By Easkey Britton
I am blessed to live the life of an ocean wahine, a water woman. I have received so many gifts from surfing and the ocean has been a constant source of
life experiences. I feel that the foundation laid down by the water women who have gone before us has paved the way for the current explosion in women’s
surfing that is taking the global oceans by storm.
This is by no means a complete account of women’s surfing – it is a more personal reflection of those key moments and role models in our surfing history
that have most inspired me, and one woman in particular, Rell Sunn.
Tracing our Wahine he’e nalu (surfing women) roots…It’s inspirational to see other women in their element in what for so long has been thought
of as an environment of testosterone-charged masculinity. When in fact women have been surfing for a very long time, further back than we can imagine.
Many of the first surfers were women. Some of the earliest records of people surfing, captured in the drawings from Captain Cook’s voyage in the 1700s
to the Hawaiian Islands, show Polynesian women surfing together with men. The first explorers from the western world described their skill and grace riding
the crests of waves in unrestrained joy, equals to their male-counterparts. Many women were champion surfers and competed with men for the honour and respect
of the ocean. On the south shore of Oahu, at Waikiki, the surf spot now known as Outside Castles was called Kalehuaweke by the Hawaiians to commemorate
an incident in which a commoner dropped into the same wave as a Hawaiian chieftess, which was a major taboo. To save his own skin, he offered her his lehua
wreath to placate her.
Unfortunately the missionaries were none too impressed by their naked ‘sinful’ freedom, their lack of subservience to men and their power in the ocean,
and women’s participation in surfing took a blow. Once again Eve was banished from the Garden of Eden and surfing lost its heart… As the kapu system
crumbled, so did surfing’s ritual significance within Hawaiian culture. The end of the kapu system also brought about the demise of the Makahiki festival,
the annual celebration to the god Lono in which surfing played an integral role along with other rites and festivals honouring the Goddess Pele of Volcanoes
(surfing, according to Hawaiian legend, was first practiced by Pele and the women she taught). After 125 years of Hawaiian-European contact surfing went
from a national past time and way of life to a sport engaged in by only a handful. However, even on its death bed, surfing was still practiced in its darkest
hour by the very few.
One of these few was royal Hawaiian Princess Ka’iulani. In the late 1880s young Ka`iulani reportedly rode a 7-and-a-half foot alaia koa surfboard that
turned out to be one of the few pre-Twentieth Century Hawaiian surfboards to survive the cultural extermination of Nineteenth Century Hawai`i. This board
has been housed at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu since 1922; part of the estate donated by Ka`iulani’s father Archibald Cleghorn. “By 1900,” Duke Kahanamoku
declared, “surfing had totally disappeared throughout the Islands except for a few isolated spots on Kauai, Maui and O`ahu, and even there only a handful
of men took boards into the sea.” The “handful” were virtually all males. A notable exception was Princess Ka`iulaini who, “was an expert surfrider,” according
to early Twentieth Century surfer Knute Cottrell. “She apparently was the last of the old school at Waikiki.”
Somehow our true surf heritage has been lost in translation. The importance of role models Research has highlighted a lack of female role models as a
key issue for female participation in sport. This certainly is not for a lack of role models out there but rather the result of differing media access
and coverage in sport as well as gender norms - how society expects men and women to behave. These norms permeate our beliefs, our attitudes and behaviors
and can strongly control the accepted and expected roles for women in different cultures and society. Recently, UN Women emphasized the importance of female
athletes and leaders sharing stories to inspire, to create visions for girls and open doors for new opportunities, so they can re-imagine future possibilities.
When I was a kid growing up on the remote northwest coast of Ireland there was little or no surf scene and I relied on my annual birthday subscription
to what was then the only women’s surf publication, Wahine magazine from the States – that was my way of connecting with what other girls were doing in
surfing. One of the first issues I got had a beautiful image of a woman on the cover. Inside was the story of a remarkable modern day Hawaiian surfing
queen. Her name was Rell Sunn and from that moment she became my role model. It is no surprise that Rell’s Hawaiian name, Kapolioka’ehukai, means heart
of the sea, she was a real embodiment of the aloha spirit of surfing and inspirational in terms of bringing kids into the sport and pushing the standards
of women’s surfing at a time when they were getting little or no support. Rell’s surfing and way of life was so full of grace and grit. She challenged
the male-dominated sport of surfing and the ocean, charging big waves at Makaha and Sunset, free-diving for ulua, and racing outrigger canoes. She was
Hawaii’s first female lifeguard and a global ambassador of aloha. In the early ‘70s, Rell was instrumental in founding the Women’s
Professional Surfing Association (before that she had competed with the men in their events, often beating them) and in 1975 she founded the annual Rell
Sunn Menehune Surf Contest at Makaha, which gives local kids a venue to have fun and to excel and continues in her memory today. Surfing was Rell’s constant
passion, “I was 4 years old and I knew I was in love,” she says. “It was surfing…Can you imagine being four and knowing what love is?” She was a
woman who blazed an unconventional path and breached the predominantly male domain of surfing, opening the way for other women.
