Keala Kennelly on Winning Big

Keala Kennelly, the first-ever women't big-wave event winner. Photo: Joli
Keala Kennelly, the first-ever women't big-wave event winner. Photo: Joli

Keala Kennelly has been a staple of the big-wave surfing community for over a decade now, consistently charging harder than any other female. And on November 4, 2010, just days after losing one of her best friends and heroes, Andy Irons, Keala directed her energy into making Andy proud, winning the first-ever women's big-wave event at Nescott Reef in Oregon. We caught up with Keala after a few highly emotional weeks to get her take on the event and the future of women's big-wave surfing.

Tell me about the conditions up there on the day they held the event. Was it like the ASP World Tour events—where they hold the women's heats when the surf is too mellow for the guys?

“We were meant to go out in between the men's second semi and final heat. That happened to be right when the swell was peaking at 30-foot Hawaiian. They had already lost a few skis and daylight was becoming an issue. Big Wave World Tour organizer Gary Linden was out in the water and made the call that the women's heat would be moved to the following morning. I personally breathed a huge sigh of relief. When some of the top men big-wave surfers are so rattled that they won't go back out after advancing in there heat, I know I personally have no business being out there. The next morning was smaller but there were still some decent size sets. Conditions were much more clean and glassy…I think it was a good call.”


Why has it taken so long for there to be a women's big-wave event?

“The Big Wave world Tour is fairly new and with anything that is new it takes a while for things to catch on. When I started competing, there wasn't even a girls division in my local contests—I had to compete against the boys. Then we finally were able to scrape together a six-person girls heat. Now there are too many girls entering events and you have to put some of them on the alternate list. So it just takes a few women showing up and getting it started. That is the main reason why I came to this event in Oregon—to help give the women that extra push towards getting more big-wave events for women in the future.”

Are there really enough women on the top-level to hold legitimate big-wave contests?

“I think when you talk about women's big-wave surfing most people think of the same handful of women that they see at the Billabong XXL Awards every year. There are a lot of women out there who are charging. However, most people have never even heard of them because they don't have the sponsorship dollars to chase swells—women like Paige Alms and Andrea Moller who are out at Jaws every massive swell and have never even been nominated for a Billabong XXL Award. I think if there were more big-wave events for women in the future that would give more women the opportunity to get sponsored and also give them something to aspire to.”


Moving forward, are there plans for more events? A women's big-wave tour alongside the men's?

“In time I think there could be a decent big wave tour for women. The talk around the event at Nelscott after the women's heat was that we are definitely headed in that direction. I heard rumors of women being added to the Todos Santos Big Wave Event. I have always wanted to give that wave a go, so if the rumors turn out to be true, you know I will be there.”