Jennifer Useldinger not only jostles in macho line-ups for the right to surf waves the size of skyscrapers but she has the gall to do it with style and grace.
Words: Andy Martin
The first time I saw Jennifer Useldinger she was jumping up on stage at the Grove Theater in Anaheim, south of Los Angeles, just across the street from Disneyland. It was on the occasion of the 2005 Billabong XXL Big Wave Awards, the Oscars of surfing. She was a standout in an impromptu surf babes group and they sang a song which went something like this: “We like to surf, to charge da big waves/We like to have fun, to be so brave/To be so brave, la la la..."
Big waves have always been the Disneyland of surfing. They are the stuff of fairy tale or possibly nightmare, the size of castles, their turrets dissolving into the clouds, but capable of turning into very real monsters. Once upon a time, women were the cinderellas of surfing, the downtrodden downstairs parlourmaids, while the baggy-shorted princes were out there strutting their stuff. Jennifer Useldinger is one of a new generation of women, riding on the back of extremely large and harmful bodies of water, who have undergone something of a metamorphosis into the belles of the big-wave ball. The fact that she is as beautiful as Snow White with a tan, that the lens loves her, and that she poses with or without a swimsuit, is probably a contributing factor.
Her winter base is the North Shore of the Hawaiian island of Oahu, which is to big waves what New York is to tall buildings. Now 22, she lives at Backyards, a hundred yards of sand from the most consistent wave arena in the world, Sunset Beach, and a mile or so north of Waimea Bay, the Empire State of big waves. When I spoke to her, the North Shore had just become an island within an island, as a passing tropical storm had generated flash-floods, 70mph winds that had blown away trees and power lines, and finally the kind of 20ft-plus surf that turns the Bay into what is widely known as ‘Real Waimea’.
Surfing one of these massive Hawaiian waves is, as someone once described it, like jumping off the top of a three-storey house and then having it chase you down the street. And Useldinger was out there, surrounded by heavies, both human and aquatic, and sounding as relaxed and poised if she were sitting in a café sipping a cappuccino.
Born in Santa Cruz, south of San Francisco, with Pleasure Point as her home break, she had the kind of upbringing that gave her an edge. Her mother was a pro surfer and the young Jennifer followed her around the Grand Prix circuit, from Bora Bora to New Zealand and Japan. Home schooling consisted of her mother winning the women’s section while she won the girls (or sometimes the boys). She was a natural to hit the professional big time on the global women’s tour that has flourished over the last decade with huge investment from big corporate names. But she became disenchanted with the aggravation and the gladiatorial mentality, the “energy" around the contest scene. “I decided it just wasn’t my cup of tea," she said.
It was while she was feeling burned out and uncertain of which way to go that Jamilah Star – the first winner of the inaugural women’s section of the big-wave awards and voted one of the “Twelve Most Adventurous People in the World" – talked her into surfing with her in Hawaii. She had dreamed of surfing big waves from around the age of nine when she discovered that Mavericks, at Half Moon Bay (where the legendary Hawaiian big-wave virtuoso Mark Foo died in 1994), was only 50 minutes from her house. Ten years later she found herself paddling or towing into some of the biggest, most hair-raising waves in the world, such as Teeahupoo (Tahiti), Dungeons (South Africa), and Jaws (Maui). She talks of big-wave surfing as a “calling". She is fearless, philosophical, and has brought a new attitude and spirit to the testosterone-charged rodeo of big-wave surfing, which used to be the province of grizzled Vietnam vets, maniacs, jailbirds, and failed cowboys.
She is often the only woman out there when the surf gets huge. Sometimes it feels like riding into the middle of a shoot-out at the OK Corral. Mucho machismo, the whiff of violence, and a high degree of the ‘why isn’t she lying on the beach in a bikini’ mentality. When Ken Bradshaw, to name but one traditional Hawaiian hellman, sees a woman paddling out, he tends to say, “You’re coming out? I’m going in then – it must be getting too small." Useldinger likes to focus on the positive and finds a lot of the guys are fairly supportive: “Go, go – your wave!" But there seems little doubt that some fairly classic alpha male behaviour contributed to her worst wipeout at Mavericks one big day in the winter of 2006.
“They were hassling me," she says, “and put me in a sketchier position than I would have liked." A rogue wave the size of a dinosaur, and about as hungry, came steaming right at her. She paddled up the face but it started to pitch out and over before she got to the top. She punched her way through the back and actually caught a glimpse of sunlight, other surfers, and the world beyond before the wave flicked out a tongue and sucked her back in. She was dragged backwards over the falls, severely stomped on, and given the laundering of her life. She made it back to shore but was out of the water for the next seven months with a busted knee – and her favourite 9ft four-fin big wave gun was smashed to pieces. “Now I’m back in the game," she says cheerfully. Perhaps it is no surprise that she is sponsored not just by Roxy and Ocean & Earth, but CTI Knee Braces and Try-Star Medical too.
She keeps fit with such gruelling exercises as swimming down to the seabed, picking up a rock, and then running (sort of) along the seabed carrying it under her arm until her lungs come close to bursting. She also keeps her hand in by tombstoning from high places. But she thinks of surfing big waves as more mental than physical and her training regime therefore includes yoga and meditation. “You have to let go of the body and let the soul rise through," she says. Where the prospect of drowning under a million tons of water is concerned, she has taught herself to be “accepting".
Useldinger is given to praying when out on the break (and not just when she is about to go down for the third time). But she is praying to big, gnarly, angry waves as much as about them, trying to establish some kind of strange communion between beauty and the beast. “You feel guilty if you’re not out there," she says. “You can hear the waves calling you. The way I see it, if you can’t beat them, join them."
Her thinking has undergone a big shift since her competition days. She started off adopting a classic hardman approach, something like a mountaineer trying to plant a flag on the summit and overcome the elements. “I used to think in terms of conquering. I used to let fear drive me." She looks out wistfully on the powerful shorebreak pounding the reef at Backyards. “Now I think more of becoming one with the ocean, harmonising."
In his study of surfers and spirituality West of Jesus, Steven Kotler argues that there is something in the very neurochemistry of surfing that induces a transcendental frame of mind. But there is definitely a practical pay-off to Useldinger’s Lennonesque ‘make love not war’ approach. She seeks to bracket out all the noise, the distractions, the hassle, and zero in on the wave, almost as if she is talking to it, “making eye-contact", like some kind of wave whisperer, and taming the beast. “You have to come to a point where everyone else has faded and it’s just you and the ocean. I pray to see the things I was meant to see and hear the things I was meant to hear."
One ex-boyfriend is her former tow-in partner Jamie Sterling. But she’s not fixed on a particular tow-in partner or in fact any other kind of partner. She is too zen to get hung up on the details. Rather like the guy in Big Blue who leaves everything and everyone behind to go and swim with dolphins, you feel that if she had to make a choice she would choose to surf. Jennifer is the ultimate soul surfer. She takes the Beach Boys myth of laid back, irrepressible California girl sexiness and makes it real, but strikes the spiritual note of someone who has dedicated herself to a higher calling. Specifically, about 20ft high and beyond.