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First women-only big-wave competition gets the green light

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When contest directors for what would potentially be the first women-only big-wave competition finally secured permits from the City and County of Honolulu for an event at Waimea Bay, they were inches away from reaching a historical milestone.

By Gabriela Aoun for GrindTV

Permission they had, but funding they lacked. It was August, only two months away from the beginning of the Oct. 1 – Nov. 21 waiting period. Co-directors Betty Depolito and Wrenna Delgado needed to secure significant sponsorship to host the roughly 30 women they wanted to invite to compete in waves 15 feet or higher. Would the contest run?

Now – contingent upon getting the necessary swell – the answer is “yes.” Red Bull has come on to host the Red Bull Queen of the Bay, the first standalone big-wave competition for women.

“We are in awe of the North Shore’s beauty and power, and of the equally incredible roster of surfers who will represent at the first ever women’s Waimea Bay championship,” Sky Dickinson of Red Bull Media House told GrindTV. “We are proud to continue our longstanding support of the surf community by presenting Red Bull Queen of The Bay.”

“We absolutely thank God for [this]” says Depolito. “Red Bull came in at late notice … without them we couldn’t do it. We contacted a lot of companies and they basically said it’s just too late.”

Thirty women from all over the world are invited to compete in the Queen of the Bay, from Waimea regulars like Emi Erickson, to Jaws phenom Paige Alms, to Mavericks pioneer Sarah Gerhardt.

But more than half of the women in the event are neither professional surfers, nor do they aspire to be. “They are hard working individuals, mothers, passionate people who love big waves,” says co-director Wrenna Delgado. “Take Sarah, the first woman to surf Mavericks. She’s a mother, a wife, a professor. She’s worked hard for everything she has. A lot of the women invited follow suit. Surfing when they can and living everyday lives.”

Directors are hoping for at least 15-foot waves despite an early waiting period. The dates are dictated by a City and County rule that there cannot be overlapping waiting periods at Waimea Bay. Queen of the Bay must be completed before the waiting period begins for the Eddie Aikau contest, although as of Monday it is unclear whether the Eddie Aikau will run this year.

While women have competed during big-wave contests before, the Red Bull Queen of the Bay is historical in that it will be the first competition focused solely on women.

In 2010, a three-woman heat was folded into the men’s contest at Oregon’s Nelscott Reef, and in 2014, an eight-woman heat was held at the same contest. Last year, during the Pe’ahi Challenge, a women’s contest consisting of two preliminary heats and a final was held to crown a women’s “world champion.”

While Depolito acknowledges what an important moment this is for women’s surfing, she refrains from creating divides between the male and female athletes who surf big waves. “This is for the advancement of all surfing. At Waimea, when you go out there, it’s big waves, it’s dangerous. There’s a camaraderie out there, girl, boy, whatever, it’s a different mentality in big waves, people watch for each other, because someone could die.”

Some of the most respected men in big-wave surfing are throwing their support behind the contest. On Oct. 15, the Big Wave Risk Assessment Group (BWRAG)’s Brian Keaulana, Kohl Christensen, Liam Wilmott and Danilo Couto will hold a safety summit for the Queen of the Bay competitors, free of charge (a one-day BWRAG course starts at $220 per person). The training will include a spot analysis of Waimea Bay, review of past-case Waimea Bay scenarios, instruction in rescue techniques and in-water jet ski pick-up training.

“Our whole mission [with BWRAG] is to spread knowledge, and it just felt like it was the perfect thing to do to share these lifesaving skills with the girls before their first contest over there,” says Couto, one of the first surfers to paddle in at Jaws.

As contest organizers prepare for the event, what remains to be secured is a prize purse anywhere close to the ones awarded at men’s big-wave competitions.

At the World Surf League Puerto Escondido Challenge, Kai Lenny took home $25,000 for first prize, which is the same amount that Depolito hopes to raise for the entire contest purse this year. “The worst thing to me is not having a big prize purse,” says Depolito. “I will not stop asking for support … these big-wave women should be appreciated.”

For more information on the Red Bull Queen of the Bay visit their website.