A Legend and a Menace

Bouncing with the first big-wave bodyboarder, Phyllis “Jill” Dameron Albrecht.

Light / Dark

We parked under the pink glow of a neon sign on a street in Waikiki. It was 9 p.m. on a Wednesday and we were hoping the bar would still be quiet. The front door was locked so we walked around to the parking lot in the back where we paid a couple of big Hawaiians $7 for entry, which also counted as a drink coupon. My friend Gillian Garcia, a photographer and filmmaker, noticed a girl with smooth brown skin standing alone outside, looking at the snack machine. She had a fuller figure, half covered by a silk robe, with tall clear heels, and was fixing her hair in the glass while she picked out her candy.

As if on pilgrimage we were visiting one of the establishments where Phyllis “Jill” Dameron Albrecht had once been employed. In 1977 Albrecht became the first bodyboarder, male or female, to surf Waimea Bay and Sunset Beach. By day she surfed what were then the biggest known spots in the world. By night she worked from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m., then would wake in the morning to drive from Honolulu back to the North Shore, no matter the conditions. 

Photo by Warren Bolster/shacc.

According to Bernie Baker, Hawaiian surf journalist, photographer, and contest director, “Phyllis was the first boogie-boarder, man or woman, to really do something on the North Shore. She was out there putting it on the line, before any of the names you’re hearing now. She’s a character too.”

What Baker means by “character” could refer to any number of things. Dismissing the track-and-spin other bodyboarders enacted, Albrecht proclaimed, “I love ‘the bounce,’” skipping down the face of huge waves, sometimes even sailing over other surfers. She experimented with design, cutting holes in her board, attaching weights to go faster, drilling finger-hold death grips, or fastening double-leash set-ups. Albrecht would cover herself head to toe in olive oil, because “it made me go faster.” 

Once when the waves were 20 feet and rising out at Waimea she rescued a fellow bodyboarder, the only other person out, who had lost his fins and board and was drifting towards the cliffs. Another time she lost her board and a fin at Sunset and had to be rescued by a friend. She once rode a wave at Waimea Bay that was so big it surged through the shorebreak and deposited her in the bushes, where she had to cling to a branch as the water rushed back out to sea. An avid dancer, Albrecht had a statuesque body, which is difficult to describe and impossible not to mention. She also had an attitude and a power that made her a singular figure in the history of women’s surfing, an archetype without replication.


When I first sat down with Albrecht at her chic and expansive Honolulu high-rise apartment, she assumed I wanted to know about her considerable collection of bodyboarding gear, refined daily over four decades. 

Starting from the top, she wears a custom-made white surf hat with extra flaps sewn onto the sides, its Velcro pads positioned in order to prevent hair entanglement. Next comes a rashguard and two wetsuits with extra elbow patches, featuring a cargo pocket for storage. In addition to gloves, she wears scuba-fin socks, adjusted so that the seams run along the top and bottom of the foot instead of the sides, to minimize chafing. Her black DaFins are oversized, but the sock provides padding, tied together with a fin leash. All of this is prescribed to maximize comfort through three to six hours at a time in the water, which Albrecht still enjoys every time there is swell—up to 6- to 8-foot Hawaiian.

“If your fin is too big,” she said, “you’re not swimming your fin, your fin is swimming you…ok. That’s all I got. What else do you want to know?”

Scorpion Queen, Sunset Beach, 1979. Dameron earned respect the old-fashioned way: she was present for every swell, sat as deep as anyone, and didn’t back down from sketchy situations. Photo by Lance Trout.

I asked about her experiencing surfing big waves.

“Oh, that was a long time ago,” she answered.  

Albrecht was a Day-Zero underground charger. She also has little perceptible ego, and no interest in any sort of legacy. Carol Philips—bodyboarding pioneer, the first woman to tackle big Pipeline, the first to compete against men at Pipeline, and two-time U.S. Bodyboarding Champion—says of Albrecht, “She is the godmother of bodyboarding.”

Albrecht grew up in Honolulu and started surfing as a kid at Sandy Beach on the southeast side of Oahu. Her mom would drop her off after tennis practice and she’d bodysurf the powerful shorebreak. Afterward, a friend would take her home. When the Morey Boogie Board came out, Albrecht was one of the first three people to get one, along with Jack “The Ripper” Lindholm—founding father of the drop knee.

