An Excerpt from Wave Woman, a new memoir from Hawaii author, Vicky Heldreich Durand

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Vicky Heldreich Durand has had a life-long love affair with surfing. She recently launched a memoir, Wave Woman: The Life and Struggles of a Surfing Pioneer, which chronicles the life of her mother, Betty Pembroke Heldreich Winstedt, a legendary surfer in the days when woman surfers were a rarity. ( For more information on the book and the author visit www.wavewomanbook.com.

Vicky Heldreich Durand

Vicky first fell in love with Hawaii at age twelve, when she spent a summer with relatives on the island of Molokai. Returning home from Chino, California she talked her mother Betty into a Hawaiian trip the following summer. By the following winter, the adventurous Betty had moved her two young daughters to Honolulu.

Vicky spent her teenage years surfing with her mother. They competed in the annual Makaha International Surfing Championships. Together, they were invited to Lima, Peru, to promote women’s surfing.

Looking back at Vicky and Betty’s evolving relationship, Betty always told Vicky that every day was an adventure. Never afraid of the difficult challenges ahead, Betty inspired Vicky to take new challenges and share her mother’s story. Wave Woman is her first book.

Below is an excerpt published with permission of the author.

THE MAKAHA BREAK

Betty surfing Makaha 1956 ( photo credit Don James Archives)

Waikiki offered visitors and islanders alike a variety of waves, and the tourist mecca was dotted with breaks popular for their summer swell: Castles, Publics, Cunhas, Queens, Canoes, and Populars. But it was the big winter-swell surf of Makaha that enticed those of us who were up for a more bracing experience. From October to March, the waves at Makaha were at their best. They could be mild in the morning and turn into twenty-five-to-thirty-foot behemoths by afternoon.

Generally, Makaha has four main breaks. Three are right slides, and one starts out as a left but continues halfway in as a right. Each break depends on the size of the swell and varies slightly. At Kepuhi Point, on the Ka‘ena Point side of the bay, eighteen-to-twenty-foot-high waves break; in the bowl, farther inside, the swell starts as a left and midway in the bowl turns into a right with fifteen-to-twenty-foot waves; there’s a midsection with ten-to-twenty-foot waves, and farther in is the blowhole with six-to-ten-foot waves—the hole in the coral bottom provides a lift and steepness that make it easier to catch the wave. Finally, there’s the inside break, with smaller waves. We were never quite up to the point or the bowl-size surf. It was just too big for us.

My mother and I surfed Waikiki and Makaha together for about seven years. Surfing was not just a sport; it was our lifestyle, something that brought us together during a precious time in our lives. Surfing dominated our thoughts and conversations: When could we get away to go surfing; where should we surf; and, afterward, how had each ride played out? Some of the people who shared our obsession became lifelong friends. We were all enthralled with the physical thrill, the chance to flirt with danger, and the self-satisfaction that grew from mastery. Surfing gave us strength, physical stamina, and mental toughness as we continually challenged ourselves. The ocean’s beauty and the feeling of being one with nature gave us a sense of well-being. Just as important, it released us from our quotidian lives.

 Betty surfing Waikiki 1956

Despite our enthusiasm, we were spooked by the unsettling stories of the monster waves on the North Shore at Waimea Bay in 1943, when Dickie Cross lost his life and when Woody Brown barely survived being washed up onshore with his swim trunks ripped off. Both Betty and I aspired to bigger, better waves, though not quite as big as what we witnessed Buzzy Trent, Peter Cole, George Downing, and others ride. The contemporary big-wave surfer Andrea Moller describes the feeling at the start of riding a big wave: “It’s almost a moment of silence because it’s just you and this huge volume of water and this pat-pat-pat of your board on the surface.” Moller rides much larger waves than we ever dared, but she puts into words what we experienced. Once you make the drop and turn up into the wave’s wall, she adds, “you’re in this silent glass world of water, and you’re in so much risk, and yet you’re so driven that it almost feels like there’s a pause.”

Betty1957 with 1st place trophy from Lima

One spring morning in 1959, shortly before I was to graduate from Punahou high school, my mother and I got up at dawn. There was a six-to-eight-foot swell running, with glassy waves. Both of us were born tall—she was five feet, eight inches; I was five ten. An eight-foot wave would tower above us. We couldn’t resist. We waxed our boards with extra fervor—on waves like these, we couldn’t afford to slip—then hoisted them up under our arms and headed out the front lawn and down the beach. We walked a quarter mile along the bay, side by side, our bare feet crunching on the cool morning sand. I recalled how, during my childhood, I had longed to spend time with my mother, but she was always busy working. I had plenty of diversions (a horse, a swimming pool, and ten acres of space), but there was always something missing—Mother. Finally, in my late adolescence, I found that time with her through surfing. Now I was walking into adulthood and a life of many unknowns. There was a comfort in walking with her that morning, of sharing the anticipation of the surf—which contained its own unknowns.

Duke Kahanamoku stands with members of the Hawai’i surfing team before their international competition in Lima, Peru. The surfing team included, from left, Rabbit Kekai, Conrad Canha, Ethel Kukea, Betty Heldreich and Anne Lamont.
Advertiser library photo • 1957

A golden disk was just coming up over the mountain, and a delicate breeze was flowing down the valley. The air was filled with the pungent, musty smell of kukui nuts that had washed onshore. We paddled out, dodging a set of incoming waves, to a spot we knew well, the break area. We arrived at our spot and sat upright, our bare legs straddling the boards and plunging into the cool morning sea. Then we waited, looking out to sea, watching for new mounds of water forming on the horizon—the first sign of a set of incoming waves.

Betty was not one to conform to societal norms (or her mother’s norms) of her time. She instead dreamed of a career and concentrated on her studies to be successful and “have a profession.” And of course in true Betty fashion that’s exactly what she did! Betty graduated from University of Southern California in 1932 — the second class to graduate in the university’s history.

A set approached. Adrenaline flowed. We jockeyed for position with a few little paddles and the foot motion needed to turn our boards toward shore. As the wave approached, we each lay flat, readying ourselves. I paddled like mad to catch the wave and felt my board rise in the water. My mother did the same. In a few seconds, the power of the wave replaced our paddling and propelled our boards. Putting both hands on our boards, we both popped up to a standing position and angled to the right, heading down a wall of water that was starting to crest and feather with ocean spray. It almost felt like flying. I was gliding down the face, keeping as close as possible to, yet just ahead of, the breaking wave as it crested with white water. My mother was doing the same, standing on my right side, closer to the outer edge. Several times throughout the ride we both slowed down, stalling before turning and cutting back toward the breaking wave, shooting down the wall of water closer to the curl for added acceleration. The ride went like that, both of us slowing down, cutting back, speeding up, always in tandem. It was one long, unforgettable moment. Not one of symbiosis, exactly, because we had parity as we rode that wave. It was more simpatico, or deep sympathy—a kind of knowing each other and each other’s styles and moves. It was an experience of elemental connecting with the waves, with the ocean, and with each other.

Betty with new Joe Quigg board Waikiki 1955

In six months, my view toward surfing would change. I lived through a heart-wrenching and harrowing day of surfing in Hale‘iwa. In a few more months, my mother and I would leave Makaha to travel internationally as a mother–daughter surfing duo. A few more months after that, I would leave Makaha again, for life in San Jose, California, as an awkward young bride. My life and my mother’s would soon start to flow in their own directions, sometimes diverging, sometimes converging, sometimes just running in parallel. But that morning, as we sped across the wave together, I couldn’t help thinking how lucky we were.

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