Surfing Heritage: Celebrating Women Making Waves

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New exhibit and Ohana Gala at the Surfing Heritage and Culture Center honors the contributions four amazing women have made to the sport of surfing.

In 1905, a surfboard belonging to Hawaiian Princess Kaneamuna was found in a burial cave in Ho’okena on the Big Island. Believed to be carved in the 1600s, to date it’s the oldest papa he’e nalu (surfboard) ever found. The artefact confirms that indeed women were sliding waves alongside their male counterparts back when William Shakespeare was scribbling sonnets and Galileo was setting his sights on the stars.

Women have forever been intertwined in the cultural fabric and evolution of the sport of surfing—they just haven’t always been as celebrated like the men they rode alongside. To set the record straight, the Surfing Heritage and Culture Center (SHACC) in San Clemente, California, has just launched its new exhibit: “Women Making Waves.” Celebrating four very pivotal female surfers, Joyce Hoffman, Rell Sunn, Lisa Andersen and Stephanie Gilmore, the exhibit is a deep dive into the life and times of a quartet of women who have advanced the sport of surfing in their own unique and special ways.

Joyce Hoffman: A Pioneer In Big-Wave and Competitive Surfing

Photo credit: California Surf Museum

Throughout the ‘60s, Hoffman, who grew up on Beach Road in Capo Beach, dominated women’s surfing. Winning three United States Surfing Championships in a row and a fourth title in 1971, it wasn’t just the competitive accolades that cemented her legacy. Hoffman pioneered notorious big-wave breaks such as Banzai Pipeline and Sunset Beach on Oahu’s North Shore.

As an interesting aside, Hoffman also famously enjoyed a sponsorship deal with sports car company Triumph. They went so far as to make sure that whatever country Hoffman was in there was a Spitfire convertible with her Hobie Surfboard sticking out the back. They had them shipped all over the globe for her. No other surfer, male or female, past or present, has enjoyed that kind of perk.

Rell Sunn: The Queen of Makaha

Meanwhile, Sunn was known as the Queen of Makaha and over the course of her lifetime became one of the most influential and instrumental Hawaiian surfers of the modern era. Besides carving out a name for herself via competitive successes in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, in ‘76, Sunn hosted her first menehune contest, collecting prizes and trophies for island youth with few opportunities. She took it upon herself to help guide and mentor up-and-coming youth from the hard-scrabble west side, including future world champion Sunny Garcia and Pipeline specialist Johnny Boy Gomes. In 1983 she was diagnosed with breast cancer and, sadly, lost her fight against the disease in 1998.

Lisa Andersen: Shattering the Glass Ceiling

In the ‘90s, Andersen smashed the gender barrier on the ASP World Tour (now the WSL Championship Tour). Born in New York, raised in Florida, after enduring a challenging childhood she ran away from home when she was 16 years old, landing in Huntington Beach with nothing more than some personal items and a surfboard. Her early days on the West Coast challenging, but she persevered and in ‘87 won the National Scholastic Surfing Association national title. She was named ASP Rookie of the Year the same year.

Starting in ‘94, Andersen claimed four consecutive world titles. She also became the cornerstone of women’s surf wear brand, Roxy. She was named as one of the 100 Greatest Sportswomen of the Century by Sports Illustrated for Women and was also named the 1998 Female Athlete of the Year by Conde Nast Sports for Women magazine. Andersen stepped away from full-time competition in 2001 due to nagging back issues and to raise her family.

Stephanie Gilmore: A Champion For The Modern Era

Photo credit: WSL

Claiming her first world title as a rookie on the WSL Championship Tour in ‘07, for over a decade now Gilmore has been a driving force in the evolution of women’s surfing. To date she has amassed 29 world tour victories (two of them coming in 2018) and six world titles. She was inducted into the Surfers’ Hall of Fame in 2010 and received the Laureus World Action Sportsperson of the Year award the same year. She’s also won ESPN’s ESPY award in 2011 and 2013 for Best Female Action Sports Athlete. Gilmore is currently ranked number one on the WSL Championship Tour. She has her sights set on a record-tying seventh world title in 2018.

Without question, this list could go on and on thanks to the contributions that so many women have made to surfing over the past century, and SHACC has future plans to honor more of them, but for now, Hoffman, Sunn, Andersen and Gilmore are leading the charge.

Surfing Heritage and Culture Center Ohana Gala

On June 22,  the Surfing Heritage and Culture Center will host their annual Ohana Gala in Laguna Beach. It will honor Women Making Waves. A fundraiser for the organization to help preserve and share the history and culture of surfing, Hoffman, Andersen and Gilmore will all be attending, as will Sunn’s daughter. It should be a magic night. For more details visit www.shacc.org.

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Jake Howard

Jake Howard writes about surfing for a living, and after 15-plus years on the job is still baffled that he's been able keep the hustle going this long.

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