She first met Bernie Baker playing tennis in Honolulu and, once he learned that she bodyboarded, he invited her to park at his house at Sunset Point. She became a regular in his driveway. She would sprint into the Sunset shorebreak with her fins on, a vision of athleticism.

Baker and friends could watch from the porch—clenching their teeth—as Albrecht took the most critical drops at Sunset. Skipping straight down to the bottom of a 12-foot-plus face, she’d almost always make it—while everyone on the porch prayed the wave didn’t destroy her. 

She would talk to anyone nearby her as she kicked back out to the lineup. Often they wouldn’t know who she was or where she came from. They only knew she was starting a conversation. Even if they had nothing to say, she would keep chatting all the way back out.

Albrecht always sat just inside of the pack, catching waves that had slipped through the rest of the surfers. As she became more comfortable in big surf, she occasionally dropped in without looking back. If she did burn someone, odds were it was big-wave hulk Ken Bradshaw. He often grumbled, but everyone knew each other, so it was hard to get mad at a friend. After surfing, Albrecht would walk all the way up the beach to the house with her fins on, pigtail braids, dragging her bodyboard on the ground, cute as could be.

“Why big waves?” I asked. 

“Basically to keep my weight down, and it was exciting. And I didn’t mind the drive when it was an hour. Now it’s more than an hour.” 

“But the waves you surfed…it was beyond what any bodyboarder or any woman had ever done before.”

“Well, you surf the South Shore in the summer, and the North Shore in the winter.
That’s what you do.” 

“What did you love about surfing big waves?”

“Well, it was fun to jump around, and it was good exercise.”

“Tell me about ‘the bounce.’” 

“You gotta jump. Scoop. Kick. Jump. Scoop. When you’re skipping over the top of the wave like a dolphin, you get further faster. You kind of don’t know what you’re doing, but it’s working so you keep doing it.”

“What about drop knee?”

Sunset, 1978. “When people yelled at me I would say, ‘I want a wave too. I’m out here to ride waves. You don’t own the ocean.’ I just didn’t really give a shit.” Photo by Steve Wilkings.

“Drop knee slows you down. I wanted to kick and keep going.”

“Did you ever consider a sponsor?”

“No. I can afford my own board. I mean it’s a boogie board, it’s not that expensive.”

“You were never interested in contests?” 

“I would just surf and go home. I was never into the contest thing. I never hung out on the North Shore. I hang out at my house and sew. I have other things I love. I watch TV.”

As a lone wolf of her generation, Albrecht initially found the lineup to be a cold environment. She had a few girlfriends she could chat with on the beach, but there were few other women to talk to out in the lineup—about the waves, how her day was going, what her life was like. She did have a friend named Avril but she died surfing Backyards.

The male surfers often ignored her and even tried to chase her out of the water by shooting their boards at her. Albrecht was hurt by the verbal and physical attacks, but said, “When people yelled at me, I would say, ‘I want a wave too. I’m out here to ride waves. You don’t own the ocean.’ I just didn’t really give a shit.”

On a big day in 1980 three canoes were paddling back to shore after surfing Avalanche and passed by Waimea Bay. Surf photographer Leonard Brady was paddling one of the skiffs. Water photographer Steve Wilkings was in another. They watched as a looming outside set came into Waimea and the pack, the 20 best big wave surfers in the world, all men, scrambled to the outside. Only one figure stayed put and, as Brady squinted, he saw it was Albrecht. She spun around and took the wave.

“That wave is 25 feet,” Wilkings told Brady. 

That was the day she joined the pack. The best big wave surfers in the world became 20 men plus Phyllis Albrecht, or “Fif,” as everyone called her.


