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Finding Gender Equality in the World’s Most Famous Waves

HALEIWA, Hawaii — Twenty years ago, Keala Kennelly donned a competition jersey and paddled out to the celebrated waves of Pipeline on the North Shore of Oahu, the heart of surfing’s seven-mile mecca.

It turns out, she was surfing in the future.

Back then, women surfing Pipeline, a reef break producing huge waves, stuck out like sore thumbs. There had been women who took to the break in previous decades — Joyce Hoffman and Jodie Cooper among them — but Kennelly was still one of few. There were no major competitions for professional female surfers at Pipeline.

And Kennelly’s surf wasn’t for a competition either. It was for the 2002 film “Blue Crush.” In this aspirational reality, a major women’s surf competition was happening at Pipeline. Casting directors looked to some of the world’s best female surfers, including Kennelly and Rochelle Ballard, for the roles of a lifetime.

“It had been a dream of mine to have a legit women’s event at Pipeline,” Kennelly said in Honolulu before mid-December’s Vans Pipe Masters tournament. “To make a simulated one, it felt real. It’s like I was living my best life. I was living my dream.”

Keala Kennelly surfed Pipeline for the movie “Blue Crush” 20 years before major women’s competitions were held there.

The dream was too good to be true at the time. It would take almost two decades for Kennelly and Ballard to witness the event they had portrayed happen in reality.

But twice this year, they watched a group of female athletes compete at the highest level in the waves of Pipeline. And it wasn’t for a movie.

A Long Road to Reality, and a Catch-22

The evolution in the surfing world comes amid a wave of progress in women’s sports at the highest levels. In 2019, the World Surf League, surfing’s organizing body, began awarding equal prize money to its men’s and women’s athletes. In 2020, the W.N.B.A. and its players union agreed on a collective bargaining agreement that increased salaries and provided new maternity benefits. In May, U.S. Soccer and its top men’s and women’s players agreed to landmark deals that guaranteed equal pay and shared World Cup prize money.

But look no further than the surf break that attracts the attention of the entire surfing world to see how deep an opportunity gap can still run in a sport moving toward equality.

“If I had known it would take a half century to get a contest at Pipe or pay parity, I probably would have given up,” said Patti Paniccia, one of the founders of the professional surfing tour in 1976. Paniccia, 70, has spent much of her life fighting for acknowledgment, if not equality, in the world’s best waves.

Women and girls flocked to the beach for the Vans Pipe Masters event.

If a surf contest were run in the same location for men and women, Paniccia said, the men’s competition would run in the best wave conditions. The women’s contest would be relegated to what Paniccia called “the slop.” And while there have been a handful of women’s amateur contests and invitationals held at Pipeline since 2005, surfers issue a quick addendum. There’s surfing Pipeline, surfers unanimously explain, and then there’s surfing “real Pipeline.”

When the waves are breaking just right, the water can hike up like a two-story building some 50 yards from the shore over sharp, shallow reef. Catching a wave in those conditions can change a life, or destroy one.

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But there’s a Catch-22 of looking at equity of women’s surfing through a break like Pipeline. To master certain waves — especially powerful, technical waves — surfers need to spend a significant amount of time training in those spots. Pipeline is not learned in a few sessions. And since the women’s professional surfing tour has not included a contest at Pipeline, many top surfers simply did not prioritize training there.

The wave is of great ancestral importance to Native Hawaiians, and respect must be paid and earned. When paddling out to Pipeline, surfers need to understand the nuances in the environment and their place in it, especially when there are some 100 to 150 of the world’s best barrel riders looking to catch the same perfect wave.

Generations of women have heard the question thrown around the beach. Could girls compete at Pipe? They wanted to be ready to answer the question in competition unequivocally, when all eyes would be on them.

A Boost from Big-Wave Surfers, and a Unified Calendar

Kennelly, a former top surfer on the world tour and one of the world’s top female big-wave surfers, has experience being one of the few women in waves of consequence.

Moore, at left, finishing her wave at Pipeline while other competitors are paddling out.

She had seen how “Blue Crush” sent shock waves across a surf industry that had previously catered to men. But she had also seen a lack of progress, and a laundry list of events that did not include women. And she still wanted to see a major event at Pipeline.

In July 2016, Kennelly co-founded the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing with other professional big-wave surfers. They explored how local governments could help them in their fight to equalize the sport, and they successfully lobbied California state officials to support the inclusion of a woman’s competition in the big-wave Mavericks surf event.

In late 2019, Kennelly turned her focus to Hawaii. If the wheels of progress were already in motion toward an event at Pipeline, the encouragement of local government couldn’t hurt. In January 2020, the Honolulu City Council unanimously voted to approve a resolution that supported gender equity in professional surfing.

