I came last in the biggest women’s XXL surf contest

Red Bull Magnitude Swell One: 1/09/2022

I sat in the channel for over an hour, moderating my breathing, checking my pulse every few minutes. For the previous four days leading up to that hour I had been a wreck. Ever since the “Green Light” for the first filming session of the ‘21-’22 Red Bull Magnitude season, my body was awash in anxiety.

That morning my husband loaded my big wave boards and I loaded our 18 month old son into the family minivan. We made the 5 minute drive to Waimea Bay. I opted to skip coffee, my jitters were already way too high. I pulled on my 2mm spring suit and over it a float suit. My friend took a photo. I didn’t look cute. I did look strong. 

The smile on my face hiding all my overwhelming anxiety.

Waves were topping out at 15 feet Hawaiian, or about 25 feet on the faces. This was the minimum threshold for Red Bull Magnitude to run. This was the second year of filing for this unique big wave contest judged on video entries taken anywhere in the Hawaiian islands, although mostly at Waimea Bay, Jaws, and Oahu’s outer reefs. The contest would go “green” any time the waves were predicted to meet the minimum height requirements. Film and safety crews on jet skis would be dispersed to predetermined locations and all participants were invited to free surf in front of the cameras. The contest would then be judged based on each competitors top three waves. 

Conditions lined up for the first day of XXL waves on January 9th. The film crews were stationed at Waimea Bay on Oahu and Peahi (Jaws) on Maui that day. I approached the beach at Waimea around 8am. The shore pound was intense. Double overhead waves breaking right on the sand. If I entered at the wrong time my board would be snapped in half. And who knows what would happen to my bones. The lifeguard came on the intercom from the tower warning the tourist to stay well away from the waters edge. It was ironic. I felt like a tourist. Did I, Melanie Williams, really belong to this group of elite women surfing the in the Red Bull Magnitude contest? 

My comfort zone. Double overhead, five to six feet Hawaiian. I would need to surf waves twice this big to participate in Red Bull Magnitude. It’s good to push our comfort zones. But how much and how quickly?

How Did I Get Here?

Rewind six years to an eating disorder, a marriage to an active addict, a failing business and a medical diagnosis that brought with it an 80% risk of breast cancer. (Read my story here). Although I was really just learning to surf, surfing was the only thing in my life making me happy. So I said screw it all. I packed up and left my life behind in California. I drove to Mexico with only my 9’0” noserider, a couple of mid-lengths that I wasn’t yet competent at riding and a newly adopted puppy. It was a fateful day three months later when my car broke down in Puerto Escondido, big wave capital of Mexico. While watching the surfers from the beach I spotted Bianca Valenti on an XXL wave. Seeing a woman do something so massive, so powerful, I knew in my heart I was meant for more. I knew none of the stuff that I thought defined me was important for true happiness. I knew I needed to live my truth, I needed to live larger.

Woman surfing big wave
Bianca Valenti. The Photo I took in 2017 that shocked me out of my smallness.

Three years later I was living on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii. I heard there was a Video entry contest for women sponsored by Red Bull. I felt that same rush to my heart as I felt that day in Mexico. I watched the 20-21 season go by as I breastfed and stayed up all night with my infant. When the ‘21-’22 season came around I knew I had to join those women. I sent Red Bull some clips of previous heavy waves I’ve ridden and before I knew it I was signing a waiver.

Back in December Red Bull Magnitude hosted a beautiful opening ceremony. I lined up for a photo next to so many of the surfers I had been watching on instagram for the last five years, wondering if I would ever catch a wave like theirs. I didn’t feel like I deserved to be there. 

Red Bull Magnitude Opening Ceremony
The opening ceremony for Red Bull Magnitude. I’m the last one on the right and the little photo bomber is my kid who couldn’t stand that I was over 20 feet away.

On the first filming day, I watched from the shoulder as Bianca got a couple waves, along with the other ladies out at Waimea Bay. The first hour was torture. My hands shook and my breath, no matter how hard I tried to control it, was erratic. Despite crowds so thick that boards bumped into each other while waiting, I watched woman after woman get beautiful waves. I wanted one so badly. But I knew I had to wait until my body agreed with my mind. Everything had changed since becoming a mom.

So many powerful women. So many beautiful boards! The opening paddle out for Red Bull Magnatude.

And then it happened. I checked my pulse. 89. Anything under 100 was the agreement I made with myself. Derrick Donner, the big wave pioneer, came through the lineup on a jet ski. “It’s Ladies Day!” he shouted. “Let the Girls surf!” It was time and my body agreed. I took a more aggressive position in the line up. A dangerous position. If a clean up set came through I was screwed. But it was the only way I was going to catch a wave. I had to sit in the middle of the pack. 

