Women in the Barrel: A New Era

Justine Dupont, Peahi, 2021. That this is the greatest surf photo ever taken could possibly be debated. That it’s one of the heaviest, most epic tubes ever ridden by a surfer of either sex, can not. Photo: Fred Pompermayer

The Inertia

With the 2022 Vans Pipeline Masters’ significantly expanded and a remarkably diverse women’s division emphatically justifying its format with Carissa Moore’s amazing first-round Backdoor barrel, it seems like the appropriate time to consider the relatively recent paradigm shift in women’s tube riding. A dramatic advancement. And while finally receiving overdue recognition from a decidedly testosterone-heavy demographic and male-oriented media, this advancement has, up to this point, never been thoughtfully examined.

I’m talking about girls in the tube. Like, deep in the tube. Whether it’s Steph Gilmore at Snapper Rocks, Zoë McDougall, Sierra Kerr and Caity Simmers at Bank Vaults, Vahine Fierro or Keala Kennelly at Teahupo’o, Jasmine Studer at Uluwatu, Coco Ho at Velzyland, Erin Brooks at Padang Padang, Justine Dupont or Paige Alms at Peahi, or Carissa at Backdoor, more and more female surfers of all ages are demonstrating that they’re unquestionably capable of riding deep in the tube. The pertinent question is why are we only seeing this now?

Hey, don’t take it from me. Listen to 19 year-old Moana Jones Wong, the young surfer from the North Shore of Oahu who, over the past few seasons, has redefined a woman’s place in the Pipeline lineup, stating in a pre-event interview that while growing up on the beach here she’d “never seen a woman surfing Pipe.” Let alone pulling into the barrel and disappearing behind the foam ball until being spat out on the shoulder.

Girl in the Tube

Thanks to changing attitudes and opportunities, young Indonesian surfers like Jasmine Studer are growing up in the barrel. Photo: Byronetmedia

None of us had seen this here…and most probably not anywhere else. Pick any famously hollow wave — Backdoor, Kirra, Big Rock, Restaurants, Lagundri Bay, Grajagan, Maalaea, Sandspit, Skeleton Bay — and understand that for the past 40 years at least, none of these breaks have seen a good day pass without being photographed or filmed. Now I’m not prepared to say that between the years, say, 1970 and 2009 (more on this later) no female surfer had ever ridden a legitimate, deep barrel at any of these spots. Only that if she had, she did so in complete obscurity.


Not to imply that there haven’t been plenty of talented, committed female surfers in the past who’ve scratched out a place for themselves in dramatic lineups. In the seventies, surfers like Margo Oberg, Jericho Poppler, and Debbie Beacham charged heavy waves like Sunset and Haleiwa. The eighties saw the first wave of modern pro competitive surfers like Jodie Cooper, Wendy Botha and Frieda Zamba distinguishing themselves in black diamond conditions, and nineties standouts Keala Kennelly and Rochelle Ballard vigorously applied themselves to medium-sized Pipeline, but none ever did so by regularly riding deep in the barrel. Again, if they had, we most probably would’ve seen it, and had they, experiencing what most surfers would consider surfing’s ultimate rush, they certainly would’ve continued to do so, every chance they got.

Any attempt to explain exactly why this is so requires addressing the prickly topic of gender distinction in regards to athletic performance. On the gridiron, for example, the advantage a male football player would have in terms of performance is obvious: greater size, mass and strength. Ok, but in the surf, effectively riding in the tube doesn’t require size, mass or strength. If it did, Menehune Michael Ho would’ve never won the 1992 Pipeline Masters; gamine Craig Anderson could never have ridden giant Kandui on his 5’4” Hypto Krypto. While a deep barrel does call for balance, timing and verve, sheer strength isn’t an issue, so there goes the “male surfers are stronger” excuse.

So if not muscle, what then? Think about the element tube riding has in greater proportion than other aspects of surfing (and I’m not counting aerials and mega-wave riding, both done by only a handful of surfers around the world.) This element is risk. Whether it’s head high, 10 feet or 20, pulling into the tube is to risk it all, applying an audacious mix of judgment and daring in a breathless rush through the heart of the wave. So is that it? Are female surfers naturally more risk adverse? A recent feature in the publication Science Daily points to a study at the University of Exeter that refutes this hypothesis in a manner that directly relates to surfing.

