Finally, A Sensical And Supportive Women’s Big Wave Event
Even Emi Erickson, noted big wave event critic, doesn’t hate it.
There’s nothing more badass than risking your life for something just because you love it.
That’s what Emi Erickson has been doing every winter for the last 12 years at Waimea Bay and other XL waves around the world.
Emi is a surfer with five jobs, no sponsors, and no fucks to give about what anyone thinks so long as she’s following her passions.
And like most passionate people, Emi has some rightfully strong opinions. Despite the danger, discipline, and dollars required to participate, she has no professional career in big wave surfing.
The Big Wave World Tour was “canceled” a little over a year ago when it was reduced to one stop at Jaws. Even before that, the tour, established in 2015, had issues and critics from the start. Good, sustained “big wave” conditions are rare, and the consequences of running when it’s subpar are high. Add competitive pressure, time limits, and judging formats to an already uncontrollable moment, and it’s not surprising the WSL cut their losses. But no one stopped chasing swells when they heard the news.
Surfing for Emi was never about the career, but rather her connection with the ocean. Emi, along with many surfers, says that the big wave “world tour” is a joke, as it fails to represent the sum of all the knowledge, skill, and guts it takes to surf a winter in Hawaii or other XL spots.
Emi didn’t start surfing until she was 19, so she didn’t grow up competing like many other surfers at her level. Plus, without any sponsors or a legitimate world title to win, it’s no wonder she just surfs big waves because it’s fun.
But there’s money on the line this season in a new type of big wave event (40K purse to be exact), and all the competitors have to do is what they’d be doing anyway—chasing XL swells wherever they desire within the Hawaiian islands.
Red Bull Magnitude is a women’s-only big wave invitational with a progressive format. Contestants are given three months to put together a video part of waves over 15-foot Hawaiian. Red Bull is providing water safety teams and filmers to the women invited. The invite list ranges from big names like Paige Alms and Kelea Kennedy to local up and comers like 19-year-old Skylar Lickle of Maui. The contest is designed to even the playing field—so not only the women with the financial support or connections are able to get out there—and provide a more holistic criteria to pick the best overall surfer.
So, I gave Emi a call to hear her thoughts about the inaugural event and the opening day swell that kicked it off.
Stab: So I’ve been reading some of your past interviews to prepare for this, and I’m just like man, you get it.
Emi Erickson: Yeah I definitely speak my mind I guess.
I also came to surfing late in life, you know, in terms of surf industry standards. And I just feel like all the people I know who didn’t grow up in it have a very different perspective.
It is very different. It’s funny, you know—I don’t think I’ve talked to many people who have that perspective but it is really different.
So how were the waves today [Dec 2]? I saw some pictures and some videos.
Yeah, it was pretty fun for opening day. I wanted to hop on some of the outer reefs, but it’s always fun to go to a place that really resonates with you to start things off. So I went to Waimea, and there were a bunch of girls out and it was super fun.
I saw a picture where you’re taking off super deep and there are two other people in front of you on a massive wave. What happened there?
Well, it should never happen. But that’s just Waimea. If you look at the clip, you can see people paddling up the face super close to me as I’m paddling head-down trying to get into it. There’s also a guy also taking off in front of me—this is the one you’re talking about I guess. The guy is taking off pretty close to me, to the point that I have my hand ready to grab his rail and keep it away from my skull. But yeah, he’s this old-school guy. His name is Keith Kai, and he charges. He surfs solid Sunset and he does it old-school—no flotation or anything. Basically the way I want to do it. But he does it and it’s awesome.
Yeah, it’s just hectic sometimes like that. The boys really were not giving me a break at all. I’ve seen a few shots, and I haven’t seen a wave I got alone. It didn’t matter if I waited, waited, waited… [laughs] absolute mayhem.
Yeah, it just blows my mind, because obviously I experience that in a regular-sized lineup and it can be really annoying, but it’s not life-threatening. So it’s wild that you’re also dealing with that in massive conditions.
I’m like, I can’t even tell anymore. I’m too used to it, I’m just numb to it all.
Speaking of the big wave scene, you’ve been critical of big wave formats in the past.
Critical? You mean, “Fuck this world tour, there’s one stop and it was windy…” Are you kidding me? [laughs]
With the one-day competition, it’s just…there are so many variables you’re dealing with: the waves, the wind, the swell direction, swell pattern, tides, what’s going on in your personal life, and how you juggle it all.
