The Best Female Big Wave Surfers in the World

You only have to paddle out at your local to notice. Lineups are still majorly male-dominated, and while things are changing, surfing has always been this way. This is particularly true in waves of consequences, with only a handful of women tackling the biggest and scariest waves in the world.

But things are on the up for women’s surfing and women’s big wave surfing! After the WSL’s equal prize money announcement in 2019 and an established women’s big wave world tour, the future is bright for females and big waves. That said, there will only ever be a select few surfers (both male and female) with the mindset and skill required to ride waves that can kill you. 

In this article, we look into the lives of the women at the forefront of big-wave surfing. These are the women pushing boundaries and breaking down the barriers of “possibility.” We’ll dive into the history of women’s big wave surfing, learning about the pioneers who paved the way for the up-and-coming crop of young female big wave chargers. We’ll also look at the challenges associated with women’s big-wave riding and what the future holds for the sport. We have a lot to get through, so let’s dive in! 

The History of Female Big Wave Surfing 

Surfing big waves has been at the core of our sport since its Hawaiian origins. When locals first tackled North Shore spots, previously deemed unrideable on old 9ft+ guns. The sport quickly grew in popularity worldwide as new big-wave spots were discovered, and small groups of dedicated big-wave chargers began popping up around the globe. 

This select group became known as big wave surfers, which has grown to include globally renowned professionals and “do it for” the love swell chasers, men, and women. Some of the first women in that group included Keala Kennelly, from Kauai, and Maya Gabeira, from Rio, two of the first women to tackle the scariest waves in the world. Mavericks, Teahupoo, Jaws, Nazare, Ghost Trees–big wave spots as dangerous and mystical as their names suggest! 

The Best Female Big Wave Surfers in the World 

An increasing number of female big-wave surfers chase swells, compete on the WSL women’s big-wave world tour, and ride stand-out waves during major swell events. This includes both younger and upcoming riders and pioneers. Here are some of the most notable figures in women’s big wave surfing. 

Keala Kennelly 

Hailing from Kauai, Hawaii, Keala Kennelly is synonymous with women’s big wave surfing. Keala was and still is at the forefront of female big wave surfing and among the first to surf death-defying spots such as Teahupoo, Pipeline, and Waimea. To this day, Keala is one of the best female big-wave surfers in the world

After spending ten years on the Women’s World Championship Tour (WCT), the Hawaiian celebrated wins at Teahupoo and Pipeline before quitting the tour to pursue careers in music and acting. Despite moving away from competitive surfing in everyday waves, Keala never stopped riding big waves and went on to compete in multiple big wave events. 

She took out the first-ever women’s big wave contest at Nelscott Reef, Oregon, in 2010 and is known for riding one of the biggest barrels ever ridden by a female at Puerto Escondido in Mexico. Kennelly is also famous for sustaining one of the most horrific wipeouts in surfing history, slicing her face open after face planting the reef on the “Code Red” swell at Teahupoo. 

Maya Gabeira

Another huge name in women’s big wave surfing. Maya Gabeira has been pushing what’s possible for the past decade. Maya, originally from Rio, moved to Australia and Hawaii to surf bigger, more perfect waves. She holds the Guinness world record for the biggest wave ever surfed – a 73ft mountain at Nazare. The ride happened just a few years after she almost drowned at the same spot.  Maya has won multiple Billabong XXL awards and was the first woman to tackle Ghost Trees, Teahupoo, and Nazare—a true icon of female big wave surfing. 

Paige Alms 

You only have to pull up some Jaws clips to see Paige Alms crop up. Paige is one of the best female big wave riders and has had some of the best waves of all time at Jaws. She lives only minutes from Jaws, which many consider the best big wave in the world. Originally from Canada, Alms moved to the wave-rich island paradise of Maui aged 9. She would take to surfing quickly and eventually progress onto bigger and bigger waves–going on to collect multiple big wave accolades. 

She has been nominated for the WSL Ride of the Year award and Performer of the Year and took out the Women’s Big Wave World Tour in 2016. In 2023, she became one of the first women ever to surf in the iconic Eddie Aikau event at Waimea Bay. It’s also worth noting Paige, despite a few small sponsors, is mostly self-funded in her pursuit of big waves surfer, working odd jobs to chase swells and follow her passion. 

Justine Dupont 

Justine Dupont is a professional big-wave surfer from South West France. She surfs well in anything from 2ft to 20ft and beyond and is a leading figure in female big wave surfing. She was the first woman ever to surf Belharra in the Basque Country and is a repeated stand-out in big wave sessions.

With a 2021 Ride of the Year award, Nazare Tow Challenge Title, XXL Performer of the Year award, and Women’s Performer at Mavericks award to her name, the accolades speak for themselves. She also rode one of the biggest waves ever ridden by a female back in 2022, with a massive tow wave tube at Jaws. Seriously, the thing is crazy, and I’d highly suggest checking it out here. 

Justine Dupont surfing Portugal, one of the best female big wave surfers
Justine Dupont surfing in Portugal

Sarah Gerhardt 

Sarah Gerhart is an interesting figure in women’s big wave surfing and one of the few on our list who isn’t a professional surfer. Gerdhart is a chemistry teacher who happens to ride 20ft Mavericks in her spare time. Married to fellow charger Mike Gerdhart, Sarah splits her time between riding Mavericks, teaching chemistry, her family, and her faith. Hailing from Santa Cruz, Sarah has ridden some epic waves at Mavericks and has been among the female standouts. 

There are many more, too many to feature in this article, incredible females who ride big waves, including Izzi Gomez and Laura Enever. I mean, did you see the outer reef wave she rode on the Eddie swell in January 2023? Insane. 

The Challenges Faced by Female Big Wave Surfers 

As you’d expect in such a male-dominated sport, women who ride big waves face several challenges. Money is one of the most significant barriers for big wave surfers, and the money in big waves pails compared to competitive small wave surfing. Big wave surfing doesn’t have that mainstream appeal that your everyday surfer or general public can relate to. Therefore, earning potential will always be lower, even for the best big wave riders, which is true for both men and women. 

However, females face an even bigger issue that has plagued the surf industry for decades. 

While things are changing, and surfing continues to focus on sport and performance, brands sponsoring female surfers have traditionally looked to athletes who fit modern “beauty norms” to sell products through “sex” appeal rather than who’s riding the best waves. This is changing but remains an issue in an already challenging pursuit.  

The Future of Female Big Wave Surfing 

It’s a fascinating time for women’s big wave surfing, with equal prize money in the WSL and women now competing at Teahupoo, Supertubos, and Pipeline. Throw in the healthy crop of young women tackling the world’s biggest waves, and you have an incredibly bright future for female big wave surfing. To learn more about where women’s big wave surfing is today, check out this recent mission to Cortez Bank—a glimpse into the future. 

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