Potholes, Pipeline and a New Queen

Women’s professional surfing at Pipeline, the Valhalla-esque fabled North Shore surfing mecca, has endured a checkered, potholed history of progression and development, thanks to an abundance of powerful hindering difficulties holding women back.

The recent debut of the first ever women’s WSL CT stop at Pipeline, the Billabong Pro Pipeline, deservedly caused positive shockwaves globally and crowned not only a new champion in local charger Moana Jones Wong, but cemented her status as an iconic emblem of progression and change in the WSL. We explore Pipe’s potholed road to redemption and chatted to Moana, freshly crowned as Pipe’s newest monarch.  

Image: Scott Sullivan // Volcom

22 year old Moana Jones Wong, freshly crowned the first ever women’s Pipe CT Champion, is the new poster child not just for Pipeline, but arguably for women’s surfing, period. Such is the monumental and unquestionable impact her powerful performance has had in surfing, she is obviously still on a deserved high after her barn-storming victory at Pipe.

Talking to Wavelength post-victory, Moana told us that her “mind couldn’t believe it! This was really a dream come true and I still can’t believe it actually happened…My game plan for the final was to go out there and just catch good waves. I knew if I could do that I would win.”. Her victory as a relative unknown and wild-card over the current dominant force in women’s surfing, multiple World and Olympic champion and fellow Hawaiian local, Carissa Moore, is unquestionably forever cemented in surfing history and lore.

Image: Scott Sullivan // Volcom

With an event packed full of dramatic happenings and surprises, from all-time legend and icon Bethany Hamilton’s last-minute drafting in as a wild card replacing Steph Gilmore due to Covid-19 protocols, to the incredible displays of surfing from the next generation of hard-charging rookies including Molly Picklum, Bettylou Sakura Johnson and India Robinson, the solid swell conditions at Oahu’s North Shore break provided for an internationally applauded display of women’s surfing. Moana, looking like the Pipeline vet she is, having reportedly been surfing backdoor since the age of 12 ultimately snagged its first ever women’s crown.

Image: Scott Sullivan // Volcom

Cast the clock back to 1968, when American surfer and pioneer of women’s surfing, multiple world champion and hall of fame inductee Joyce Hoffman became the first woman to surf Pipeline. Since then, there have been critical historical periods where the above women sparked change that further enabled more women to surf Pipeline. 

Rochelle Ballard, a Pipe barrel jedi and Keala Kennelly, multiple-decorated champion, first-ever Women’s Big Wave World Champion (on equal pay to the mens) and prominent activist for LGBTQ+ surfers, famously fought tooth and nail to even get waves at Pipeline back in the 90s’ and noughties. Keala told us last year about the huge impact seminal Hollywood surf flick Blue Crush had on women’s surfing when she and Rochelle were recruited as a leading role and stunt double respectively in the much-adored early noughties movie.

Featuring in the film after star and local surfer Sanoe Lake had informed the director “you guys really need to have KK get some of the Pipe waves that you’re trying to get, she’s the best out there, apart from Rochelle”, KK told us that back then, filming Blue Crush (2001 ish) we literally got paid to just be at Pipeline every day. There were guys getting paid to block for us and make sure we got waves, it was like a dream scenario. Sometimes I was like, am I dreaming?”. Explaining this as being a dream scenario just attests to and illustrates the fact that even getting priority and waves at Pipeline as a woman was a “dream” scenario then “because in a perfect scenario I go to Pipeline and the guys are blocking so I get waves” KK explained. 

In Blue Crush, Kate Bosworth’s lead character surfs a fictional women’s Pipe event against Keala, which was literally a pipe dream at the time.  In 2020 when Tyler Wright made history by becoming the first woman to win a CT event at Pipeline during the Maui Pro, which had moved location due to a shark attack, it was nearly 20 years later women were finally able to paddle out for real into a competition at Pipeline. 

Keala Kennelly. Image: Fred Pompermayer // Red Bull

Our recent piece, “Talking Underdogs and overlooked women in surfing”, dissected the challenges women have faced within surfing. As we explored, zilch pay parity (which massively hindered women being able to progress as athletes and travel to events, and has now been implemented), deeply ingrained sexism, misogyny and homophobia in surfing at the time were monumental roadblocks to women even being able to bag waves at Pipe, let alone the far off dream of a CT event inviting women.

If Pipe’s glass ceiling has been accruing gradual fractures over the last five decades since the likes of Joyce Hoffman, Rochelle Ballard, Keala Kennely and Tyler Wright have powerfully been chipping away at it, Moana’s taking of the inaugural Pipeline CT Crown certainly firmly hoofed away a significant portion.  So, that glass ceiling is certainly having huge chunks removed from it but remnants arguably remain.  

As fellow surf mag Beach Grit asked, although the women did garner a historic addition to their world tour schedule with the addition of Pipe, the WSL’s decision not to let women surf the best Pipe conditions during competition on the actual day, where 16 men’s heats ran and 0 womens, was either an “act of chivalry or a throwback to the chauvinism of Girls Can’t Surf?”?  Why did the women not surf the best conditions of the competition? Will we ever find out?

Image: Scott Sullivan // Volcom

The Cinderella-esque fairytale story of Moana, a local woman who took on Pipe’s heavy left-hand barrels with the best of ‘em, has monumental resonance. “Being a local girl who was born and raised a few minutes down the road from Pipeline fills me with pride and gratitude. I grew up dreaming about accomplishing this and at the time it was kind of an unrealistic dream since there was no such thing as a women’s contest at Pipe.”  Moana is now firmly entrenched in Banzai’s history, following in the wake of Joyce, Rochelle and Keala, and attests that  “being named among those women is an honour. It feels strange to be an icon to girls and women around the world because I never thought this would actually happen, it was always just a dream. Now that it’s real life I am in disbelief and just hope my story will give encouragement and hope to every girl and woman”. 

However, Wong is clearly no one trick pony and questions have been raised about her lack of invitation as a wild card to the ensuing CT events, including the MEO Pro Portugal in Peniche. If Peniche’s Subertubos wouldn’t have been a finer opportunity to display Wong’s talents, who knows what would have. As she tells us, “I hope women’s surfing keeps getting pushed to be better in heavier barreling waves. I hope we continue to have CT events in waves of consequence. I want to be on the CT. I want to keep getting barreled, going on surf trips, loving, laughing, thanking, and enjoying this ride.”.  

Image: Scott Sullivan // Volcom