'A small tribe of rarefied women:' Filmmaker discusses covering women's big-wave surfing competition

Sachi Cunningham is a documentary filmmaker and professor of multimedia journalism at San Francisco State University. Her work focuses mainly on the ocean environment and has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times and on the Discovery Channel, among others. She has swum with her camera alongside 350-pound blue fin tuna, Olympian Michael Phelps and big-wave surfers.

She recently covered the Pe’ahi Women’s Challenge, the first big-wave surfing contest to include women.

Q: You have been a surfer and documentary filmmaker for years. What does it mean to you to cover a women’s big-wave surfing event?

This event was the actualization of something I've imagined of for years. When I covered the first big-wave world tour for men for the L.A. Times for the story “Chasing the Swell,”  there were women starting to pop up on the scene, which was exciting. It was clear to me then that it was only a matter of time for there to be enough women to start their own competition and to eventually have a full big-wave tour like the men. I have since gotten to know the women well and count many as close friends, so watching their dreams come true was a joy on a personal level. Witnessing history being made and making sure that it is documented is a large part of what drives me as a journalist, so on a professional level it was deeply satisfying. Having covered the sport for over a decade and being one of the only women doing so it felt like the culmination of everything I had been working for.

Q: Your documentary, “Chasing the Swell” depicted the lives of a group of male surfers as they follow a swell across the Pacific Ocean. What is similar and what is different about the world of female big-wave surfers?

I feel very fortunate to have covered the men at the start of their sport being professionalized, and before the advent of the inflatable vests (Shane Dorian’s wipeout at Mavericks, documented in “Chasing the Swell,” is in large part what led to his invention of a safety vest). It's pretty mind-boggling to see how much the sport has progressed in a very short time. Carlos Burle, the first big-wave world champion, says in that video story that he is one of maybe 100 guys in the world that are able to surf big waves. Today, you can regularly find that many men and women showing up at any given big-wave spot on a good day, with hundreds more trying to make a name for themselves in the big-wave scene in all parts of the globe. I think the women's world of big-wave surfing is very much like the men's was in the beginning: a very small tribe of rarefied women doing something extraordinary.

I have no doubt that as the number of women surfing increases with the help of visibility from events like the 2020 Olympics, I will look back at this time when only a handful of women are good enough to compete in big-wave surfing as a special time. It is special because all of the women involved at this point know each other or know of each other and all share a common bond of being the first of their kind, breaking new ground and new ceilings once believed to be only the realm of men. What is different about their ascent is that, like most glass ceilings, there are more obstacles that women face in breaking those barriers.

Q: Covering surfing at Pe’ahi requires planning and experience. How did you approach this event and what insights would you offer a photographer who hasn’t covered big-wave surfing before?

The logistics of covering big-wave surfing is everything. You have to be on top of the weather, the swells, and have relationships and contacts that will help you access these spots, usually on a jet ski or boat. I took two trips to Pe'ahi during last year's El Niño season (2015-16) in order to start building those relationships and to start to understand that specific wave and how best to shoot it. I think my surf photography has also improved a great deal as I've gotten better as a surfer myself. I know I will never be in the same stratosphere as the women and men that I am shooting. However, knowing how to anticipate a turn or wipeout or barrel, etc., and knowing which moments in a ride are athletic triumphs or failures, ... gives you a huge leg-up in shooting surfing.

Q: Is there specific gear you recommend?

You can shoot most big waves from a boat or ski with a 70-200-millimeter lens. If you're shooting from shore, you'll want the longest lens you can get (600-millimeter prime, if you can afford it, is usually best). If you're shooting at Mavericks from a boat, you can usually get away without a water housing or protective cover for your camera. If you're shooting at Pe'ahi, it's harder to get away without protective covering, as the wind there usually keeps gear pretty wet. Either way, you should also make sure you have tons of lens-cleaning paper, as you're constantly cleaning spray from your lens. You can also use lens-cleaning fabric, but I find that gets soaked and salty quickly. I usually shoot with an SPL water housing for my Canon 1DX when I'm on a jet ski, along with a splash guard over the lens that keeps some of the spray off of the front of the lens port. You should also have a Pelican case or dry bag for your gear as you never know if you'll need to hop on a ski to change boats, or have to jump off of a ski and into the water in order for your driver to do a rescue. If you want to get on a ski, you'll also need a wet suit and life vest. I wouldn't recommend that anyone without water-safety experience get on anything other than a boat. I also like to have a GoPro mounted on my camera housing when shooting still photos, as a backup and to get video.

Q: How does shooting at Pe’ahi compare to Mavericks?

I think the main differences are the elements and the difference in the size of the playing field in both locations. It's pretty hard to stay dry at Pe'ahi because of the wind, but at Mavericks if you're on a big-enough boat and far enough back in the channel and it's a blue bird day, it can remain relatively dry. That said, it's also much colder at Mavericks, so you're never going to be sunning yourself in a bikini while shooting! There are also more jet skis at Pe'ahi than Mavericks because of the [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] ban on skis in the Monterey Bay, which means that your chances of getting a clean shot with no one sitting in front of you is also more difficult. By "larger playing field," I mean that there are several takeoff zones at Pe'ahi for both the right and left sides of the wave, which also makes for a different shooting experience. At Mavericks, the takeoff zone is much smaller and concentrated, so you're not scanning as large of an area to see who is going to take off next. I've also seen more barrels at Pe'ahi, which, of course, makes for an exciting shot. The color of the two waves is also distinct, Pe'ahi with brilliant shades of turquoise and blue, and Mavericks usually ominous shades of green, dark blue and gray. Mavericks also has a wall of large rocks that can make for some dangerous wipeout and rescue shots. That's not to say that Pe'ahi doesn't offer its share of challenges from the boulders on shore and the steep cliffs, but the elements in each place are unique and make shooting both places equally thrilling.

Q: What future projects are you working on?

I'm continuing to shoot surf from the perspective of the water, which means that I'm swimming with my camera in a water housing out to the break to shoot surfers coming down the face of the wave while I'm swimming up it. I plan to continue to improve my skills in water photography and as a water woman so that I can successfully shoot various big waves from the water in order to offer viewers new and exciting visual perspectives.

The other main project that I am working on is a documentary about this historic moment for women in big-wave surfing. I'd like to share some of these extraordinary women's stories with the world, as I think they have as much to teach and inspire us through their life stories as they do through their surfing.

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times

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