From movies to books to clothing, surf culture is abundant in our modern times.
But, as avid water people know, the Polynesian sport wasn’t mainstream until the early days of the 20th century when it quickly transformed coasts around the world.
Luckily for us, “Wave Woman: The Life and Struggles of a Surfing Pioneer” chronicle those pivotal moments in the modern sport’s resurgence. The nonfiction tale shares the story of Betty Pembroke Heldreich, a 41-year-old professional athlete who became an award-winning competitive surfer in the 1950s.
Written by Vicky Heldreich Durand, Heldreich’s daughter, the beautifully laid out book offers a insider’s look at the early days of modern surfing. Using her mother’s writings as the basis of the book, Durand did extensive research in addition to relying on her own memories of the time.
Capturing nascent surf culture, the book is both a chronicle of the sport as well as a feminist story as surfing gave Durand’s mother “emotional strength to break out of” a bad marriage, said the author.
“We were right there. Mother knew it,” said Durand, when we spoke in March. “She said, ‘Vicky, this is going to be big. You’re going to want to write about this…’ It was a fabulous time in surfing history.”
Durand spoke with me from Honolulu, where she lives and manages the Liljestrand house. The following has been edited and condensed for brevity.
AT: When you see lots of women in the water now do you feel like your mother paved the way for that?
VHD: In a way – they would’ve surfed with or without her. She was definitely a pioneer in a time. People like Carissa Moore – she’s an amazing surfer but she’s also been groomed since she was a very young girl. Mother didn’t start until she was 41. We both surfed about eight years and then had to move on with our life.
There were a few women surfing at Waikiki in the 20s 30 s, 40s and 50s but not many of them were out at Makaha surfing the bigger waves. It is a totally different break than Waikiki. It was a challenging break so she was the first or the second [early women there].
She and Ethel Kukea – the first haole women. They were pioneers and they’ve been forgotten in surf history. Surf history starts with Marge Calhoun in 1958. We’ve totally been forgotten.
AT: Was that part of your impetuous to write this book?
VHD: Yes. It was one of the reasons.
AT: I’m so impressed that your mother learned to surf at 41. She was obviously a great athlete.
VHD: Yes, very much so. And she still got hurt a lot – broken ribs, hematomas. That didn’t stop her because she loved the sport a lot and was a sports woman always.
AT: The boards were so long then.
VHD: Yes – and so heavy. Surfing made us very strong, between the waves and paddling. Mother lived until she 98.5 – it has done us well into older age.
AT: Your mother’s story was one of empowerment and resilience in the face of heartbreak, tragedy, and success. What do you hope is a takeaway?
VHD: You always want to pursue your dreams. Don’t let anyone get in the way of that. Her life reminds us that we can be so much more than we think. She thought she could do anything she wanted to – like getting in the glider when she’d only had 8 hours of flight instruction. And crashing it.
Women and people don’t have to settle for a life that you’re not happy with. When she left my father, she just left. She said I’m done. She didn’t have a job, but she had a profession. Most young women nowadays know they need a profession but in those days they didn’t. She knew that.
For more information, visit wavewomanbook.com.