Mindy Eun Soo Pennybacker’s “Surfing Sisterhood Hawai‘i” Is a Literary Tidal Wave

A blend of interviews, history, Hawaiian legends and memoir, the book offers insight into women surfers while inspiring a new generation.


There are a few common components essential to catching a wave and publishing a book, including judgement, accuracy and, above all else, timing. Author and surf reporter Mindy Eun Soo Pennybacker has mastered these, both in the water and with the release of her new book, Surfing Sisterhood Hawai‘i: Wāhine Reclaiming The Waves, which hit shelves in May.


In Surfing Sisterhood Hawai‘i, Pennybacker shares stories from more than 30 current female Hawai‘i surfers and more than 100 striking photographs and illustrations. It’s the first collection of women in surfing actually written by a woman, Pennybacker says. She interviews girls, busy mothers and big-wave chargers and discusses several pivotal events in the past five years that depict the evolution of “surf culture through a female lens.”


For decades, women have been paid less than male competitors in professional surfing, and most female surfers, such as Pennybacker, have perpetually dealt with aggressive behavior from men in lineups. But that hasn’t always been the case.


women surfers in the water off Makalei Beach Park

In the water off Makalei Beach Park, veteran surfer Kim Heyer gives some pointers to younger surfers (left to right) May Kamaka, Wendy Sakuma, Isabel “Izzie” Cleofe and Mikayla Brennan before they go off to surf Suis (Suicides) for the first time. Photo: Courtesy of Dennis Oda


“The book is called Reclaiming the Waves because I learned that women did originally surf with equal rights to men in Hawai‘i, which I hadn’t known at all,” Pennybacker says. “After the 20th century, men dominated because surfing became commodified and commercialized.”


Pennybacker estimates a growing population of more than 35 million surfers worldwide; still, out in the water, female surfers are often outnumbered four to one to males, she says. However, in 2019, the World Surf League started paying equal prize money to women and men. And two years later, Carissa Kainani Moore, a Native Hawaiian surfer, brought home the first-ever gold medal in women’s surfing at the Olympics.


SEE ALSO: Carissa’s World: How a Self-Effacing Girl from Kaimukī Surfed Her Way to Olympic Gold


Mindy Pennybacker Book

Left: On the cover of Mindy Pennybacker’s new book, Kelia Moniz, is pregnant with her first child, surfing at Canoes with some girlfriends on a party wave. Photo: Courtesy of Yoshi Tanaka
Right: These are veteran surfers (left to right) Kim Heyer, Mindy Pennybacker, Kai‘ulu Downing, Evie Black and Melissa Kurpinski holding their surfboards at Makalei Beach Park. Photo: Courtesy of Dennis Oda


RSVP here to meet Pennybacker and hear her discuss Surfing Sisterhood Hawai‘i, moderated by Hawai‘i Magazine editor-at-large (and surfer) Catherine Toth Fox, at da Shop: Books + Curiosities in Kaimukī on Saturday, June 24, at 2 p.m. 


Moore appears several times in the book, and Pennybacker has continued to follow along with her career. Pennybacker praises Moore’s attitude both as a woman and a fierce competitor as she recounts Moore’s recent win a few weeks ago in May at the Surf Ranch Pro in California. Moore earned high scores on an incredibly demanding, 45-second-long barreling wave and then promptly fell on her face during her victory lap. She came up laughing.


“That’s the beauty of surfing and the joy that is so unpredictable,” Pennybacker says. “We need more laughter, we need more encouragement … we need to teach young girls to have high self-esteem.”


SEE ALSO: Leading Wāhine: These 5 Local Surfers Are Blue Crushing It


Following Moore’s Olympic win, in 2022, after a “10-year exile,” the professional world surfing organization held women’s championship tour contests at Sunset Beach and Banzai Pipeline. Pennybacker explains that Pipeline was previously deemed too dangerous for women, despite the fact that women had been free surfing its tubes for half a century.


And earlier this year, in January, women competed for the first time in the legendary Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational at Waimea Bay. Pennybacker witnessed this historic event along with 50,000 others who had flocked to the North Shore of O‘ahu, where she saw women competing next to men, riding waves as tall as 50 feet.


SEE ALSO: Meet the 6 Women Who Made History Competing in The Eddie 2023


“I’m hoping [with my book] that more women will recognize that we have each other to rely on and that we can develop this feeling of solidarity to benefit the whole community, in the water and out,” she says.


Though Surfing Sisterhood Hawai‘i was completed in less than a year, it seems that Pennybacker had been preparing for it since she first started surfing in the late ’60s.


“I think I was learning to ride waves at the age of 12,” Pennybacker says. “And it was so liberating.”


Mindy Pennybacker

Mindy Eun Soo Pennybacker. Photo: Courtesy of Craig T. Kojima


A self-described “bookworm,” Pennybacker insists she was not an athletic child, even though as a grom, she was the only girl member of the Tongg’s Surf Gang in the Diamond Head neighborhood, where she grew up.


Before she was allowed to get a surfboard, she recalls having to prove to her grandfather that she could swim a mile in less than half an hour. “He made me swim back and forth in the Tonggs channel … he had a stopwatch and stood on the seawall, watching, until I broke the time,” she says.


Pennybacker’s book offers such snippets of the author’s own becoming as a surfer, as well as profiles of historical icons such as Queen Ka‘ahumanu and Rell Sunn (also known as the Queen of Mākaha). Incidentally, Pennybacker competed against the legendary Sunn and her sister, Martha Sunn, in several junior surf contests, though Pennybacker never placed higher than third, leading to a 40-year hiatus from competitive surfing.


When Pennybacker returned, she came first in a women’s 35-and-up shortboard division and placed second in longboard at the Honolulu Bar Association’s Landshark contest at Kewalos.



Other than losing to the Sunn sisters, several factors kept Pennybacker from becoming her “family’s worst nightmare: a surf bum.” She worked as a journalist for almost three decades in New York, writing for publications such as The Atlantic, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Inspired by the local environmental group Save Our Surf, Pennybacker also co-founded and served as the editor-in-chief and vice president of the nonprofit The Green Guide Institute.


In 2015, she and her husband, HONOLULU contributing editor Don Wallace, left New York for O‘ahu and moved into her childhood home in Diamond Head. She worked as a reporter and ocean lifestyle columnist for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser until she left last spring to focus on several book projects.


Pennybacker and Wallace met when they were both graduate students at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop. On their wedding day, Pennybacker returned late from surfing in a Kamehameha Day swell, and she said her vows with wet hair dripping down her back.


“He gets it,” Pennybacker says. “He’s a surfer too.”



Surfing Sisterhood Hawai‘i: Wāhine Reclaiming The Waves is available at Mutual Publishing’s bookstore in Kaimukī, at mutualpublishing.com and at bookstores throughout Hawai‘i and online.