Then I saw my wave. A big one. A friend of mine was taking off deep. In big wave surfing, especially at Waimea, the wave is mostly about the drop. It is acceptable for multiple people to ride the same wave. I saw my friend going and I knew I could join him. A surge of adrenaline filled my body as I looked over the ledge. It is difficult to get into waves this size, so the drop is always at the last minute. It is almost, or totally, vertical. But then I stood up. I felt the pin of my 10”4’ pin tail catch. Then my quad fins, then the back third of my board. I was surfing down the face of the wave, my own face erupting in a smile. The adrenaline was overwhelming. I decided one wave was enough and headed for the beach so I could get my son down for his nap. 

Screen grab from my January 9 wave, first entry into Red Bull Magnitude. I’m on the pink board all the way on the shoulder. This wave felt fast and steep. After I saw how far on the shoulder I was I couldn’t imagine how scary it must have been at the true take off! There were four people deeper than me. Tw of them get mowed down.

Red Bull Magnitude Swell Two: 1/25/2022

The second day of filming for Red Bull Magnitude was bigger than the first. It arrived on January 23rd. There was a lot of hype. The storm off the coast of Japan which formed the swell was massive. The buoys were showing seas at 50 feet. I felt even more unsure of myself. This day the filming was at a surf break about a mile off shore. The paddle out involved maneuvering a ten foot gun through walls of white water as tall as trucks. I had never surfed there before. I consulted with Emi Erickson. This seasoned big wave surfer was recovering from a major knee surgery and was also considering whether or not she would surf. We watched a couple sets come through, at least 18 feet Hawaiian.

Emi Erickson Free Surf cover
Emi ERickson on the Cover of Free Surf Magazine from the 2020-2021 winter season. If she wasn’t going out that day what was I thinking?

I asked Emi what it was like out there on a day like today. She said the current sucked into “the pit” or the impact zone. She said she needed every inch of her ten foot board to out run those sneaker sets when the current was dragging surfers right into the danger zone. I looked at the paddle out. Other surfers were getting rides out from the safety crew. I knew I could reach the break by getting a ride too but I wasn’t sure if I could do it with my strength. And that was enough to cause me to sit it out. 

I was miserable with my decision. I felt like more of a tourist than ever. The other ladies were out there charging and there I was sitting on the beach. Wasn’t the whole reason for this to own my own power? I was supposed to be stepping into myself not running away. 

Keala Kennelly at the outer reef I decided not to surf on January 24th, 2022. But I got my chance on the next swell.

On the way home we drove by Waimea. It was at peak size before it starts closing out. I have more experience at Waimea so I decided to give it a go, safety and film crews or not. It was bigger than I had ever surfed it. I looked out and saw world champions sitting deep. I doubted myself. But I quickly shut it down. 

I geared up and prepared to brave the shore pound. Just then a lifeguard happened to pass by on an ATV. “Is that leash going to hold?” he asked. I didn’t know what he meant. As far as I knew it was a big wave leash, it was twelve feet long and much thicker than a longboard leash. “It’s tiny,” he said. I looked around. The other guys did indeed have thicker leashes. “That would work at pretty big Sunset,” commented the lifeguard, “but it’s significant out here today.” Well shit. Now not only was I scared, but I the self doubt now had doubled. My inexperience had almost caused me to make a potentially fatal mistake. Again, I felt like a tourist. I didn’t belong with these women did I?

From Left to right: XXL Leash, XL Leash, Normal Leash. Now I know!

I went home that afternoon feeling defeated. Everyone else was out there scoring bombs and I was too scared to try. Or was I just being wise and respecting my ability level? I put the baby down for his nap and tried to sleep too. The baby, now 18 months, had taken over the last two years of my life. Between pregnancy and raising a tiny human, I hadn’t had much time to give to surfing. (I surfed throughout my pregnancy, but always mellow and always small.) The year before I got pregnant I was injured and didn’t surf that year either. And just six years before that I had first taken my first directional rides on a longboard. Six-ish years surfing. Who was I kidding? I didn’t belong out there. 

One of my entries. I am always shocked by how much bigger these waves feel than they look!

But my heart would not let it go. I paddled out that afternoon with a borrowed big wave leash from a friend. A new confidence had arrisin in me. Maybe I wasn’t the best surfer out there but I did have the skill necessary to surf those waves, I knew it in my heart. I would not let fear get the best of me. My son needs a mother who is fully alive and fully capable of owning her strength. I was going to surf for him, and for me. I was able to catch another big wave that afternoon, my second entry into the video submission contest. 

Red Bull Magnitude Day 3: 2/25/2022

By the third day of filming I had learned to manage my anxiety a bit better. It was February 25th. I was still so nervous I couldn’t eat or sleep for a few days leading up to the swell but I was able to use breathing and mindfulness practices to ground myself. This day started at the outer reef I had previously been too scared to surf. There were no skis available to take me out but it didn’t matter. I suited up and paddled out. I was going. Nothing was stopping me this time!

Massive sets about 18 feet Hawaiian (30-35 foot faces) were coming though about once an hour with plenty of 12-15 foot sets in between. What that meant was clean up sets were inevitable. I found out exactly what I can handle that morning. I was in an aggressive position waiting for a 15 footer when that 18 footer set showed up without warning. The horizon went black and the entire line up, 30-40 people, started scratching for the deep end of the pool. I saw white water fethering at the top of the wave approaching me. I wasn’t sure if I’d make it over the top. Should I go for it or ditch the board and dive? Making the wrong call could result in going over the falls on the biggest wave I had ever seen up close.

