Kim McKenzie on women being included in the 1975 Smirnoff Pro:
“The men were out there to make a living, but we were pushing the envelope and doing whatever we could to be included. For us it was so much bigger.”
All photos in blog post taken by and/or supplied by Kim McKenzie. The first six photos above are from the 1975 Smirnoff Pro.
As Told to Alicia King
My youth was spent surfing and fishing and my first surfing contest was the Queensland state titles in 1968. I came through with a wave of the most wonderful women who simply loved surfing and became great friends such as Phyllis O’Donnell, Josette Lagardere, and Judy Trim. A bunch of us could see we had to lay the framework for women’s professional surfing in Australia and we founded the Australian Women’s Surfing Association (AWSA). Gail Austen, Ma Bendall, Wendy Stewart, and Luciana Battel were all instrumental in that movement.
For whatever reason—money I suppose—they’d only ever allow one Queenslander at the Australian championships, but half a dozen Victorians, so I was unable to compete from 1969 to ’71 which was incredibly frustrating. When I was able to compete again in 1972, I came from nowhere and really pressured Gail Couper who beat me by a hair’s breadth.
I scored a berth to the World Titles in ’72 in California and those Aussie titles in 1973 and ’74 were mine but I had nowhere to go from there. There were no more amateur world titles after California in ’72; there was nothing. The whole professional surfing thing kicked off three of four years later, but that was no good to us.
I was prawn trawling with my dad up near Mackay during that time to make money to compete; there was no sponsorship for women especially in Australia. It wasn’t great surfing preparation, as there are no waves in the tropics. One day we hit this huge patch of prawns, which made me $500, and that haul was my air ticket to the world titles in San Diego.
In 1975 Smirnoff ran a big event at Sunset in Hawai’i. Of course they had the “Bronzed Aussies” on their list and they really wanted a woman. I had become a shark contractor by then which added a lot of color in terms of publicity and fortunately they picked me.
I was 24 at the time and Smirnoff flew me over and I had to do a pre-run at Pipeline. I’d never surfed there and it was a shocker. Seeing all these coral heads just sucking and chewing was heavy.
The main event was at Sunset and an allowance was made to put one woman in each heat of men. Now, this contest was traditionally a very powerful, macho event for the men and it was insulting for them to have women come into play—for us women to force ourselves in the way we did. Smirnoff had the foresight to see the way women could enhance the sport but it was not an easy thing to turn up as a woman and be tacked on to the men’s heats. There were no nice vibes.
I was in a heat with Michael Ho, Rory Russell, Jeff Hakman, and Wayne Lynch—who for some reason didn’t turn up. When I first looked at the wave I thought it wasn’t so bad. But by the time I paddled into the channel after lunch it was full on Sunset—the big shit out the back. Jeff Hakman had a spare red lightning bolt gun, which I was given to ride. I looked at it and thought, Oh my God, as I’d never ridden anything like it.
So I’m on the beach looking at this horrendous sucking swell rush up and suck out all the shells. I put my shirt on over my little string bikini with all these cameras around and I’m thinking, I’m going to be standing there with my cossies around my ankles.
I saw how the boys would attack it and run as the waves sucked out to push their boards through and I was really relieved to get out past the shore break. After the paddle out I sat at the edge to see how this wave worked and it was basically a big boomerang with the main guts in the center that would break really hard.
There was a fair offshore breeze and a lot of wind and spray holding the face up and blowing into your eyes. Jeff came over and pointed, saying, “You’ve gotta sit right there,” so that’s where I went. I took off on the center and it was very similar to Margaret River. To me, it was like two waves: You’re looking over and pushing through the spray to drop into the intense first part, and then it turns into a nice wall and bang, you flick out and it’s over. I actually enjoyed it.
I caught a second one, which took me a little further in, and when I popped up Michael Ho was right beside me. I could see these black shapes coming in from the horizon and man you know you’re in trouble then because it’s peaking. Michael and I were paddling like mad and I saw his heels just disappear through the wave and all I could do looking up at this 12-14 foot face was get away from the damn thing as quick as I could and dive really deep. We had no leg ropes back then.
I got compressed, lost my board, and my lip was torn but I made it to the channel, and I lay on the side of a lifeguard’s board. Michael ended up there too on another lifeguard’s board, which he borrowed and started to paddle out on. The lifeguard let me have his board and I did the same; I just followed. I caught another wave and Michael caught a couple and I never said anything when I came in, as everyone was so excited. They said, “Kim, you got three waves! You might be going into the next heat because Wayne Lynch didn’t turn up.” And I went, “Oh.” I was wondering if I should say my last wave was illegal but then the officials came round and said my last wave, and Michael’s last two waves, were disqualified. So that was the end of my scene there.
Margo Oberg ended up the women’s winner and it was an absolute privilege to be a part of it all. It was something the women had to do and Rell Sunn and Jericho Poppler really fought for us. The men were out there to make a living, but we were pushing the envelope and doing whatever we could to be included. For us it was so much bigger.