Big waves are 20 feet tall or more. If you wipe out while attempting to surf one, it can push you 20 or more feet underwater, leaving you only seconds to get to the surface before the next wave crashes down. That's presuming you aren't slammed into rocks, reef or the sea floor. "Waves are not measured in feet and inches," as big wave surfing pioneer Buzzy Trent famously put it. "They are measured in increments of fear."
With injury and even death a possibility, there's a widely held presumption that big wave surfing is man's work. Why this is the case is anyone's guess, as the courage -- or insanity -- required to surf big waves has nothing to do with gender.
The Wave I Ride: The Paige Alms Story, a new documentary with upcoming screenings around the Bay Area, demonstrates this truth and then some. Watch in awe as Alms, a Maui-raised athlete, lugs a heavy rock underwater for training; and cringe in sympathy as she nurses a dislocated shoulder ripped from its socket by a wave. If Alms has the guts to go in when the surf is high, it seems like it should be a given that she should be treated with the same reverence as her male counterparts. But that's not the case. "I don't think the tide has turned yet," says Devyn Bisson, the director of The Wave I Ride.
Case in point: in January 2015, Alms became the first woman to "get barrelled" (ride inside the tube of the wave) at Jaws, a monster surf break in Maui where waves can reach 60 feet. "That was the most-talked about wave of 2015," Bisson says.
Yet no national surfing magazine bothered to mark that feat on a cover until Surfer Magazine got around to it a year after the fact. This is even though Alms received an XXL award nomination for Ride of the Year.
If Alms had become a world tour surfer, she might be able to surf full-time, even though the competition purses and corporate sponsorships are sparser and smaller for women than men. But because Alms wants to be one of a handful of women riding big waves, she has to work odd jobs in construction and surfboard repair to pay the bills.
Things are starting to change. The World Surf League just announced the very first purse for women last month: $30-thousand dollars; nowhere near what the winner at Mavericks made this year: $120 grand. Women can’t compete there yet.
Not that money is the only thing that motivates Alms. "I find the biggest highs in my life surfing big waves and there’s just a feeling that you get that you can’t get anywhere else."
"It's mind-blowing how she's stayed in the fight," says Bisson, who is a surfer herself -- a life guard in her home town of Huntington Beach. Like Alms, Bisson started surfing at a young age, but she also filmed her friends surfing. Then she studied documentary film-making in college.
Bisson wanted to do a female-led surf film. But the director initially figured it would be a 10-minute short, rather than a full-length documentary. She didn't anticipate that Alms' role as a pioneer in big wave surfing would prove just as compelling as the action in the water. "Paige's story just kept rolling," Bisson says.
Bisson hopes her movie will help to change people's views about gender inequality when it comes to surfing. But she anticipates that it will be many years before women surfers are treated in the same way as men. "I can't wait for another 40 years when people will watch this and say, 'that's asinine that this ever happened,'" Bisson says. In the meantime, Bisson says people come up to her and Alms at screenings carrying baby girls in their arms. "They say, 'we can't wait to show this to her when she's five or ten.'"
Funding for KQED Arts is provided by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Support is also provided by Yogen and Peggy Dalal, Diane B. Wilsey, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Helen Sarah Steyer, the William and Gretchen Kimball Fund, and the members of KQED