The Boys’ Club

Female big-wave surfers are scarce compared to men. Are there good reasons for it?

alms
Maui’s Paige Alms, holding her own during an all-star paddle session at Jaws. Photo: Aeder

Maya Gabeira nearly drowned on Oct. 29, 2013, at Nazaré in Portugal. This reopened the conversation about female big-wave surfers out in the lineup. The following article originally appeared in our June 2013 Issue.

You can count the number of legitimate female big-wave surfers on your fingers. But, despite their scarcity, we very rarely ask the question: Why don’t women want to surf big waves? Or maybe more honestly, why can’t women surf big waves?

At first glance the answer seems obvious: There are simply less female surfers, and hence even less who want to take it to that next level. But there’s more to it than that. There are essentially two motivations for surfing giant waves, which certainly aren’t mutually exclusive. The first is internal: that desire for an adrenaline rush, the excitement of conquering something that’s literally massive, the pure pleasure of riding a towering wall of water. The other is external, and perhaps practical: for many surfers with budding (or failing) pro surf careers, the big-wave arena offers a way to reinvent themselves or demonstrate value to prospective sponsors. For those on the chopping block, a massive, well-documented ride could warrant a new contract. And with the mainstream appeal of big-wave surfing, companies can justify paying good money to surfers willing to throw themselves into waves that have the potential to make national news.

Sure, they’re dancing with death to be marketing instruments, but for those who are physically and mentally prepared, the big-wave realm offers rewards that are, arguably, worth the risk. On the girls’ side of the game, however, where the opportunity for a lucrative career in big-wave surfing is hard to come by, it’s no wonder that only a few women are willing to leap over the edge of waves that could kill them just to earn a paycheck. “Men can actually make a good living in big-wave surfing,” says Keala Kennelly, “but on the women’s side of the sport, there is almost no money. Who in their right mind would want to have a job where you make no money and there is a chance you could be killed while doing it?”

Which leaves the other motivator: pure, impassioned desire. The fact that so few women possess this particular desire is partly physiological. Studies have revealed that men are far more likely to possess the unique brain and body chemistry that draws them to extreme sports like big-wave surfing—testosterone courses through their veins, neurotransmitters spew pleasure with the completion of every monumental feat. Women are physiologically more risk-averse. On average, men produce ten times more testosterone (a hormone linked to risk-taking, among other things) than women. And when faced with challenging situations, men have been found to have increased activity in the right prefrontal cortex, which is directly associated with a fight-or-flight response and the release of adrenaline. By contrast, women are more likely to see increased activity in the limbic system, which is associated with more negative emotional reactions. Women simply don’t have the same chemical reward for confronting risky situations. Of course, there are exceptions. Every man does not live on the edge of extremity; every woman doesn’t cower in the secure lap of safety. But as a whole, the biological differences between the sexes are undeniable.

“There’s this ‘motherly instinct’ of being sensible and not putting ourselves in dangerous situations,” says Maui’s Paige Alms. Fellow big-wave surfer Maya Gabeira agrees: “I think it’s in the nature of women to be more reasonable and cautious of the risks and consequences of their actions. It’s normal to have fewer women in high-adrenaline sports. Boys act more instinctively when faced with fear.”

But unlike other extreme sports—like, say, racecar driving or heli-skiing or BASE jumping—there’s also a very real physical barrier for women as the size of the surf increases. The challenge, therefore, is not only a mental one—requiring incredible drive, and, for lack of a better word, balls—but one that requires a level of strength that most women simply don’t possess.

Savannah Shaughnessy
Savannah Shaughnessy, one of the few females gracing the Mavericks lineup each season. Photo: Brooks

A recent study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research looked at the performance difference between male and female as it pertains to surfing and found that women are at a significant disadvantage in regards to peak performance. The study pointed out that men commonly have longer limbs, which allows them to produce more torque through a given movement, which allows them to create greater velocity when paddling. Ultimately, it concluded that women “are not physiologically capable of performing some explosive movements equal to their male counterparts even in a relative manner” and that “even relative to body weight, men still have the advantage over women.” And this study didn’t consider the strength required for big-wave paddle surfing.

“Certainly when you’re getting into the realm of 50- to 60-foot waves, it’s incredibly physically demanding and the level of fitness that the top guys have gone to in the last few years blows my mind,” says Bill Sharp, founder of the XXL Awards. “I don’t know if all the women have paced that. But in addition to the physical thing, there’s also the mental or almost chemical issue. Men are more geared for the incredible, terrorizing situations.”

Alms, however, doesn’t believe that’s all there is to it. “Yes, most men are stronger than women,” says Alms, “but I don’t think the reason why big-wave surfers do what they do is because they are strong. Strength is definitely important, but it’s not only physical. To put your head down and dig hard for a 20-footer, you have to be mentally strong and committed to knowing you are capable of doing it.”

And for the elite surfers currently pushing the limits, personal drive and mental strength are bolstered by something greater: the support of a group of like-minded surfers who not only instill confidence, but also the will to beat the rest to the top.

Savannah Shaughnessy, one of the few female surfers consistently in the lineup at Mavericks, believes that this is the real reason behind the lack of growth on the women’s side. “There are so few of us and we are pretty spread out,” she says, “so there’s less competition between us. Because we are so few and far between, the women are missing the kind of mentorships and camaraderie that is formed on the men’s side.”

“I think the difficulties of logistics and safety makes it harder for aspiring females,” agrees Gabeira. “You need the support of people more experienced than you to get a start, and it happens to be that all of those things are mostly—if not only—found in the male community. So it makes it harder for us to practice and pursue it.”

The men at the top form a fraternity born out of their shared fortune, who converge around the planet each time the swell charts turn purple. “Without the budget to chase more swells, it’ll be hard for women’s big-wave surfing to close the gap on the men,” says Alms, “but I don’t think the reason there are less women surfing big waves is due to the fact that we aren’t getting paid to do it. I think if more women loved doing it, they would be doing it regardless of if it were a job or not.”