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Vicky Durand, 81: Surf Pioneer

In the 1950s, a teenage Vicky Durand and her mother moved to Hawaii and immersed themselves in surfing and adventure. Now 81, the surf pioneer and author discusses her book Wave Woman, overcoming challenges, and what surfing taught her about life.

Keeping up with eighty-one-year-old surf legend Vicky Durand requires fitness and endurance. I pant hard as I walk-run behind her. Barefoot, she’s on a mission. Before dark, she needs to tend to her papaya, avocado and herb garden she planted years ago on the steep hillside below her Honolulu mountain home, care for her bed-ridden husband with stage 4 liver cancer, and feed her 30-plus rescue cats, not just dried kibble, but the good stuff, fresh Ahi. 

“I hope you can stay up late, so we can talk writing and books,” she huffs as she chases Ehu, the stray four-pound chihuahua mix she captured with a cat trap in the jungle below her house. 

“Four-hour time change. No problemo.”

As a fourteen-year-old beauty from California, Vicky Durand, with her athletic mom, Betty, and younger sister moved to Hawaii in pursuit of big adventure and new beginnings. The year was 1954. Betty hoped her womanizing husband would stay behind. But a few months later he joined the family on Royal Hawaiian Avenue in Waikiki. His wife and daughter had already caught the surfing bug. 

Boogie Boarding at Makaha, 1996

At a time when most stay-at-home wives wore aprons and ironed slacks and waited for their husband to come home from work, Betty’s two-piece flowery print swimsuit defined her for decades. She’d be more likely to be found surfing Duke Kahanamoku’s longest ride, getting churned up in whitewash or hanging out with male surfers at Waikiki Surf Club.  Vicky’s formative life was influenced by her mother’s independence, ‘can do’ attitude, search for adventure, and by the people they met and places they surfed. Together, the two mavericks immersed themselves in surf life. They bobbed on wooden surfboards waiting for the next great wave; they won competitions. They traveled to promote women’s surfing, long before anyone else thought of the idea.

Mother-Daughter Surfing

The following morning, I’m still asleep when Vicky slides open the giant glass door and serves me a stiff cup of joe. “Twenty minutes and we leave,” she tells me. 

We hop in her 150 Ford pickup and chug down the hillside to the fitness club. I find myself barely treading water in a water aerobics class she attends three times per week with her 70- and 80-year-old buddies. 

One hour later, I crawl out. The class whoops my ass.  

On the plane ride home, I read Vicky’s memoir-style story Wave Women, and learn why Vicky’s strong work ethic and ‘get-er-done’ attitude still thrives. Her mother, the surfing pioneer pro who lived to a ripe age of ninety-eight, instilled those lessons in her from an early age. 

Wave Woman by Vicky Durand

I can’t wait to see what the next fifteen years has in store for Vicky. I only hope she’ll give me a surf lesson or two…if I can keep up!

Have you always been adventurous?
Yes, and more so as I age.

If your mom hadn’t been a role model would you have gotten into surfing?
I am not really sure about this. She made it very easy to get hooked on this sport.

Are you afraid of sharks?
I never really gave them much thought when we were surfing.

What is the best surfing memory?
Early morning surfing sessions with my mother at Makaha (big waves on the west side of Oahu and eventually where my mother built her house) and also going to Club Waikiki in Lima, Peru and surfing there with her.

What is the worst surfing memory?
Surfing on November 11, 1959 at Haleiwa when our friend Frank Brandley got hit in the head by a surfboard and disappeared under the water. We all knew he had been hit and was somewhere under the water but no one had a face mask to find him in time and he died. 

At age 81, what would you tell your teenage self?
Keep surfing longer.

Vicky Durand and Lucky

At age 81, you are strong and fit and you have the physique of someone 20 years younger. What is your secret to health?
A balanced diet, plenty of sleep, exercise, hard work, animal rescue, mental flexibility, and a positive attitude.

What is your biggest regret?
Getting married at age 21 and leaving surfing life at Makaha (west shore of Oahu).

What has surfing in the ocean taught you about your life as you know it today?
How important it is to enjoy the simple pleasures in life, be intuitive about situations coming your way, stay focused, be strong, and move forward.

“I like interacting with people, adventure, a love of nature, especially the ocean, the importance of work and play”

As a 5’10’’ surfing beauty from Hawaii, did you have any special opportunities?
Unfortunately, I had them but did not fully take advantage and moved in different directions.

As a woman coming to age in the 1950s-60s, did you have missed opportunities?
I think I could have done whatever I wanted.

