Reporting from the front-lines of the women’s big-wave surfing renaissance
By Neal Kearney
The waves were 25-to-30 feet at Puerto Escondido, Mexico, aka “The Mexican Pipeline,” on July 31, detonating on the hard-packed sandbars with unbridled power. It was stop No. 1 on the World Surf League Big Wave Tour, where horrendous wipeouts outweighed completed rides and the energy on the beach was electric. The crowd gasped when any surfer mad enough to take that insane leap of faith stroked into a monster. When the heat ended, WSL sideline reporter Shannon Quirk was on hand to interview the exhausted and elated victor, Kai Lenny.
Quirk, who often goes by “Shannon Reporting,” has made a career out of chasing swells and documenting big-wave surfing, with a particular passion for shining the spotlight on female surfers.
As a child, the San Mateo native was encouraged by her father to participate in sports. She trained and practiced many varieties, not just to impress her father, but also to beat her brothers at everything they did. In the process, she met many other active girls and also learned to surf, which was a natural fit for someone who lived around 25 minutes from Half Moon Bay and its surrounding breaks. A desire to surpass the “tomboy” stereotype led Quirk to brave heavy breaks like Ocean Beach in San Francisco.
“Being a woman in sports, in general, can be frustrating at times,” Quirk admits. “I feel more pressure to prove myself and my abilities, and to want to be professional on camera. Surfing is so male dominated that our voices and needs can go unnoticed.”
After graduating from UC Los Angeles and working as a sports journalist in South America, Quirk co-founded The Surf Channel television network in 2013 with Steve Bellamy, founder of the Tennis Channel. She wore many hats during the channel’s early days: editor-in-chief of the website, digital director, and host for many of the network’s features and surf news reports.
This position allowed Quirk a platform to create content that starred female athletes. She wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to provide a fresh perspective on the women in the waves, from a female point of view.
“I would argue that female viewers want to be inspired by other women,” Quirk writes to Waves via email. “I think we are sitting on a gold mine of rich storytelling about ‘the girl next door’ who loves an adrenaline rush; the mom who drops her kids off at school and rushes to launch the Jet Ski before the swell peaks; or the story of a Santa Cruz science teacher who surfs Mavericks after school with her husband. There’s a plethora of relatable characters in women’s surfing, which is important to expose when creating a fan base for the athletes. In television, we can humanize these all-star surfers through compelling storytelling.”
In 2016, this passion for storytelling—paired with her keen social media prowess—landed Quirk a job as a sideline reporter and event coordinator with the WSL Big Wave World Tour. She was offered the job after conducting interviews with Mavericks competitors and the Big Wave Tour event team for The Surf Channel.
“My first live television gig was in the channel at Mavericks, as we watched Mark Healey take a two-wave hold down in the first heat,” Quirk recalls. “That was probably when I caught the big-wave bug and started to process how intense and strong the characters are in the big-wave community. I want to share their stories.”
The Big Wave Tour is not for the faint of heart. For the past few years, this tour has thrust the world’s most experienced surfers into deadly waves across the globe. Big-wave surfing has always been associated with masculinity and bravado, but in the past 25 years, more and more women have entered the fray—led by pioneers like Sarah Gerhardt, Keala Kennelly, and, more recently, Santa Cruz’s Savannah Shaughnessy and Maui’s Paige Alms. Quirk believes in equal billing for men and women’s surfing, be it in big waves or small. She points out that, historically, women have been receiving the short end of the stick.
“The women of big-wave surfing have been underground for far too long,” she says. “They don’t get nearly enough media coverage for how incredible they are. I hope to change that and open doors for sponsorship for all surfers, but especially the underdogs.”
The tide is starting to shift: Last year at Pe’ahi, Maui, the WSL held its first-ever big-wave contest for women. Quirk was on hand as the event coordinator, caring for competitors and orchestrating operations. She says the 2017 Pe’ahi Challenge Women’s Championship will commence later this year, with the event window opening Oct. 15. She is also helping to organize a Waimea Women’s Championship, which will take place this early this winter.
Quirk thinks that garnering more sponsors for women surfers is key to advancing women’s surfing overall. “The endless supply of women’s products on the market and a woman’s buying power should give us a leg up when it comes to sponsorship opportunities,” she explains. “It’s likely that we haven’t yet explored many avenues of potential sponsorship in big-wave surfing due to the previous lack of women in the scene. Female empowerment is something I hope everyone everywhere can get behind.”
Quirk is currently based on the North Shore of Oahu during the winter, and splits her summers between Puerto Escondido and Santa Cruz. Most of her mornings consist of fulfilling her social media responsibilities while keeping a close eye on the surf forecast and storm graphs, as potential WSL Big Wave Tour events have a 72-hour green-light notice.
“I love my job and am really grateful to have the flexibility to travel to new waves and new places,” she says, adding, “As a surfer, I am definitely guilty of scheduling meetings around the prime surf conditions.”