Public Media Arts Hub

How big waves are helping this female surfer overcome her biggest fears


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: And finally tonight, a look inside the world of elite big wave surfers and one of the few women in the world who take on the monster waves and her fears.

Stephanie Sy has the story.

It is part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Stephanie Sy: This is Nazare, Portugal, home to the biggest surfable waves on the planet, so big that surfers have to be towed in with jet skis, so big that the 50-to-100 foot walls of water can slam surfers to the ocean floor.

The big wave surfing world descends here every fall and winter, even during a worldwide pandemic. Like many extreme sports, big wave surfing is male-dominated.

Portuguese surfer Joana Andrade is one of a handful of women trying to change that.

Joana Andrade: In the beginning, it was not easy. And, sometimes, it's not easy too. They look to us and say, ah, you -- maybe you are not able to surf. Maybe it's too big. Are you sure you want to go?

But I think it's changing.

Stephanie Sy: Andrade is the subject of the documentary "Big vs. Small," in part a nod to her height, 5'1''.

Does it make it harder, being someone on the shorter side surfing these big waves?

Joana Andrade: Some people don't know me, and they just look, ah, you're Joana Andrade? But you are so small and you surf these waves.


Joana Andrade: My strong come not from my body, but from my mind and from my heart.

Stephanie Sy: I love that. Your strength comes from your heart and your mind.

The sheer size of the waves was what intrigued the film's director, Finnish filmmaker Minna Dufton. And in the interest of research, she learned to surf, albeit on smaller waves.

A lot of the film is about big feelings and how to conquer them. Is that what you were going for with the title "Big vs. Small"?

Minna Dufton: Joana is tiny, and the wave is rather huge. And I have always been drawn to opposites. And I found it so interesting, how -- figure out, what is big and what is small in us humans?

Stephanie Sy: The story is as much about surfing as it is about the mental strength and mind-set it takes to conquer these waves, particularly when you have a profound fear of drowning, as Andrade does.

Joana Andrade: Of course, I'm afraid to drown. But I keep going there because I want to know why I'm so afraid to drown.

Stephanie Sy: Oh, so you're trying to explore your fear through surfing?

Joana Andrade: Yes. Yes.

Minna Dufton: I was lucky enough to know just the woman that could help, and that could help Joana face her fear of drowning.

Woman: Oh, my gosh.

Woman: This is going to be our swimming pool today.

Stephanie Sy: Johanna Nordblad one of the world's best freedivers, divers who plunge into watery depths without supplemental oxygen, using only their own lung capacity.

She used an icy winter lake in Finland to teach Andrade how to control her breathing, to stave off panic.

Nordblad spoke to us from Helsinki.

Johanna Nordblad: The holding your breath, it's the similar feeling like the cold. It's very intensive. It's very big. And -- but when you are under the wave, you have to relax, because, if you relax, you don't use the oxygen, and then you have more time.

Stephanie Sy: Dufton herself faced both literal and metaphorical waves in making this film. First, there was Mother Nature.

Minna Dufton: I don't think I have ever been as nervous, as a director, to see my crew all out there in jet skis and Joana surfing. And those waves, they are pretty tight, one after another. They don't really leave that many opportunities for us as a film crew to capture the shot that we want.

Stephanie Sy: Another big wave she faced, funding.

The equity issue that you bring up with big wave surfing and women is probably also something you can relate to as a female documentary filmmaker, right?

Minna Dufton: Big wave surfing and independent filmmaking is fraught with doubt, uncertainty about where the money is going to come from, and rejection.

I mean, Joana Andrade, for example, she's an non-sponsored athlete in that sport, and I'm an equivalent filmmaker.

Stephanie Sy: Well, I'm sure, during the pandemic, there are a lot of people facing big waves.

Minna Dufton: You know, Joana's story is a really good example of this overcoming your biggest fears. And I really hope it helps people overcome their fears and whatever big waves that they're facing in their lives.

Stephanie Sy: "Big vs. Small" is viewable online and in person at the DocLands Film Festival in California and the Illuminate Festival in Sedona, Arizona, in May.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Stephanie Sy.

Judy Woodruff: Such an inspiration. So glad to hear that story.

Thank you, Stephanie.

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.