Accounts of Hawaiian women surfing big waves in the wooden board era, pre 1950s, dominate both legends and history. In ancient Hawaiian tales, women were often the dominant figures in surf narratives, celebrated for their “surfing abilities, prowess, mana, and character,” according to scholar Isaiah Walker. Mamala the Surf-Rider was a chieftess who rode the biggest waves that came into the south coast of Oahu. One of the oldest known surfboards to exist is a wooden paipo, which most likely belonged to the 17th century Princess Kaneamuna. Also notable is Queen Ka‘ahumanu, who lived from 1768 to 1832 and loved Castles, an outer reef of Oahu’s south shore. She practiced the ancient outrigger step-off technique called lele wa‘a or canoe leaping. She’d push off the outrigger canoe with her wooden board and roll into the wave.

Linda Benson was the first woman to surf Waimea Bay in 1954 at age 15 on a 10-foot gun. Joyce Hoffman was the first woman to surf Pipeline and also surfed big Makaha. Margo Oberg surfed Sunset consistently in the 1970s along with Lynn Boyer. Albrecht was the first woman to be a regular at Waimea and be considered a peer of the male big-wave riders of her time.

But her abilities and performance sometimes sowed confusion and discord within the culture of big-wave surfing. When National Geographic arrived to film a documentary on the big-wave world, they shot at Waimea Bay. Except they had to discard quite a bit of footage because, every so often, Albrecht would go skipping through the lineup of men, undercutting the entire sub-narrative of the documentary. If Albrecht, a woman, was out there, it couldn’t be that difficult and dangerous—right?

Dameron “liked the bounce,” but in truth there weren’t many other options. Lacking the initial glide-in of a long-waterline vessel, nearly every drop was a late one. After a “fog of war” spin-and-go, she is shown here visibly adjusting—in mid-air—to leave room for Rick Irons. Waimea, 1978. Photo by Steve Wilkings.

Was Albrecht an exception to the rule that women aren’t as strong or as brave as men? Was she an outlier who somehow managed to break through oppressive modern norms to pre-modern levels of gender equality? 

A portion of her success has been attributed to her physique and athleticism. “The first time I ever saw Jill she was walking to Waimea Bay from the Catholic Church parking lot,” says Carol Philips. “And I thought, ‘That is the most fit and strong woman I have ever seen.’” 

Albrecht’s body was ambrosial, so femininely virile in appearance that no matter what she was wearing, no matter the cut of her bikini or coverage of her wetsuit top, it was arresting. She was 5’9″ and wore the smallest bikinis in the biggest surf. Some speculate that part of her prowess came from the power of her sexuality. She could make men do what she wanted. If she kicked for a wave, others in the lineup would
back off.

According to Leonard Brady, one factor that separates a professional from an amateur in the sport of boxing is, when sparring, the pro decides when it’s over and then their opponent is knocked out. He said that, in the water, Albrecht decided when it was done.

She once kicked out to big Sunset Beach, a seaward war zone where a west sneaker could detonate like a bomb at any moment. On a whim she took off her top. It is reported but unconfirmed that the venerated academic and environmentalist Peter Cole, who surfed big waves for nearly 50 years, the longest career of any big wave surfer, fell off his board. 

“She spun a lot of people out,” remembers Jeff Divine.


Day after day, year after year, Albrecht was the first woman to put in serious time surfing big waves. She was out in the water on a bodyboard on days when many with more adept ability and understanding wouldn’t go. She did it alone, and she did it with style.

Albrecht inspired her peers as well as the next generation of big-wave surfers, both stand-up and bodyboarders, female and male, as well as North Shore lifeguards and pros. Today, Ken Bradshaw remembers her with a sense of awe. 

“She had an amazing freedom. She was a dynamic woman, so feminine and uninhibited. She was absolutely unique. I’m glad to have known her and glad to have experienced life with her. I will never forget Phyllis as long as I live.”

She was everything a surfer ought to be—tan, sexy as hell, and she didn’t care about anything aside from riding waves. Albrecht has been described as a legend and a menace. She is a legend, because she did it first, and there has never been another like her. She was also a menace, but only to the dull, established, and sometimes backward North Shore of her era, operating as a renegade against constrictive norms, ahead of her time, ahead of our own time even now.

Off-season kick training, Ala Moana, early 80s. Photo by Warren Bolster/shacc.

[Feature image: With an anatomy torn from Leonardo da Vinci and honed by millions of fin-kicks, Dameron was perfectly suited to human shock-absorber duty at Waimea—shown here in 1983. Photo by Steve Wilkings.]