Yeah, I can see how that could be frustrating.
I found it a bit challenging sometimes to grasp the contest stuff, because I didn’t grow up doing contests. So for me, going to Jaws was full-on—like, full-on. There you go thrown into the mix. And a few years of doing that, you know, it’s hard.
I probably talked about it so much that they never want to invite me again.
Hey, somebody’s got to say it, ‘cause they’re not changing it themselves. But, how do you feel about this Red Bull Magnitude format?
I feel like the Red Bull contest gives an opportunity to show an entire season, which is a better representation of the true big wave experience. It’s also cool because it really gives an opportunity to a lot of the girls who, for one reason or another, aren’t able to be involved in the other big wave event.
To me, what you experience all season long is the special part. So this Red Bull contest will follow that and show a more full picture of what being a female big wave surfer looks like here in Hawai’i, which is really cool.
And what a way to kick it off. First two days of the contest and biggest swell of the year…or so I’ve heard some people say.
Yeah, I think it has been. There were a bunch of big swells at the end of the season last year, so the start of 2020. And every swell they say it’s going to be the “biggest swell ever”, so, whatever. It was great though, it was exciting.
I was listening to the Surfline podcast you did, and one thing that you were saying stood out to me: that you’d rather see a contest where they highlight the characters in the surf world more. And I’m wondering if you are doing anything along those lines with Red Bull for this?
Maybe with some of their Red Bull athletes. I am not a Red Bull athlete.
[Ed note: Emi co-starred in a major Red Bull docuseries earlier this year called “No Small Feat”, which was focused on the human-interest side of the most recent women’s Jaws event. Red Bull has committed to creating a similarly-themed series in conjunction with their Magnitude event.]
Oh, I thought… I saw they were going to have support for filming and whatnot, no?
It would be really cool if they did, because each of us has a very different story, but I’m not sure.
This contest is definitely an opportunity to highlight that stuff. There’s friendships, there’s rivalries, there’s quirkiness, there’s definitely a lot of behind the scenes. Everything that we do between swells also plays a huge role in what happens when we are surfing. So hustling five jobs like I’ve been doing this winter, it’s been so intense and I think that’s so much a part of the surfing as well, but it’s something you never see.
Are you approaching this year differently than you would a regular season? Does it change your mindset that there’s money on the line?
For me, I’m definitely approaching it like a regular season, just with a little more organization—like texting people where I’m going. Normally I’d be more of a lone-wolf, but you know, this is a great opportunity and you got to play the long game.
So, one more question about the contest. What would winning the 25K mean for you? You know, you’re not sponsored, you talk a lot about how hard you work to sustain your surfing, and how there’s not really a professional path for your discipline.
Winning would definitely open up a lot of freedom to move in life for me. Like the possibility to train more or go after certain passions—that would be amazing of course.
I’m currently in massage therapy school. I’ve learned a lot about the body through my various injuries and things that I’ve gone through the years, and I want to share that knowledge with people. So launching that business would be one of the things that I would definitely think of doing with the prize money.
I’ve read interviews where you’re critical of people equating gender equality with sameness in surfing, and then I’ve also seen you saying you don’t want to be defined by your gender. So I’m curious about how you feel about this being a women-specific event?
I think it’s really great that it’s a women-specific contest, because in reality, women are dealing with a different biological situation. That is not to say that I don’t believe in gender equality or anything like that—I definitely do—I also just believe that whole dialogue got really confused in regards to sport, and especially big wave surfing.
It seemed to me that maybe it felt like more of an attack on men in some situations. Where, I have a lot of respect for a lot of my male counterparts and allies in the water. When I started surfing Sunset, it was only the guys out there, really—there were a few girls, and I had a really good girlfriend who would come out and surf with me too, but there were all guys around us and they were like family. I had Buttons being so friendly to me and calling me into waves and you know, like, I didn’t really resonate with the “battle of the sexes” thing. I resonated more with the celebratory sense of things. You have to lead with a positive, in my mind, if you want a positive outcome.
Although I definitely understood certain women’s frustration, too.
Ultimately, I think it’s great that this is a women’s-only contest, and it’s great to celebrate women in their element and give an opportunity specifically for women without expecting anything in return.
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