"I Think a Lot Of Us Are Frustrated" Raquel Heckert on Women's Big Wave Surfing

Matt Rode

by on

Updated 7d ago

Two years ago, we profiled Raquel Heckert, the Brazilian big wave charger who lived in a church on Oahu’s North Shore. A lot has happened since then. In some ways, Raquel’s life is very different. In others, it hasn’t changed at all.

Raquel still lives in the same church, but she now lives there with her husband Devin, who works as the church’s praise leader. In addition to getting married, Raquel applied for and received her US green card, a process that took a year and a half—18 months in which should couldn’t leave the US, the longest she’s been in one place since she was a teenager.

Related: Watch Rio's Horror Slab Shock Devour Everyone

Raquel and Hawaii.

Raquel and Hawaii.

© 2021 - Thiago Okazuka.

Just as importantly, Raquel has spent the past two years navigating the politics and frustrations of women’s big wave surfing. The reality of this niche pursuit is that there is very little support available, and only a few women make enough from surfing big waves to support themselves. The rest are lucky if they can scrape together a few of the crumbs—token product sponsorships that provide very little in the way of actual value to the athletes.

Meanwhile, some of these women are spending what little money they have chasing swells – and charging over some of the most dangerous waves in the world.

Last month, Raquel spent a few weeks with me in Mainland Mexico, hunting for tubes and sorting through her feelings about the whole big wave thing. While she’s still dedicated to charging, the past couple of years have her questioning all of the effort and resources that she (and a number of other women) have put into chasing XXL swells, for the most part without any reward or recognition.

Raquel was trying to make sense of all of this while surfing empty, perfect, head-high barrels on Oaxaca’s right-hand points, but at the same time feeling incredibly guilty for missing a funky, closed-out, XL swell at Puerto, where only a handful of waves were ridden and even fewer were made.

From said Mex trip.

From said Mex trip.

© 2021 - Sarah Lee.

At the same time, Raquel has spent the past few months organising a raffle to benefit a halfway house on the North Shore for female victims of human trafficking, a devastating humanitarian crisis that affects upwards of 40 million people around the world and that takes up the bulk of her time and attention. While big wave surfing is Raquel’s chosen vocation, she knows that there are other things in life more important than making a big barrel or winning ride of the year. And here, we dive a bit more into Raquel's mentality.

Hey Raquel! How has your summer at home been? Have you been able to spend a lot of time with your family? And have you gotten any waves at all?
It has been great being here. I have been enjoying a lot of time with my mom and dad. Today is a holiday, so I spent the whole day with them. My family works during the week, so I only get to see them in the mornings and evenings, but I am spending as much time with them as I can. I wake up early to go surfing, and then spend time with my parents and my grandpa, who is like another father to me.

My grandpa and I spent a lot of time together when I was growing up. Even though he didn’t surf or swim or spend time at the beach, he would always drive me to go surf and wait in the car for me, reading the newspaper and the Bible.

So it’s great to be with him again. He supported me so much, and I feel like I owe so much to him. I wouldn’t have had the opportunities and experiences that I have without him. He paid for my school, helped me get boards, supported me when I went to Puerto to train for big waves when I was younger.

The rest of my family didn’t really understand surfing, so I am very grateful that he was so supportive and encouraging. I’m super happy to be here with him. And this next year he will turn 90! So if I can afford it, I will come back for his birthday!

Raquel with grandpa.

Raquel with grandpa.

Wow, it sounds like your grandpa probably spent as much time at your home break as anyone, even though he didn’t surf! Tell us a little bit about the beachbreak you grew up surfing. We’ve heard it is one of the heaviest in Brazil.
My home break is a 700-metre-long beachbreak, similar to Puerto Escondido. It’s heavy, but doesn’t handle as big as Puerto. But for the size that it gets, it might be gnarlier than Puerto. The rip currents are super insane, and the energy is concentrated on a small beach. It’s not always paddleable, sometimes it’s too heavy and insane.

There’s also the wave Shock, which is nearby. I first surfed it maybe eight years ago, I think I was one of the first women to shortboard there. And before that I bodyboarded there. It has actually been good at Shock this season, we have had a number of sessions, and a couple of weeks ago I got a barrel out there! The locals said that was the first time a woman got barreled there, so I was pretty stoked.

The locals said that was the first time a woman got barreled there, so I was pretty stoked. I was pretty surprised, too, because I am not very used to towing, so I was very grateful that God put that wave in my way. You never how the wave is going to break—some close out, some don’t even break, some don’t barrel, and they are all bumpy and crazy. It’s really hard to read and surf, so I’m grateful for that wave that I caught last week. It was super nice.

Raquel is always determined.

Raquel is always determined.

Two days ago I surfed there again, and it was super crazy, like extra crazy. On the days when it looks good, it’s already bumpy, but on the days that look bumpy—wow, they are crazy, and not very good.

