Women of the Red Bull Queen of the Bay contest train for big-wave dangers

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This Sunday, waterwomen from around the world convened at the World Surf League (WSL)'s Hawaii office on the North Shore of Oahu with a word on their minds: risk.

Many were invitees to the Red Bull Queen of the Bay, the first-ever women's big-wave contest, slated to take place sometime between now and Nov. 21 at Waimea Bay, contingent on swell.

Guatemalan Polly Ralda at Waimea Bay. Photo: Maria Fernanda Photography

Others were simply big-wave surfers, some even wind or SUP surfers, looking to expand their knowledge, and with that, their limits, in large surf.

Risk is an inherent part of paddling out in conditions like the ones on a big day at Waimea: strong currents, punishing shorebreak and waves between 15-50 feet can cause life-or-death situations. But how much risk is appropriate to take? Which risks are unavoidable and which are just reckless? What preparation can mitigate risk, and what does it take to truly be a prepared surfer?

As invitees to this historic contest, or through their commitment to big-wave lineups, these women have proven they can handle themselves in dangerous surf. Still, they gathered to cultivate their risk-management skills, and to prepare for critical scenarios that could arise during the contest and beyond.

Keala Kennelly and Peahi champ Paige Alms brush up on their CPR/AED skills.

To support them were some of the greats of big-wave surfing and water safety: Brian Keaulana, Darrick Doerner, Kohl Christensen, Danilo Couto, Liam Wilmott and Pat Chong Tim.

Christensen, Couto, Keaulana, Chong Tim, Wilmott and Doerner.

They are all representatives of the Big Wave Risk Assessment Group (BWRAG), a group that Couto and Christensen formed in 2011 after the passing of their friend Sion Milosky at Mavericks.

BWRAG runs an annual safety summit for big-wave surfers, attended by some of the best in the sport, and credited for teaching lifesaving skills that have made the difference in critical situations. When they heard about the women's event, BWRAG reached out to the contest directors to offer a special summit, free of charge to invitees and at a deep discount for any other female wanting to participate.

“I think it's really awesome that the girls are going to have a contest,” Christensen told GrindTV. “I know they've been working on it for years. I think we are at a level in big-wave surfing where the girls are better and more motivated than they've ever been … We heard about the Waimea event and we thought it would be great opportunity to put something together with the women to share our knowledge.”

Kohl Christensen

BWRAG instructor Kohl Christensen at Mavericks. Photo: Courtesy of Fred Pompermayer/Patagonia

"Brian Keaulana, Darrick Doerner, and a bunch of us have surfed Waimea, surfed the Eddie [Aikau invitational], been lifeguards up here,” Christensen continued. “We wanted to prepare the women mentally for possible scenarios so that ultimately they feel more comfortable out there on the day and they can perform to their utmost level."

While a private summit for the women was a special opportunity, Keaulana stresses that water safety is gender-neutral. Keaulana is the son of legendary Hawaiian lifeguard Buffalo Keaulana, and is universally revered as one of the great watermen, as well as a water safety pioneer who was one of the first to use jet skis for rescues.

"BWRAG's whole thing is the art of life saving," Keaulana told GrindTV. "It's not about women, it's not about men, it's about life in general. We are all sisters, brothers. It's all about our ocean family we are trying to protect."

Oahu’s Emi Erickson with BWRAG founding member Brian Keaulana.

Keaulana added that some of the most capable "risk technicians" in the water are female. "If I knock out, I'm hoping [Maui surfer, paramedic and Queen of the Bay invitee] Andrea Moller is the one saving me."

The one-day summit began with CPR/AED training followed by classroom exercises led by Couto (one of the first surfers to paddle into a wave at Jaws). The women reviewed a detailed spot analysis of Waimea, and simulated three dangerous scenarios that could occur in high surf.

Couto led a detailed spot analysis of Waimea Bay.

Many of the women used real-life experience to inform their decisions on what to do in the scenarios. XXL Women’s Performance Award winner Jamilah Star said she had been part of two rescues recently, one in which the five other surfers in the water were in shock and unable to act. She stressed the importance – for both men and women – of maintaining control of one's emotions.

WSL Big Wave Awards Barrel of the Year winner Keala Kennelly said she didn’t know how many rescues she had been a part of, more than she could count. She recalled her own harrowing experiences at Teahupoo. On the topic of preparation and emotion, she cited Greg Long as an example of a surfer who picks his wave based off knowledge and experience rather than impulse. "I've seen him wait five hours to catch one wave."

In discussing the dangers of their sport together, the women realized they shared experiences as well as challenges. One invitee’s frustration that there seemed to be no impact or inflation vests designed to fit women, and her fear that a men's vest would rip off of her due to poor fit, was shared by several participants. Some shared hacks, like using a wakeboard vest instead for impact protection.

Sarah Hauser from New Caledonia and North Shore local Remi Nealon simulate recovering an unconscious surfer from the water.

During in-water training, the women ran through drills of quickly mounting a jet ski sled, with and without a board, and practiced how to hoist an unconscious body onto one’s own surfboard.

Jet-ski training for pickup and rescue scenarios.

For some of the women, this was the first time they had practiced being picked up by a ski, and that is due to one of the most interesting aspects of the Red Bull Queen of the Bay event: Many of the invitees are not professional surfers, nor do they aspire to be.

The invitations were based on performance in and passion for big waves. Standing next to Kennelly during closing remarks was Remi Nealon, a mother of two young boys and a property manager who lives up the road from Waimea. “I surf Waimea because it makes me feel free as a bird,” says Nealon.

Emilia Perry, Keala Kennelly and Remi Nealon during closing remarks.

The Queen of the Bay contest waiting period runs from Oct. 1-Nov. 21. As contest directors wait for waves 15 feet or higher, the participants will continue to prepare for the first time a women's big-wave contest has been showcased as a main event.

And they will now carry with them an extra bit of confidence thanks to Sunday's training, confidence in themselves and in each other.

As Couto said in his opening remarks, "Surfing is a very selfish sport. We want our wave, our photo, our award. But with big-wave surfing it's much different. There is much more risk, and you really need a strong team."

More from GrindTV about Red Bull Queen of the Bay

Red Bull Queen of the Bay enters waiting period for historic female-only big-wave contest

'Women's Waimea Bay Championship' would be first women-only big-wave contest

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