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The Wave of the Future is Femme

Jim Kempton shares the surprises he found while writing

Women On Waves (2021), 400-year history of women’s surfing.

Early woodcut by romantic French artist E. Riou ( 1873) Collection Sydney Historical Archives.
All surfers in the early decades of the 20th Century knew Duke. As Hawaii’s aloha ambassador, the five-time Olympic medalist was one of modern surfing’s earliest first-person observers of women’s surfing.
Duke Kahanamoku with surfing friends in Waikiki. (1907) Photo Courtesy of The California Surf Museum.

Who would imagine that Agatha Christie, the most popular mystery novelist of all time was an avid surfer and perhaps the second British citizen to ever ride waves in Hawaii? Even ten years ago would anyone have predicted that women would be regularly riding waves exceeding 60 feet? Would it be a surprise that surfing in Ecuador was introduced in 1960 by a six foot, statuesque Olympic female swimming champion? Could you have guessed that the first surfer in Cape Town was a woman taking her place in history (albeit unknowingly) as the first person recorded to stand-up surf in South Africa - with a photo appearing in a local newspaper in 1919? These were but a few of the surprising stories I uncovered while researching Women On Waves, a Cultural History of Surfing from Ancient Goddesses and Hawaiian Queens to Malibu Movie Stars and Millennial Champions. But in all likelihood, even the most avid surf aficionado would not know all this. “History,” the old adage claims, “is written by the victors.” What is not implicit in that statement is that no matter what history it might be, the narrative has predominantly been written by men.

Seven-time World Champion Layne Beachley suggested I title the book The Surf is Shit, Send Out the Girls! I didn’t take her suggestion, but her story, as well as so many others, is astonishing. It was a line Layne overheard while in competition, and just one example of what these women had to face while fighting for parity in the sport they loved – one that has its origins as the Sport of Queens, in homage to Huauri, the goddess of the waves.

When I embarked on this mission I was determined that the story would be told by women and envisioned from the female point of view. Once neck-deep in years of research, it became obvious that women’s surf history is a history of surfing itself.

Over my tenure in the surf culture - and as editor and publisher at Surfer magazine — I met and became friends with many of the most remarkable women who surf. I had championed them over the years and was inspired to tell their stories in one volume. What surprised me was the ocean of new discoveries and little-known women’s achievements that unfolded. Wave after wave of captivating stories began to take form. Like the template of a surfboard blank being sculpted, each layer revealed a more beautiful and significant visage.

Norma Jean Baker (Marilyn Monroe) Chapter 6

Marilyn Monroe and Hollywood movie mogul Darryl Zanuck’s daughter Darrylin were both avid surfers at Malibu long before Gidget made her world-changing debut. Who could have predicted that the competing love affairs of Darrylin and Marilyn would be the impetus for the most significant design innovation in surfing history – the advent of shorter, lighter, streamlined surfboards?

Perhaps the most surprising discovery was the inverse relationship women had in the birth of modern surfing compared to the ancient women wave riders of Polynesia.

Princess Ka’iulani circa 1899

While the Hawaiian women were considered equal in the surf and many Queens were regarded as better than their male counterparts, the vast majority of women at the beach in the 1960s – an era of women’s liberation in many arenas - were more likely to be relegated to sitting on the sand rather than riding the surf. But from Hawaii’s last Monarch, Princess Ka’iulani, who saved surfing from extinction to four-time World Champion Lisa Anderson who won her first World Title after she bore her first child, the spirit of women on waves has been irrepressible.

Isabel Letham, who popularized surfing in Australia riding with the great Duke Kahanamoku in 1915
Kathy Koerner surfing Malibu summer, 1958
Rell Sunn, Makaha (1981) Photo by Jeff Divine
Maya Babiera at Teahupoo, Tahiti

To give perspective to these discoveries along with the achievements of here and now, consider: in 2020 Maya Gabiera, a vivacious, fearless Brazilian was awarded the largest wave in the world ridden by a woman or a man- a nearly 74 foot mammoth at Nazare, Portugal.

The equally impressive fact, however, was this: the second largest ride in 2020 was caught by Justine Dupont, a demure, driven French surfer whose wave was according to the judges “two to three feet smaller.”

In the decade since my first research, women’s surfing has swept forward like a rising swell, gaining height and strength each year. They are leaders in the fight for equal professional pay, and they have drawn on.

The struggle and triumphs of women on waves is a 400-year saga. The surprise is not the fascinating stories of over 800 of these heroines – but that so many of their grand adventures have gone unsung.


Jim Kempton is the award-winning former editor-in-chief of SURFER. He loved the Free Ride generation and enjoyed being a part of a fast-growing culture. Currently, he is the President of the California Surf Museum and served as project director for a 70-foot surf exploration vessel, the Indies Trader, which traversed the globe in search of new wave discoveries while mapping the location and health of the world’s reefs. He is the author of three books, including First We Surf, Then We Eat and Surfing: The Manual.

Women on Waves book released July 7, 2021: is available for purchase Girl in the Curl, Barnes & Noble, Pages Books, The California Surf Museum, Hobie Stores, and other fine book stores and Surf Shops.

Other notable books Women in Surfing

She Surfs (2020) Lauren A. Hill: Inertia Article

Wave Woman (2020) Vicky Durand Sparks Press

Surf Like A girl (2019) Carolina Amell Prestel Publisher

Women Who Surf (2017) Ben Marcus and Lucia Daniella Griggi: Falcon Publisher

Surfer Girls in the New World Order (2010) Krista Comer, Duke Univ Press

Surfing: Women of the Waves (2008) Linda Chase, Elizabeth Pepin Gibbs Smith Publisher

Surf Diva, A Girls Guide to Getting Good Waves (2005) Coco and Izzy Tihanyi Marinier Press

Girl in the Curl: A Century of Women in Surfing (2000) Andrea Gabbard Seal Press

Follow some of Women Mentioned in the Article

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