For many of the most elite surfers in the world, finding the time to jump on the phone to talk about a recent accomplishment is a matter of fitting it in between surfs. But for 39-year-old big wave surfer Andrea Moller, originally from Brazil but now living on Maui, she had to fit our interview in-between emergency calls while working a 48-hour shift as a paramedic.
Moller was recently inducted into the Guinness Book Of World Records for a 42-foot paddle-in that she caught at Jaws in January of 2016, and she was recognized for the achievement at this year's Big Wave Awards.
We wanted to catch up with Moller to hear more about how she balances massive surf with her career as a paramedic and what it means to finally be recognized on the world stage for her big-wave bravado after 15 years of charging purely for the passion.
First off, congrats. We're all really stoked for you.
Thanks. Yeah, I'm still absorbing it all, really. It's [surfing big waves] just such a passion, you know? I didn't go there [to Jaws] to be the world record holder. I went there to surf big waves, because when I do, I'm surrounded by people that motivate and inspire me. So, after so many years surfing, to get this recognition is a dream come true. What else can I ask for? This is beyond any title or recognition I've ever received.
When you aren't surfing huge Jaws, you work as a paramedic on Maui. How long have you been in that profession?
Ten years. I've been living in Hawaii for 21 years—I'm originally from Brazil.
How do you balance surfing big waves with your career, while also being a mom?
[Laughs] Yeah, it can be tough. That's the thing for me with this award, it's not like I'm a professional surfer with one focus, I've always had at least two lives: The life of work and a kid and a husband, and then there's chasing the dream of surfing. It's almost like split personalities [laughs].
I started surfing bigger waves in 2004, when my daughter was one year old, after I became good friends with Maria Souza, Laird Hamilton's ex-wife. She was the woman who influenced me most. She saw potential in me, and so we got a jet ski together and started tow surfing. I remember asking the guys to take me tow surfing, but back then they were super hesitant, knowing they'd be responsible for me. That was before the safety measures we have today, and women weren't really doing it [tow surfing Jaws] at the time.
So Maria and I started doing it—I think 2005 was my first year tow surfing out there—and it was just an immediate addiction. Such an adrenaline rush. I remember dropping everything for it and my own parents even saying to me, "What are you doing? Your daughter is one year old!"
But having a kid and big-wave surfing just made me more focused. I wasn't there to prove anything to the boys or anyone else. I was there to have fun, and I was there because I loved it. So I kept myself in shape, worked on my equipment, and 2007 was my first time paddling Jaws—I believe I was the first woman to paddle out there. And that happened because Maria wasn't available and I didn't have a tow partner. And once I realized I could paddle in, that became a whole different chase. And, remember, back then it was just boardshorts and a shirt—there were no inflatable vests. Now, when I look back, it's like, "What was I thinking?" [laughs.]
Year after year, I just kept chasing it. The equipment got better, safety measures got better and this award is really a culmination of all of that for me. My daughter is 15 now, I've been through paramedic school and made that a career since my first time out at Jaws, but that whole time I never gave up on surfing big waves. At this point, I hope to inspire other moms with jobs, to show them that if you take an hour every day to stay in shape, you can also chase your dream, whatever it might be.
You're now officially in the Guinness Book of World Records for your 42-foot paddle-in from January of 2016. What took so long for that wave to receive its due recognition?
I'd really like to give credit to the crew that pushed for equality in surfing. Before, there was always five categories for the men at the Big Wave Awards, but the women just got one: Best Overall Performance. So we never really had a chance to claim anything.
If this was 10 years ago, Maria could have won it. Or if it was just a few years ago, Jamilah Star might have won. But there was no stage for them. So, I'm stoked to see that change for future generations, with equal pay and awards like this, and a lot of women fought hard to make it happen. This award would never have happened if there wasn't that fight for equality. I give all the credit to them.
Let's talk about that wave. Describe what it felt like.
I'll never forget it. The day itself was huge. I remember in the lead up to the swell I was working—I do 48 hours on and four days off—and I was frantically texting everyone while I was working. We all knew it was going to be massive, but what was so impressive about that day was how glassy the conditions were. I'd never seen it like that before.
I remember sitting in the channel, and it was really big. It was a tough day for everyone and there were a lot of wipeouts. I wanted to go, but I was weighing in my mind whether it was smart for me to paddle out there or not. But it looked so perfect. I just had to try.
My gear was set and my board was ready, and once I was out there, I treated it just like a regular day—I just wanted to sit there until one wave came that called my name. That's the thing at Jaws, you don't just go for anything.
When that wave came, I turned and paddled as hard as I could. I just remember seeing the wall and telling myself I had to make the drop. When I got to the bottom—I don't know if it was a fall or a jump—but I hit a bump and didn't have the momentum to bottom turn, so I just fell off. Once I wiped out I just had to be patient underwater. It was dark for a while, but I just tried to chill so that I wouldn't waste any energy. I inflated my vest and waited for it to bring me up. I broke my board, but the ski came right away, picked me and we got out of there safe and sound and without any injuries. I actually went tow surfing after that to end the day.
At the time, did you have any inclination that was going to be a Guinness World Record-breaking paddle wave?
You know, that day, I remember watching it on video and thinking that was the biggest wave I'd ever seen a girl paddle. I don't usually think those things. I don't do it for the media or the recognition, I do it for the love, but I remember that day thinking, "Whoa, that was the biggest waves I've surfed, and I was the only girl out that day." So I had a feeling it was maybe the biggest, but I would never claim it.
Fortunately the Guinness Book claimed it for you.
[Laughs]. Yes, I'm really stoked they recognized it.
At this point, what's next for you?
To really keep humble. I can't let this award and recognition make me feel like I need to go chase something else above and beyond my own limits. I'm gonna listen to my heart—that's what got me here and I can't forget that. But if there are big swells coming and conditions are good, I'll be out there.
The main goal is to set a good example for the next generation. And I'm not just saying that for an article—I'm really passionate about making sure the girls are really prepared if they want to surf big waves. I want to make sure they are doing it for all of the right reasons. Maria and I always knew there was a lot of pressure on us to do things the right way. If we would have lost a ski in the rocks on a big day we would have been the talk of the town and an example of why women shouldn't be out there, you know? But we worked really hard to do things the right way all the time. And so I hope, now that I'm getting attention with this award, I can be an example of what happens when you do things out of love and passion and do them the right way.