Erin Brooks, schooling plenty of the guys on her way to the finals of the 2022 Padang Padang Cup, a specialty tube-riding event held each year on Bali. Photo: Frederico Vanno.

“Understanding the nature of gender differences in risk taking is particularly important,” writes Professor Michele Ryan, the study’s co-author. “As the assumption that women are risk adverse is often used to justify ongoing gender inequality.”

If the term “gender inequality” wasn’t written expressly for multiple generations of female surfers who’ve had to fight their way through waves of testosterone just to catch a decent set, it certainly fits. In fact, women’s divisions at Pipe contests have only recently been made possible by enforcing permitting regulations. Hurdles like these highlight the very different element of risk they face every time they paddle out.

“Women can be just as risk-taking as men,” the study concludes. “Or even more so. But only when the conventional ‘macho’ measures of daring are replaced by less stereotypical criteria.”

So is that it? Is the reason the sport hasn’t seen 40-plus years of deep tube riding from female surfers simply because we (read: male-dominated lineups and surf media) have done such a great job perpetuating the idea that women don’t, and in some cases shouldn’t, ride barrels?

It’s as good an explanation as I can find. And to support this hypothesis, I’ll point to two seemingly unrelated sociological developments that the current state of women’s tube riding can trace its roots to. First came the introduction of the Roxy Girl in the early 1990s, a marketing campaign that became a women’s movement, albeit inadvertently. By swerving 180 degrees from parent company Quiksilver’s conventional, pro surfer endorsement-based marketing, Roxy created an entirely new archetype: a female surfer who enjoyed the sport entirely on her own terms. And if this meant riding a longboard while wearing a palm-frond hat and a flower lei, well then get over it, guys. We don’t need your approval anymore.

Galvanizing a new generation of recreational Roxy Girls, this rather revolutionary identity shift eventually carried over into the realm of high performance. More specifically, world champion Layne Beachley’s groundbreaking ride on a big day at “Ours” in Sydney, in 2009. Towed into this slabbing mutant of a wave (above), Layne dropped in way behind the paddle pack, negotiated the initial ledge, performed a subtle check turn that put her in harm’s way, then elegantly stood tall through the first full-on, deep, deliberate women’s barrel the surfing world had ever seen. Spit out onto the shoulder, Ms. Beachley’s raised arms were less a claim than a joyous statement of intent, proving to a generation of female surfers following in her wake that waves like this, and rides like this, truly were “Ours.”

Rochelle and Keala charging Pipe was monumental,” Layne told The Inertia, now a keynote motivational speaker and founder of The Awake Academy by Layne Beachley. “But my crazy barrel at ‘Ours’ generated a groundswell of attention worldwide, earning me more respect and recognition than my seven world titles, especially from my male counterparts.”

Nobody, however, paid closer attention than the young female surfers who came of age in a post-Layne’s Barrel World. Which is why you can trace a direct line from that single ride to Justine Dupont’s epic, max-size Peahi barrel in 2021, one of the heaviest tube-rides by any surfer, male or female, and straight on to Carissa’s barrier-smashing barrel at Backdoor. Although separated by decades, all three performances reflect more than just confidence, or even ability — each one of these surfers had plenty of that “right stuff.” No, what really made each one of these epoch-defining rides possible was something much more transformational: belief. The kind of belief in oneself that ignores the many why not’s, replacing that mindset with “Why not me?” Why not, indeed.

Which brings us back to the very existence of a women’s division at this year’s Vans Pipe Masters — and to all the female tube riders out there who are changing closed minds with every barrel they ride. Not because male surfers have made it any easier, offering women equal place in the lineups of the world’s hollow waves (we haven’t come that far), nor through any advancements in technique and equipment. But because of the example set by surfers like Keala, Rochelle, Layne, Justine and Carissa — and all the fantastic young performers seen pushing their surfing into new realms — today’s female surfers are finally taking their rightful place in the tube. 


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