunn and Princess K.–totally cool. Not sure who the other Wahines are though…..

  • Jack Mitchell

    Definitely Linda Benson. That might of been a few years back, but she was one of the best back in the good ole days

  • freerider

    No expert on this stuff–but I’d wager Rell had more Soul and Aloha than all those other Wahines put together……..don’t think they are even in the same league with her…

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