by Vicky Durand
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.
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.
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.
From the moment we met Charlie Amalu at Waikiki Beach in 1954, I knew I was in for something special. It wasn’t just the thrill of my first wave, when I plunged my arms into the water, took a few strokes, felt Charlie push my board, stood up for a minute, and fell off into the clear warm water. It wasn’t just the attention from Amalu, a gallant beach boy in a yellow tank top, navy shorts, and a white baseball hat with the red Outrigger Canoe Club emblem. It was the fact that my mother was learning to surf, too. And that she, at 40, was even more excited than I was at 14.
We soon outgrew Charlie’s tutelage and the beaches at Waikiki, moving on to the big waves of Makaha. My mother made a name for herself as a pioneering female surfer on O‘ahu’s West Side while I attended high school. But I kept up on weekends and, three years later, even won the Makaha International Surfing Contest. We were 27 years apart, but we were equally seduced by the challenge of the waves, the power of the ocean, and a never-ending quest for adventure.
We surfed together during what became known as the golden age of Hawaiian surfing. My mother died ten years ago, at 98, and she never lost her love of the sea. I think of her every time I swim at Ala Moana Beach, near my home.
One moment always comes back to me when I enter the Pacific. It was a spring morning in 1959, shortly before I was to graduate from high school. My mother and I rose at dawn and went out to the lawn to check the Makaha surf. We could see that 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—on waves like these, we couldn’t afford to slip—then hoisted them under our arms and headed down the beach. We walked a quarter mile along the bay, side by side, our bare feet crunching on the cool morning sand. During my childhood, I had longed to spend time with my mother, but she was always busy working. Here I was, about to step into adulthood and a life of many unknowns. There was comfort in walking with her, in sharing the anticipation of the surf—which, of course, contained its own unknowns.
We arrived and sat upright, our bare legs straddling the boards and our feet plunging into the morning sea. What better way to start a day than being immersed in clean, blue-green salt water, looking up to the emerald Mākaha Valley, and feeling the ocean’s liberating powers? We waited, looking out to sea, watching for new mounds of water forming on the horizon.
A golden disk was just coming up over the mountain, a delicate breeze was flowing down the valley. The air was filled with the pungent, musty smell of kukui nuts that had washed ashore. We paddled out, dodging incoming waves, to a spot we knew well, just past the underwater coral heads. One of my high school teachers was there, with a manager of a Waikiki men’s store, both waiting.
A set approached. We let the men take the first wave—after all, they’d gotten there first. We claimed the next one, heading our boards toward shore with a few little paddles and turns of the feet. As the wave approached, we 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 propelled us. We popped up to a standing position and angled to the right, heading down a wall of water that was feathering with ocean spray. It felt like flying. I was gliding down the face, keeping close 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 moves. It was an elemental connecting with the waves, with the ocean, and with each other.
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 travel internationally as a mother–daughter surfing duo. A few 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 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.
For more information on the book and the author visit www.wavewomanbook.com.
Top Photo: Betty Pembroke Heldreich Winstedt photographed surfing at Waikiki in 1956. She charted a new path, for herself and for other female surfers, as a champion athlete.