The 1970s are considered by many as the golden era of surfing. Elizabeth Jackson was a teenager in Hawaii at the time who fell in love with surfing the
moment she started, aged 13, “Surfing becomes a part of you,” Jackson explains, “before you know it, it’s a lifelong passion.” It was an amazing time of
change and innovation in the sport of surfing for both women and men. Development in surfboard design opened up an endless array of possibilities in the
surf. But for Jackson and her friends, they didn’t realise they were part of a new surfing frontier, they just loved hitting the waves as often as possible.
Just surfers, not surfer-girls I wanted to know if there were particular challenges female surfers faced then, especially giving the growing pressure
on young girls and female athletes today to conform to a certain media-prescribed body image. Although women’s competitive and professional surfing still
hadn’t received the recognition of their male-counterparts, Jackson says the image of surfing was less defined by gender than perhaps it is now, “We thought
of ourselves as surfers first. We didn’t put ourselves in the category of ‘girl surfers’.” The attraction was the sense freedom and empowerment the ocean
gave, as if the waves actually wash away the worry, stress and stigma we might carry on land, “We felt independent and empowered riding waves of all sizes
around the islands of Hawaii, in the ‘country’ (now known as the famous North Shore of Oahu) and Makaha. Surfing also made us feel confident in other areas
of our lives. We didn’t feel we had limits because we were women.”
Despite the indiscriminatory nature of the ocean, the mainstream surf culture and industry of that era was far from equal for men and women. Jackson recalls
how in competition after competition, they were treated as “less than” the guy surfers, often left to surf the scraps at the end of the day after the male
surfers had the prime slot with the best surf conditions. Another issue was the portrayal of women as passive ‘beach bunnies’, with a focus on women’s
looks overshadowing their performance in the surf. Jackson describes the surf photographers of the 1970s as, “mainly sexist. They’d occasionally shoot
professional female surfers….actually surfing. Far too often, they’d shoot us paddling out, on the beach, parts of our bodies….ugh…but
not surfing. We hated that!” Professional surfers like Margo Oberg, Lynne Boyer, and Rell Sunn also made considerably less money (if any) than professional
Elizabeth spoke warmly and with great affection for one of her greatest role models at that time, Rell Sunn,
“I had the very good fortune of meeting and surfing with Rell. She was a pro surfer whom my friends and I admired greatly. She was known as the “Queen
of Makaha” and was always eager to help and encourage other women. (…) Rell was graceful, agile, strong, and passionate about surfing. She encouraged
other women surfers; especially younger ones like my friends and me.
The power of Aloha The learning I feel, in the portrayal of male-dominated mainstream surfing culture, is about reclaiming what once was very much a feminine
pursuit and sharing the values that surfing can teach us, especially the importance of our relationship with the ocean and each other.
Rell’s constant love was surfing. She talked about its power to heal, “When you get in the water and catch a wave, you own your life again. Surfing gives
you great inner strength.” In early January 1998 aged 11, I found out the devastating news of her death. At the age of just 47, Rell had lost a 15-year
battle with cancer. A woman I had never met, and yet she taught me the importance of sharing what you love, living your passion and the importance of cultivating
grace and grit. After her passing, the Independent newspaper in the UK described her as, ‘the female answer to Duke Kahanamoku, the mother of women’s surfing
in the 20th century.’
Rell’s true aloha spirit is her greatest legacy. Her philosophy of aloha and respect for the mana of the ocean has influenced my whole life,
“If you share the ocean, well then you’re completely bonded because that’s like being blood brothers or blood sisters. And Aloha is to keep giving that
love and feeling it come back, until there’s nothing else you have to give.”
Growing up in the ocean and travelling the world surfing Rell heard all kinds of great stories and said, “As a woman, I swore they would not be stories
that belonged only to men. I knew already. I was hungry.”
There is an important essence to surfing that is often lost in the interpretation of surfing through the male-body and that is grace. What is grace? It
is a love so strong that a woman keeps surfing through her battle with cancer, donning a pink had after losing her beautiful, long dark her to chemotherapy,
in the sea until her final moments and she returns from whence she came. Grace is style born from an inner creativity, intuition and a sense of self-expression.
It is giving from the heart, it is being open to wonder of this life and the power of the ocean, every day, it is hunger and determination. Grace is never
“What I loved most about Rell: she never gave up….in any area of her life. She was one of the strongest, kindest, most determined, most interesting
and giving women that I’ve ever known.” – Elizabeth Jackson
An award-winning documentary, “Heart of the Sea” chronicles Rell’s life. More information about Rell and her foundation: www.rellsunn.com .