Kennelly wins first women's big wave contest

From Baja to Canada, the west coast of North America saw monster swell this week, and Nelscott Reef off the coast of Lincoln City, Ore., was no exception. Part of Gary Linden's Big Wave World Tour, an international five-stop series that seeks to crown a big wave world champ for the first time, Nelscott featured paddle-in surfing only at this year's event -- a first for the 5-year-old contest.

But paddling into giants, although recently overshadowed by the explosion in tow-in surfing, is nothing new. Notable, however, was that there were women in the competition mix in Oregon this week.

"When I quit the [Women's World Tour], I promised myself I would never travel anywhere I'd have to put on a thick wetsuit. But being the first-ever big-wave event that included a women's heat, I felt obligated to suck it up in the name of women's surfing to go and try to elevate the sport," said pro freesurfer Keala Kennelly, who on Wednesday became not only the first woman to win a big-wave exhibition heat but also the first woman to surf a wave at Nelscott.

The win came at just the right time for the Hawaiian, who is still reeling from the death of her close friend Andy Irons. "It feels good, but really it's just a welcome distraction from all the pain I'm going through. He was like a brother to me, and I'm just devastated."

There was a time when Kennelly was beating both Irons brothers in amateur contests at their home break (Pine Trees, which was also her home break), but that was before she turned pro (at 17), traveled the world on the Women's World Tour and became the first woman to tow in at Teahupoo. It was certainly before she found herself on a beach in Oregon in November wearing a five-millimeter wetsuit with a hood, booties and gloves, catching 20-foot waves with two other brave ladies (California's Savannah Shaughnessy and Argentina's Mercedes Maidana -- but five other women were also invited on short notice).

"The women were supposed to go Tuesday between semis and finals, but it was too big. We lost six waverunners in the shorebreak," photographer Richard Hallman said.

"Since the women's tour seems to be going to much smaller events, canning all the good heavy-wave events and not replacing them with similar waves, it's good to have comps that are pushing women, because that's just not happening on the women's world tour for the most part. It gives more career opportunities to other women in the surfing world, not just short boarders or small-wave surfers," Kennelly said.

And with the ASP Women's World Tour having already lost the Billabong Pro Tahiti from its lineup after 2006, and with the loss of the Honolua Bay stop and the shrinking format (one four-woman heat) at Pipeline this year, she may be right.

Will Kennelly's focus shift to big-wave events now, given the opportunity? "I love surfing big waves, but I mostly like surfing perfect waves at any size," she said. "I've been enjoying being a pro freesurfer the last couple of years. I don't know if I'm amping to go back to the tour way of life. I'd much rather get an epic barrel on an 8- or 10-foot wave than a 15- or 20-foot that's just a takeoff."