Surfing: Beachley rises to high priestess in the temple of machismo

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The Independent Online
Time was when Hawaii's big waves were only for the big boys. Now, when the surf is high, it's the babes who are no longer content just to decorate the beach.

"You're out?" Ken Bradshaw once scathingly exclaimed in the line-up at Waimea Bay, "Then I'm going in - it must be too small!" He happened to be addressing Banzai Betty (Betty Depolito, now a surf-video producer) at the time - almost a decade ago - but it could have been just about any woman.

Women were chicks and they belonged on the beach, certainly not at the temple of machismo that is the Bay. The realm of big-wave riding used to be more exclusive than the Catholic Church where women were concerned, more phallocentric than football.

It is a measure of how much the whole scene has evolved that Bradshaw - Bradshaw "the Monk", the guardian of orthodoxy - is now not just consorting with Layne Beachley, but actually surfing with her at big Waimea. Beachley, admittedly, has just taken the inaugural women's Triple Crown title (for the best aggregate result in a trio of contests around the North Shore), winning the Quiksilver Roxy Pro at Sunset Beach and moving up to the No 2 spot in the world rankings.

Beachley, 25, from Sydney, has made the North Shore her second home. Although Lisa Andersen, from Florida, has taken the world title for the fourth time in a row and is generally described as "ripping like a guy", it is Beachley who has been earning the respect for her performances, specifically in big waves. The Roxy was contested in 8-12ft surf with most of Beachley's rivals clamouring to call it off. "No girls surf Sunset," she said, "so it was easy for me."

So far there is not a single woman's name on the list of invitees for the Eddie Aikau contest (20ft minimum waves), but Beachley could ultimately be the one. "I'm not ready for 20-plus," she said when I spoke to her at the Coffee Gallery in Haleiwa after a dawn patrol with Bradshaw. "I want to be in a control situation - not a survival situation." But she is credited with being the only woman out in 15-18 feet.

She ate the kind of hearty breakfast that might have tested Desperate Dan: a "surf bum" burrito followed by a waffle and not one but two yogurt "cups" (bucket would be more apt) piled high with fruit and granola.

Had there been a cow pie on the menu she would have had that too. The last person I came across to burn calories on this scale was Greg LeMond on the Tour de France. And the surfing circuit is not so much a prolonged holiday (as most people fondly imagine), but more like a year-long world- wide epic of endurance and stamina.

There is a small but significant presence of iron women on the North Shore. Out of 300 lifeguards on the island of Oahu only five are women. On the North Shore there is only one: Sue Stewart, from Huntington Beach on the West Coast, a real-life Baywatch babe who could outpower David Hasselhof in the water let alone Pamela Anderson.

When she is not pulling 300lb, 6ft 5in Oklahoma farmers out of the rip in 8ft Pipeline, she dives off a 40ft rock at Waimea Falls for fun.

She was working the Bay the day Donnie Solomon died in 20-plus waves. "He tried to duck-dive under a three-wave set. But he got turned over and we saw him go down. But by the time we got to him there was just too much water and sand in his lungs," Stewart said. "There's nothing worse than watching someone go down - and you can't do a thing about it."

Her predecessor here is Debbie Wayman (nee Bowers), who is probably the only woman born in South Ruislip to become first a pro surfer (rising as high as No 2), then a lifeguard, and finally a firefighter, after moving to Hawaii as a kid.

She was the only girl to surf her local break at Ewa beach where she acquired her nickname of "motor arms". But even she - Sigourney Weaver's long-lost twin - was shy of big Waimea.

"Everybody had the idea that I would be the one," Wayman said. "But that was beyond my limits. You have to know them otherwise you become part of the problem not the solution."

She carried out some joint rescues with the guy who occupied the tower next to hers and ended up marrying him. They used to compete in lifeguard contests together, but she is fitter and faster than he is. "In running, paddling, swimming, I've got him, but he can cook better than I can."

The toughest thing about being a woman lifeguard is that half the people you rescue - all the guys - slope off without ever saying thank you, humiliated at being saved by a woman.

Maybe there was a touch of that emotion the day that Johnny Boy Gomes, the newly ratified Pipeline Master, punched the Australian pro Jodie Cooper, adding by way of justification, "If you're going to surf like a guy I'm going to treat you like a guy." It was a back-handed kind of compliment.

Women are now being taken seriously in a way they never were before. They have a new dedicated magazine, Surfer Girl. And they are attracting proportionately more attention and sponsorship (Beachley has Billabong and Oakley behind her).

Surfing is a microcosm and mirror of the culture at large. The Rell Sunn funeral last weekend - which coincided with the Martin Luther King holiday - symbolised a massive shift in the collective consciousness. Three thousand people came to Makaha to celebrate the life of this pioneering surf pro and first female lifeguard in Hawaii as her ashes were scattered over her favourite break.

More than two centuries ago, when Captain Cook first came across these islands, he was astonished to observe not just the spectacle of surfing itself, but also that men and women were equally adept in water sports. The mass surf-in in honour of Rell Sunn testifies to the re-birth of the Hawaiian waterwoman.