Text by Blake Lefkoe | Images by Erik Saeder & Fred Pompermayer
Every winter, massive northwest swells travel for thousands of miles, gaining strength and intensity before detonating on the coasts of the Hawaiian Islands. In turn, every year, a group of dedicated surfers risk life and limb to put themselves directly into the power and fury that these swells create.
On January 28, one of the largest swells in decades rolled in, creating mountains of water so terrifying that the mere sight of them thundering onto the reef at Pe‘ahi—Maui’s famous break, also known as Jaws—was enough to consign most surfers to the safety of the cliffs. But Andrea Moller put aside all fear and reason as she geared up, got on the back of a jet ski, and ventured out.
Moller is well known in the lineup at Pe‘ahi. In 2004, she and Maria Souza became the first female team to charge these monstrous waves, taking turns manning a jet ski and surfing. Three years later, Moller became the first woman to eschew this method of being towed into the break’s massive wave by jet ski, and instead paddled into it with only the power of her arms.
Born in Brazil, Moller was raised at her parents’ marina on the small island of Ihabela. She grew up active in water sports, competing in swimming and windsurfing. In 1998, at 17 years old, the competitive athlete moved to Hawai‘i to pursue a career in the ocean. “Initially, my goal was to get better at windsurfing, but soon, my priorities changed to surfing everyday,” she says. Unfortunately, in the winter, when the big north swells hit, most of the surf breaks on the north shore close out—leaving the only options for surfers on that side of the island being to drive to the west side, or to take on the massive outer reef breaks closer to home.
When Moller was 23, she had a daughter, and her time became more limited. It forced her to choose between charging huge waves or not surfing at all. The decision was easy. “I remember seeing the guys taking the skis out [at Pe‘ahi] and coming back with these huge smiles on their faces,” Moller says. “I always wanted to go with them, but there was never space for a girl. That’s when Maria and I decided to buy a jet ski together. We had to learn the hard way, but we also had the freedom to go out and catch giant waves.”
For more than a decade since, Moller has dedicated herself to riding the biggest waves Maui has to offer. “The first year that I was at Jaws, I could sense people analyzing me because I was a girl,” she says. “Some guys want to be there for you and help you, but they feel like if they help you and you get hurt, then they’re responsible. So it took a while for me to prove, ‘I got this. I can do it.’ Yes, I need help, but I’m here to help you too. It’s not a gender thing, we’re all in this together, as big-wave surfers.”
While the 36-year-old prefers not to focus on gender issues in the water, this hard-charging yet humble woman knew that she was paving the way for aspiring women athletes to finally be recognized by the big-wave community. “It was a big responsibility, because I was representing my gender, and if I fell or got hurt, it would reflect on all of us,” she says. “I had to be responsible, so I could help open the door for other women to be accepted and supported by the men in the big-wave scene.”
That door has since been blown off its hinges. Today, female chargers are landing big-name sponsors, and are able to get recognition for their skills in more serious big-wave competitions—in April, the World Surf League announced that for the first time ever, it would hold a women’s event on the Big Wave Tour. That same month, Keala Kennelly made history at the World Surfing League Big Wave Awards when she won the Pure Scot Barrel of the Year for a ride she scored during a monster session at Teahupo‘o in Tahiti in July 2015. It was the first time a woman beat the men in an open-gender heat. Moller was also nominated for Ride of the Year, and won Women’s Best Performance. Her ride on January 28 is considered to be the biggest wave a woman has ever surfed.
Over the past two decades, this highly decorated athlete has proven herself time and again. Her home in Ha‘ikū, Maui is filled with myriad awards won in a variety of ocean sports, including outrigger canoe racing and stand-up paddling. But for Moller, the best reward is hearing that she inspires others. “When people tell me that I am a role model, that to me is the biggest trophy,” she says. “When you know that you’re being watched and influencing the younger generation, it keeps you on the right track.”