In April 2016, that Keala Kennelly won the Pure Scot Barrel of the Year Award with her enormous barrel at Teahupoo, Tahiti. It was the first time a woman has won in this open-gender category.
Her historical win marks the beginning of a new era for Big Wave surfing for women.
Digging in the attic of CURL mag, we found an article published in CURL #22 (September 2009). It describes a session at "Ours" by ex-world champion Layne Beachley. A memorable big wave session.
If you look at this photo which shows a set wave rolling in as a container boat heads out to sea - and ask yourself “would I have the nads to backdoor that tube?” the reply would be a firm ‘no’ from 99% of male surfers. It’s that kind of place with a reputation to match. Wednesday May 13, was no ordinary day. A solid 6-8ft SSE swell on Sydney’s coastline was fanned by a light westerly offshore and Ours (‘The Cape’) was breaking at it’s biggest and best so far this year. I was at Wanda/Cronulla early that morning taking photos of the outer reefs which were firing when I received a call on the mobile saying that a radio station had broadcast that Layne Beachley was going to attempt to be the first female to surf a notorious break at Kurnell. I knew that spot could only be ‘Ours’ so I jumped back into my car and headed down to ‘The Cape’. When I arrived, Layne was sitting in the line up with the local crew patiently waiting to pick off a wave - by paddling in. No-one, probably not even Layne, knew what to expect or what was about to follow.
Apparently the previous night she had picked up an award with Sarah Murdoch at a show hosted by In Style magazine. According to one report in the media Layne said, “I literally swapped my Alex Perry gown for a wetsuit at dawn. I was on stage with the Bra queen Sarah Murdoch late on Tuesday night, and then I was out charging “Ours” with the Bra Boys at dawn.”
Quite a few sets went past and Layne seemed a little apprehensive. She took a while before catching her first wave which she soon followed by three more - the ice had been broken. Nothing spectacular, there was the odd compliment from some spectators on land as she rode each one out.
Having seen her paddle in and catch the waves one of the Bra Boys invited Layne to a few tow-ins. Layne’s efforts had caught their eye and it was time for the next ‘step up’. Layne’s first tow-in was a reasonable size and there were some hoots from the water and land as she took the drop and rode the wave with what seemed a keen but conservative approach - no gnarly barrel but a massive, end of wave spit overtook her before she finally kicked out.
Within a minute Layne was towed into a second but smaller wave. The speed at which she was travelling on the wave may have caught her by surprise and while trimming she hit some side chop and struggled to keep her balance. Her outside rail was fully buried in the face of the wave. To her credit Layne fought to regain her balance and narrowly avoided an ugly wipeout in the critical impact zone. She survived that one and returned out the back to regather her composition. Had she fallen on that wave it could have been a totally different outcome.
It was another 20 minutes before Layne’s third tow-in but it was worth the wait. She was slung into a monster from which there was no backing out. It was one of the biggest waves of the morning so far. Everyone both on shore and in the water knew ‘this was the one’. But ride it she did and she used every bit of experience from the two previous waves to slot herself into a monster tube which drained below sea level, alongside the shallow rock ledge which claims so many victims. Amazingly, Layne emerged from the tube triumphantly throwing her arms into the air as she kicked out beside the photographers in the zodiac.
Everyone who witnessed that ride broke out into cheering, clapping and hooting - the spectators on land, and the surfers and photographers both in and out of the water. They had seen something special - Layne Beachley ride what was later claimed to be the best wave ever ridden by a female in Australia.
Everything after that wave was going to be an anti-climax for Layne. The sheer intensity of what she had just achieved was starting to sink in. Her heart would have been pounding with adrenalin long after that wave as she sat on her board, in the water beside the zodiac, chatting to the photographers. Nothing was going to top what she had just achieved and after soaking it all in for a while, Layne called it a day.
Layne Beachley had taken women’s surfing up a notch - a big one at that. Meanwhile for the locals it was business as usual. There were plenty more gnarly drops to be had and tubes to backdoor. The Cape was going off and so was the surfing. It was indeed a day to remember as Ours continued pumping until dusk.
Charlie Straumietis is an expat, west coast, kneeboarder from the Willy Weaver, Piha crew of the late 60s and 70s. Heading to Sydney for a working holiday in ‘78 he realised it was better to be somewhere where the sou’westers were always offshore rather than onshore. He now enjoys sports photography as a pastime.