“It takes a lot of minor, small, minute shifts for progress to really happen,” said Tyler Wright, a two-time world champion from Australia, in an interview on the shores of Pipeline.

As Wright, who has spent much of her life at the top of the sport, discussed what equality could look like in professional surfing, she stopped short, distracted by two men who appeared to be stuck in a current.

“One sec,” she said. The 28-year-old Wright grabbed a surfboard and ran some 50 meters to the ocean. North Shore lifeguards were right behind her, and the men were safely on land within minutes.

“Sorry about that,” she said as she returned. Where were we. Oh, yes — a women’s place at Pipeline.

Tyler Wright, right, and her wife, Lilli, before her heat at the Vans Pipe Masters.

“My view of the overall picture is that women’s equality takes a long time because we’re only getting the investment today,” she said. Indeed, men have competed at Pipeline since an inaugural contest was held in 1971. “Give us 50 years of insane money and equality and access and value and inclusive lineups, and you’ll have a pretty similar product.”

In December 2020, after a fatal shark incident involving a recreational surfer at Honolua Bay, Maui, the World Surf League moved its women’s year-end championship tour event to Pipeline. The historic move would soon become part of the regular schedule. Wright became the first woman to win a championship tour event at Pipeline, defeating the Hawaiian Carissa Moore in the final heat.

It was a defining moment for Jessi Miley-Dyer, the chief of sport at the World Surf League. “After that competition, I knew that we had to have women at Pipeline,” she said. Miley-Dyer, a former professional surfer on the world tour, said the organization had been rebuilding the women’s tour since new ownership took over in 2013.

“For a lot of people who were watching, and the crew on the beach, it was so emotional to see that come to fruition when you have been looking at it and wanting it for such a long time,” Miley-Dyer said.

This year, the World Surf League began hosting its championship tour at the same spots for men and women. Wright has already seen an increase in women paddling out to Pipeline.

“All that matters is the next generation who are 12 and 5 now see themselves in this lineup,” she said.

The New Guard of Pipeline

Like Kennelly and Wright and countless other surfers before her, Moana Jones Wong long dreamed of Pipeline as a young girl. But she didn’t just dream about surfing it: She wanted to be the first woman to win a proper Pipeline tournament.

Jones Wong, a 23-year-old North Shore native, describes Pipeline as a character, one that can sense pompous surfers a mile away and quickly introduce them to humility through the reef below the surface. Jones Wong speaks like a veteran who has studied the break in and out of the water for much of her life. That’s because she has.

Moana Jones Wong surfed at Pipeline for the first time when she was 12 years old.

Jones Wong first paddled out when she was 12 years old, battling thoughts that it was “a man’s wave.” She was a talented young surfer, and her friends — boys around her age — encouraged her to join them. It still was not easy.

“I had this social judgment, like I shouldn’t be out at Pipeline because I’m a girl,” she said. “It would prevent me from going out a lot.”

She was so drawn to the wave that she would push herself out of her comfort zone, she said, recalling telling herself, “I’m not going to let this social norm that I’m feeling from everybody prevent me from surfing the wave I want to surf.”

It would take her six years to catch a wave that made her feel like she truly belonged out there.

In February, Jones Wong became the first woman to win the Billabong Pro Pipeline, defeating both Wright and the newly minted Olympic gold medalist Moore.

Kennelly, who said she was not a crier, watched with tears in her eyes. She had been nervous. She knew there would be an acclimation process. “I needed them to justify what I had done to get them in there — I really needed them to come through,” she said. “And I feel like they did.”

This month, the top men and women returned to the North Shore for the Vans Pipe Masters event. The significance of what was happening offshore was not lost onshore.

After Moore rode what might have been the best wave of the event, the beach erupted in pandemonium before the heat was even over. It was a qualifying round, but no matter. This — the women’s competition at “real” Pipeline — was the main event.

The women’s finalists of the Vans Pipe Masters: from left, the winner Molly Picklum, Bettylou Sakura Johnson, Caity Simmers and Carissa Moore.

On Dec. 18, Moore, 30, surfed in the finals and was joined by the next generation: 20-year-old Molly Picklum and two 17-year-olds, Bettylou Sakura Johnson and Caity Simmers. Picklum won the event, and she was wide-eyed as a gaggle of young girls waited for her autograph.

“All the girls sitting here realizing that Pipe is on the cards for women’s surfing is incredible,” Picklum said, trophy in hand. “And I think women’s surfing is only going up really quickly from here.”

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