What qualities did you inherit from your mother?
I like to think that I am not afraid of challenges. I like creative work projects. I like interacting with people, adventure, a love of nature, especially the ocean, the importance of work and play.

Betty Heldreich, Vicky Durand’s mom, on a dolphin swim in Waianae, Hawaii, 2001, 88 years young

Education was important to your mother. She insisted (against the wishes of Vicky’s father) you attend Punahou, the prestigious private college prep, and famous high school that Barack Obama attended. Back then, tuition cost $350.00. Why did she do it?
They were manufacturing jewelers, worked hard, and had the money, but were very conservative on spending. My father did not believe in private schools.

“I wanted to have as much education as possible”

You went on to receive your master’s degree in education. Why and where did you teach? What did a career in the public schools teach you about youth?
I wanted to have as much education as possible. I taught my first year at the University of Hawaii and then twelve years at a Title One public high school in Waianae (on the west shore of Oahu). I taught there so I would be close to where my mother lived. I worked with disenfranchised youth. That experience taught me patience, persistence, getting along with all kinds of people, and empathy.

Did your career path mimic your mother’s?
My career path also veered in many different directions from seamstress, clothing manufacturer, a late return to college as a reentry student, a teacher, a textile artist, author, and public speaker. Mainly, it is never too late to follow a dream. My dream is to share Wave Woman: The Life and Struggles of a Surfing Pioneer with the world.

Betty Heldreich Surfing Makaha

Tell me, what is the hardest experience of your life? Did the emotional, spiritual, and physical demands of surfing help you through that time? Tell us how.
Everything I have done in life has been a challenge. From being in the ocean to leaving the ocean. I married at 21 and had two girls 13 months apart and lived inland in northern California. After a divorce, I became a single mother with no advanced education and no profession. I moved back close to my mother. I think the ocean and surfing teaches us how to embrace and overcome challenges. 

“Everything I have done in life has been a challenge”

Are your two grown daughters mini versions of you?
I think they would say no.

Vicky Durand

What is your greatest joy?
Being in a beautiful place, sharing time with friends and family, and surrounding myself with my fur babies.

Your parting words?
Who knows where Wave Woman and Act 4 will send me?

11 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Vicky Durand,
    I am from from South West Ireland. I am 68 years young. I am an Architect/musician in between Windsurfing/surfing( 9′-8″ longboard). I love this article. I resonate with your lifestyle and with your attitude. I saw a photo lately of very lean older man with a sun drenched water soaked long beard an long hair sitting on his surfboard. The caption said ” The idea is to die young as late as possible. wonderful !
    I wish you many many more years.. You look great in your photo. “Go neirí an bothair leat” Irish blessing for “may the road rise with you”. or should I say
    “may the wave rise with you”

  2. Hi Vicky Durand,
    I am from from South West Ireland. I am 68 years young. I am an Architect/musician in between Windsurfing/surfing( 9′-8″ longboard). I love this article. I resonate with your lifestyle and with your attitude. I saw a photo lately of very lean older man with a sun drenched water soaked long beard an long hair sitting on his surfboard. The caption said ” The idea is to die young as late as possible. wonderful !
    I wish you many many more years.. You look great in your photo. “Go neirí an bothair leat” Irish blessing for “may the road rise with you”. or should I say
    “may the wave rise with you”

    John Harte

  3. Finally, an article about a woman in her eighties! I appreciate articles about the amazing people who are accomplishing things in their seventies, eighties and even nineties… the truly “aged” people. Fifties and sixties are still young enough that their stories are not that unusual and inspiring.
    Keep up the good work!

  4. Likewise, I thoroughly enjoy and applaud this article about an active and gorgeous woman in her 80’s. I fully expect to get there with my sports intact in the next 13 years and this article makes that goal ever more likely. I realize that we don’t know what will happen next, yet I will always do my best to choose the fun and high energy path. Thank you!!

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AUTHOR

Susan Purvis
Susan Purvishttps://susanpurvis.com
Susan Purvis is the author of the bestselling and award-winning memoir, Go Find: My Journey to Find the Lost—And Myself. As an outdoor aficionado, educator, and world traveler, Susan’s mission is simple; to motivate, educate, and inspire you to live your best life. She’s worked at the hottest, coldest, and highest places on the planet. Susan’s lived with indigenous cultures in the Amazon, Nepal, Africa, and Mexico. She's traveled by foot, bike, skis, camel, Cessna, and dugout canoe to capture stories of the human spirit. As a storyteller, Susan has created a broad oeuvre of work across the many cultures of our globe. Currently, she lives in the small ski resort town of Whitefish, Montana.

 

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