Mindy Pennybacker: Women are finally seeing equity in surfing

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Jun. 10—After decades of condescension and discrimination, women surfers, who've historically had fewer contests and lower pay than men, and contests at Hawaii's Pipeline and Tahiti's Teahupo 'o pulled on grounds the waves being too dangerous for girls, are finally standing in the spotlight and claiming their due.

On Friday, the Honolulu Department of Parks and Recreation released its calendar of permitted North Shore surf contests for 2022-2024, which includes a World Surf League championship tour event at Pipeline with a women's division.

"It's the first time there'll be a combined men's and women's event at Pipeline, ever, " said Graham Stapelberg, WSL executive vice-president and general manager for North America.

"It's consistent going back to 2018, where we made the commitment to ensure equity across the board, " starting with equal prize money for women and men, Stapelberg added.

After a lapse since 2006, the WSL has also restored the women's CT event at Teahupo 'o, to be held in August alongside the men's event.

Also last week, Niki Caro and Charlize Theron announced plans for a Netflix film about the 19-year fight of four women surfers—Bianca Valenti and Hawaii's Andrea Moller, Keala Kennelly and Paige Alms—who won the right to compete against men in the massive, lethal waves of Mavericks at Half Moon Bay, Northern California, and receive equal prize money.

However, when it comes to gender equity, said veteran North Shore surf promoter Betty Depolito, "there's still work to be done."

Long referred to as the Sport of Hawaiian Kings, after the ali 'i (female as well as male ) who excelled at the stand-up board riding invented here, surfing is ready to be renamed the Sport of Hawaiian Queens.

After all, the reigning queen of surfing is Hawaii's Carissa Moore, who has been crowned world champion four times and will represent the U.S. next month at Tsurigasaki Surfing Beach, Chiba Prefecture, Japan, as surfing makes its debut in the Olympics. Joining Moore will be fellow Oahu native John John Florence, a two-time world champ, Californian Kolohe Andino and Florida-born Caroline Marks.

Last week, a third Hawaii surfer, North Shore native Mahina Maeda, won an Olympic berth at the final International Surfing Association qualifying event. She'll be surfing for Japan, where her parents hail from.

In addition to WSL's new women's event at Pipeline, welcome waves of change are rolling through the islands.

December saw the passage of Honolulu City Council's Bill 10, popularly known as "the surf equity bill, " mandating gender equity for sports activities requiring a city park use permit.

Also that month, the women's championship tour came to Pipeline for the first time in a decade, transferring from Maui after a fatal shark attack in Honolua Bay. Moore placed second, won the next CT event at Newcastle, Australia, and has since scored three third places to maintain her comfortable lead over the rest of the field.

In January and February, the first-ever, all-women, Hawaii big wave contest was held virtually at Oahu's Waimea Bay and Pipeline Outer Reefs and Maui's Peahi (Jaws ), organized by Depolito and sponsored by Red Bull after she canceled her Red Bull Queen of the Bay contest at Waimea due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Also for the first time, the city's new North Shore surf calendar has expanded DePolito's Red Bull Queen of the Bay holding period. Formerly slotted from Oct. 1 to Nov. 21, the contest, which due to lack of adequate wave conditions, has never been held, now extends from Sept. 15-Dec. 3.

"It's definitely a giant leap forward for women's big wave surfing by getting additional days, " Depolito said. "I would like to have even more days in December through February, the best window for big waves, but it was a compromise."

The Eddie Aikau Invitational at Waimea Bay, traditionally an all-men's event that started inviting a handful women two years ago, has claimed, as usual, that prime window.

Another disappointment : "I didn't get Pipeline, that's kind of a blow, " Depolito said.

While pro events get most of the attention, Depolito said, her focus is giving unranked girls and women the chance to compete in open events, including at such elite sites as Pipe.

"It gives the girls an opportunity to surf there, to get better at it, " she said.

Last season, for instance, she applied for and received a permit in partnership with the promoter of a men's bodysurfing event at Pipeline, "and we did women's bodyboarding and surfing."

Just as with the professional surfing circuits, there are, on average, fewer than half as many females as males in menehune, junior and amateur events. Furthermore, Hawaii youngsters already have few contests and opportunities to gain points, recognition and sponsors at home, without the often prohibitive expense of traveling to meets.

"Some say there's not enough good girls, " Depolito said. "That's not the point. We have to help surfing progress."

On the eve of a historic Olympics in which Native Hawaiian waterwoman Moore will carry forward the legacy of great Olympian Duke Kahanamoku, islanders can at least rejoice that the sport of kings and queens has truly evolved into the sport of commoners, all of us stoked, natural aristocrats at sea.

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