History was made at the 2016 Big Wave Awards, when Keala Kennelly was awarded the Pure Scot Barrel of the Year in an open gender category, for that mutant Chopes bomb she rode in July of last year. Big wave surfing, until recently, was the ultimate boy’s club; a culture built on the premise of fearlessness, on the Eddie would go slogan, on ‘manning up’ to a challenge. But KK’s efforts represent the ultimate game-changer. And thus, I thought it the perfect moment to interrogate that old idiom, grow some balls. It gets thrown around as a way of questioning masculinity, as a way of saying get tougher, braver, stronger – and there is no element of the sport that demands more courage than big wave surfing. A number of influential women have shown us that charging is not an attribute found only in the biological make-up of men. 

The topic of girls going big has prompted some interesting discussion. Upon receiving the award, KK revealed the impact gender binaries have had on her surfing life. “I was told that women can’t surf, and I was told this about getting barreled, surfing big waves, surfing Pipeline, paddling in at Jaws, and the list goes on.” For women, gaining acceptance in the big wave scene has been no easy feat. 

A few years ago the Internet was buzzing after Laird Hamilton appeared on CNN, suggesting Brazilian big wave surfer, Maya Gabeira, had no business being out at Nazaré in that mind-bending swell. After falling on a monster wave and breaking her tibia, Maya was pulled unconscious from the water by her ski-partner and revived on the beach. Laird’s comments most-certainly came from care for Maya’s wellbeing, but there was, nonetheless, a degree of sexism present in those words. 

Laird Hamilton is a long-standing member of the surfing patriarchy. And for good reason, he has many years experience in the field. The patriarchy retains a certain degree of power within the culture, but this shouldn’t render his comments free of scrutiny. It has been argued that Laird was participating in one of the more obscure forms of sexism: paternal care. As if women aren’t capable of making their own decisions regarding risk taking. The question remains, would he be so quick to call out a man in a similar situation? His comments certainly stirred the pot, and Laird, in turn, was called out by a number of other people in the club, including Ken ‘Skindog’ Collins. 

Whatever your stance on the matter, it took guts to be out at Nazaré that day, and again, to return to the site of trauma. Maya went back two years after the beating of a lifetime – more prepared, with more hands on deck in case of emergency. KK also conquered her fears after her face got partially ripped off at Teapupo’o in 2011. When I asked her how much that beating still plays on her mind, she replied, “I still think about that wipeout every time I'm out there. I have to overcome that fear every time, even when it's small.”

An article about feminine daring would not be complete without giving Bethany Hamilton a mention. Just six months after giving birth to her son, she was towed into a hefty number at Jaws. When Bethany was asked to compare the intensity of shark bite vs. birth, she replied: 

“When I lost my arm I didn’t experience pain, but I didn’t know if I was going to survive. Whereas, giving birth, you know that there’s light at the end of the tunnel. It’s so different though. There’s so much more fear in the shark scenario. I don’t know if it’s a healthy comparison, but pain wise, birth is way more insane.”
What I’m getting at is that women are brave, courageous creatures that can handle a shit load of pain and adversity. No doubt, the need to possess a set of nuts to ride death-defying waves has been outmoded. Therefore, I’ll leave you with a quote from Betty White that pretty much sums things up:

“Why do people say ‘grow some balls’? Balls are weak and sensitive! If you really wanna get tough, grow a vagina! Those things can take a pounding!” •