Kelta O’Rourke, North Shore Hawaii, February 25, 2022. Photo: Red Bull Magnitude. A wave very similar to the wave I wore on the head that day.

I let instinct take over and I made it over the top. The spray from the off shore winds was like a torrential downpour as I paddled down the back side of the wave. I could see nothing. But I felt myself being sucked back toward shore. I kept paddling as fast as I could because most likely there was another wave behind it. And there was. When the spray cleared I saw a couple of boards about 50 feet in front of me just barely make it over the top of the already feathering lip. Another ten feet in front of me I saw the former WSL big wave world champion, Paige Alms, jump off her board and dive deep. I knew that was the call I needed to make too. I was going to take this one on the head.

I had only one thought. Stay Calm. I breathed deep. I dove. And then the ride began. A wall of water at least 35 feet high descended upon me. It was like slow motion. I can remember the whole thing so clearly. I was like a fishing lewer. I was spinning left to right underwater as the wave dragged my board half a football field or more. I felt my leash stretch. I attempted to make myself more aerodynamic so I could be dragged without so much resistance. The last thing I wanted was a snapped leash.

Kia Lenny was in green that day. I remember

When I felt the tension release I found my leash and started climbing up it toward the surface. I was careful to enjoy each second, knowing I was having an experience most humans will never get to have. I popped up with enough time for three quick breaths before the next wave of the set was breaking on me. Luckily I had been dragged far enough in that the second beat down was short and sweet. After the second wave I climbed on my board and saw Paige smiling. I smiled too. That was the best wave of my life.

Unfortunately that day was really challenging with long lulls between sets and shifty line ups, it made catching waves tricky. I paddle for and missed a lot of waves. I wore myself out and wasn’t able to get into any more waves that day. 

Paige Alms won the Ride of the Year award and the Best Paddle Wave wave for this wave at Jaws. Photo: @Instaclamfunk

One month after the closing of the contest window all of the ladies were invited to a red carpet event in Honolulu to crown the best Female big wave charger for the 21-22 Hawaiian big wave season. There was a total of $52,500 to be given away to these female warriors. 

In the end, of the women who did catch waves large enough to be considered scorable, I took last place. I only had two waves and the scores were based on a three wave total. For the two waves I did get, they scored low. But I took a closer look. They were actually competitive with some of the women I look up to. I had done it. I went out, I was safe, I didn’t endanger anyone else, I caught waves, and I had fun. 

Here is the break down of the winners:

Overall Winner: Skylar Lickle, $35,000

● Yeti Best Ride: Paige Alms, $5,000

● Best Paddle: Paige Alms, $5,000

● Best Tow: Annie Reickert $5,000

● Skinnie’s Rookie of the Year: Katie McConnell $2,500

● People’s Choice: Annie Reickert

I spent a lot of time considering the question, “When to push and when to respect?” For me there is a gut knowing, “I can do this.” I may not want to, I may be terrified to, but somewhere in my being I know that I can. And there is also a risk calculation. How likely am I to be able to sit in position for waves and not get hit by the biggest waves? How likely am I to make the drop on one of those waves? How likely am I to survive, injury free, the worst case scenarios? If all of those probabilities are high, say 90%, then no matter how scared I am, I have to push myself. I generally give myself permission just to paddle out and sit a little off to the side and watch. If after a while I still don’t feel up to it, I go in. But that normally doesn’t happen. 

My Partner and Shaper, Tom, My son Velzy, and me, Melanie Williams, at the Red Bull Magnitude Awards Ceremony. I just could not believe I was there!

Today I paddled out to an outer reef alone. It is off season now and the crowds have gone home. A rare 17 second interval north swell was topping out around ten feet. Wave heights were reaching up to 20 feet faces. The break is about a mile off shore just in front of my house. I’ve watched it many times, but I’ve never paddled out. I reached the place where the smallest sets were breaking on the inside. They were still more than double overhead. The wind was howling at 20-25 knots offshore. I didn’t really feel my 9’0” was big enough. I hadn’t put on my float suit that morning. There I sat, rip current dragging me out to sea, not a soul around, except for the big fish somewhere beneath me.

Even after all of that, I’m still most at home on my longboard. I feel good I pushed my comfort zone. And now I feel good it’s over! until next year… Photo: @SharpVision

I watched a big set roll through another quarter of a mile out. It was magnificent. The lip feathered in the offshore wind for 100 yards before it finally jacked up and pitched, leaving a hollow barrel inside. It was so loud, and yet so quiet. Until I laughed out loud. “Hell no!” I turned around and caught the reform wave on the inside, maybe less than half the size and mushier than the original.  I rode in for nearly a minute all the way to the beach. I turned around and went back for three more of those. Just me, my pink board and my new found confidence.