One guy hit his head on the rocks, but luckily he had a helmet on. Another board got stuck in the rocks for a long time—it was a crazy session! But it’s hard to get sessions there, so I take whatever opportunities come my way. I don’t have my own ski or team, and I don’t want to ask people to take me all the time. So whenever Shock is breaking, I just paddle out there and watch, and once everyone gets waves they will sometimes hook me up and tow me into a few waves, and I’m super grateful for that. I always try to help with gas and am very thankful when I get the opportunity to surf Shock.

I’m really grateful that I grew up with these waves—Shock and my local beachbreak—because it sort of helped prepare me for other big waves around the world. I was pretty used to getting smashed and facing heavy currents and getting my legs chopped by my board after pulling into closeouts. This place helped me learn to handle heavy waves, so it was a great place to grow up.

Raquel is, as the locals say, the first woman to get barrelled at Rio's mad slab, Shock.

Raquel is, as the locals say, the first woman to get barrelled at Rio's mad slab, Shock.

© 2021 - Tony Dandrea.

That sounds like baptism by fire! It can be hard for female big wave surfers to make a living in the surf world. Tell us about the challenges the ladies have to face.
Yeah, I think a lot of us are frustrated, but to be honest, I have been dealing with challenges and frustrations for a long time.

When I started surfing, it was tough, because my family didn’t really understand why I wanted to do it. I always wanted to prove to them that I could do well in school and also pursue surfing at the same time. If I got in trouble, surfing was the first thing they’d take from me as a punishment, because they knew that I loved it so much.

So between that and the locals at my beachbreak—all the boys and older guys who would make fun of my old boards and bad equipment—there wasn’t a lot of support or encouragement. Today there are a lot more women surfing, so I feel like there’s a better support network and we sort of watch out for each other, but in the beginning it was really hard for me.

There’s a lot of machismo in this area, so it was hard to be a woman trying to make it surfing, especially in bigger waves. Today there are a lot more women surfing, so I feel like there’s a better support network and we sort of watch out for each other, but in the beginning it was really hard for me.

I grew up in a small city outside of Rio, and getting a ride to Rio was hard. But that’s where everything was happening, where the world tour event was and all of the other industry events.

So I’d just jump in boats or busses or whatever I could catch a ride in, like four hours each way, just to get across the big channel and go surf in Rio. It was always a challenge to get good waves, especially when my local beach break would have a bad season with bad sand.

My home break was a good training ground for bigger waves and barrels, but to surf other waves and get good at other aspects of my surfing was pretty hard.

In terms of sponsorship, I feel like there was a lot more support for the boys. You’d see them going on trips to Indo and Bali and getting new boards, and we girls were lucky if we got a couple of skirts that didn’t even fit us! [laughs.]

There weren’t many contests for the girls either. So it was always challenging, but I think that it just made me want it even more, made me want to go harder. When I was 21, I went to Hawaii and saw the waves there, and thought, “Wow, all these years I could have been training here, I’m so far behind.” So that just made me want to push even harder and train even harder.

Guiding through Mex.

Guiding through Mex.

© 2021 - Sarah Lee.

Are you still excited about chasing big waves, even though you have struggled to find support?
Even though I haven’t had major sponsors, there have been amazing things that have happened where God helped me so much, and used other people to help me.

Individual people have supported me, giving me boards or vests or places to stay. I was often traveling alone, but somehow things always worked out, whether it was support from my grandpa or someone else.

It always reconfirmed to me that God was watching out for me. And then in Hawaii I worked as much as possible to keep the dream alive, working in food trucks, painting, baby-sitting, trying to save up enough money to travel to contests and compete.

I just want to be the best surfer I can be, and represent women and show younger girls that even if things are difficult or seem impossible, you can work hard and find a way to make it. I still want to charge big waves and keep learning and improving, and try to get big barrels.

But I am also working on improving my shortboarding, and I’ve started longboarding, which is something I really want to improve at. I didn’t get to longboard when I was growing up because I couldn’t afford a longboard and my home break was way too heavy for longboarding, but now I am excited about that too. I just want to be the best surfer that I can be and keep improving throughout life.

Jaws. When no one else wants a part of it, Raquel's right there.

Jaws. When no one else wants a part of it, Raquel's right there.

© 2021 - Pompermayer.

What’s your focus for the coming year?
Well I have lots of plans, if I can find a way to make them happen! I really want to go to Chile to surf Punta de Lobos and other big wave spots there, and would love to surf Todos Santos in Baja.

I’d like to go back to Maverick’s, and would also like to surf some of the waves in Africa. I just want to do my best in everything I do, and produce videos along the way. I really like working with video, it’s very satisfying to feel like you are creating something, and it’s also a good way to watch yourself and learn and see what you can improve.

If there are any contests happening this year, then I will definitely compete in them and do my best. That’s my main focus, just to do the best I can and be the best I can, and hopefully I can learn more and improve more, and encourage other people to do the same.

And I am also excited to meet more people along the way and develop more relationships. I love that in surfing you get to share the experience with other people and develop relationships with them. I’m very grateful for all the people and opportunities that God has put in my life, and am just trying my best!

Cover shot by @matheusscouto. Follow Raquel, here.