Standing on the blustery cliff overlooking the Point at Ho‘okipa on a perfect Maui day, I watched as Sarah Hauser launched her rig at the water’s edge. Wetsuit-clad and hefting her windsurf gear – a board with attached mast, boom, and colorful sail – she paused briefly, taking stock of the conditions. Hopping deftly from the sand to her board, she fit her feet into the straps, caught a gust of wind and was off, picking up speed through the whitewash. Hauser’s colorful wing began to charge toward the outside. The waves were twice the height of her sail, and about three times her height.
Hauser, a world-class windsurfer with a lilting French accent and a kind smile, has been turning heads for years with her powerful windsurfing and bravery in the face of daunting waves, all the more impressive because of her smallish 5-feet-4-inch stature. Last November, Hauser competed in the Maui Aloha Classic windsurfing competition and won the women’s division for the second year in a row, taking home the title on the International Windsurfing Tour and solidifying her place as one of the top waterwomen in the world.
Born and raised in New Caledonia in the southwest Pacific, Hauser is pretty unique in the world of professional windsurfing because of her unusual path. She got a late start on the competitive circuit in order to complete college, but soon after defied conventional wisdom and a sure path to orthodox success in the field of engineering. Hauser made the move to Maui with a dream and a hefty work ethic, and in doing so became a world champion.
“It feels pretty good!” Hauser told me when we sat down to talk about her win and her journey to get there. “It was double pressure this year for me, because I won last year (but a different title), and there was also the overall title for the windsurfing tour. The only way I had a chance to win the overall title was by winning this event.” On a rainy Pa‘ia morning, we met at Charley’s for some coffee, breakfast, and a wide-ranging conversation about her New Caledonia roots, why she can charge such big waves, the status of women in watersports, her documentary Girl on Wave, and some of her service projects.
Hauser did not always see the straightforward path to windsurfing success. “I surfed my first wave when I was 15 and I just fell in love with it,” she told me. “Something clicked, and I could see myself pursuing that passion, to see if I could compete and make a career out of it. But windsurfing is a very small industry, so my parents encouraged me to study and at the time, I didn’t really have the guidance to go out on my own, so I went to school for five years.” At 23, she decided to take a chance.
Hauser’s story inspired a documentary, Girl on Wave, that describes the risk and uncertainties – and ultimately the power – of giving up her secure day job to pursue professional windsurfing. When she was working remotely for a California-based startup, Hauser met Steven Esparza, who ended up directing and producing the film. “He told me, ‘This is so cool what you do, I want to make a film about you.’ I was like, ‘yeah right.’ So I stopped working for the company to refocus on competing, and he called me and said, ‘We’re doing it, I’m coming.’ He said, ‘I’ve been working at corporate jobs for five years but it’s my dream to make a documentary. And I want to make it about you – I’m coming.’ And he came.”
The film depicts her decision to move to Maui, bunk up with roommates in Ku‘au, and work several side jobs to fund her competitive windsurfing ambitions. The film’s cinematography beautifully illustrates the power, grace, and athleticism of windsurfing along with Hauser’s story.
At one point in the film, in talking about Hauser’s strength in the water, a fellow professional says that “her bottom turn is as powerful as many mens’.” I asked Hauser about this, and the status of women’s windsurfing, especially in light of the fact that pay equality in women’s surfing has been getting so much press. Hauser eloquently digressed on her ideas about the connection between ability, exposure, money, and athletic progression.
“The truth is, in most sports, there is a gap in performance between men and women,” said Hauser. “But the better the industry is, the smaller the gap is. You get something like tennis, for example, and the women are killing it, with speeds that are as close as the mens’. But then you look at an industry that is not doing as well, and the gap is way bigger, because when it comes to money, getting paid, which helps you train, which helps you be good at it – the women are the ones that take the biggest hit. You see it in surfing: As the industry has progressed, the level has progressed. I truly believe it’s strongly connected.”
It’s a great point. Along similar lines, at the Aloha Classic, the competition began with perfect conditions and the men were sent out. Perhaps not intentionally – the contest organizers weren’t controlling the weather, of course, just calling the contest – by the time it was the women’s turn, the waves were wilder and the wind picked up as the waves closed out across the bay. Consequently, performance suffered, with one competitor unable to make it through the whitewash to the outside.
Windsurfing, surfing’s less popular cousin, isn’t an easy path for an aspiring female professional. “There’s not many of us,” Hauser said. “The sport being a small industry, there’s usually big gaps between the pay for men and women. It’s really hard to do it as a woman. I have so many friends who did it for a few years and had to stop because they have jobs on the side. Me too. It was just recently, a year ago, I found a sponsor who could support me. It’s still really hard for other people, and I lived the life before when you need a side job, and you’re exhausted because you’re working, then you have to train because of big waves.
“Windsurfing used to be very big in the ‘80s and ‘90s; people had big contracts and money, and we don’t really know why but the attention of the sport has been going down. Maybe because there are so many sports that have come out. So it’s not like surfing, which has slowly been growing and growing, and they added a big-wave event for the women, and there is equal prize money. Overall it’s a slow progression for women.
“There is a new generation of younger girls following in my steps, and I followed the steps of the girls before me, and it’s growing, but at a slow pace, and we make efforts and know that it might not have an effect until the next generation or maybe the next.”
One of Hauser’s hallmark attributes is her ability to take on formidable conditions, charging huge waves. Hauser has taken on Pe‘ahi (Jaws) and continues to push the boundaries in huge Ho‘okipa winter swells, despite the fact that she never surfed a wave until she was 15-years-old. Growing up on New Caledonia, she spent lots of time in and around the ocean, but New Caledonia is an island surrounded by a massive barrier reef. Waves break against the outer reef miles away and not on the shore like Maui. “The island is surrounded by a large barrier reef all around the island, and it’s 18 miles from the shore. So on the shore, you never see waves. It’s totally calm,” Hauser said.
I asked her how someone goes from flat lagoon to charging scary waves. “The few times I went out in New Caledonia, the waves were very powerful and big, because they’re reef waves. Outer reef waves are Fiji-type waves, they break on sharp reefs and they usually only work when it’s 10 feet, or not – so all or nothing. So I thought, this is what surfing is like.” Having no other option, she learned on the big powerful waves crashing on a razor-sharp reef.
A well-rounded athlete, Hauser is also proficient in surfing, stand-up paddling, and foilboarding, and trains hard to be competition-ready. “Training fascinates me, maybe because I am so small, and I need to concentrate on what I can do in the water. I’m in the gym all the time; I’m training all the time. Maybe because I’m smaller, it gets me really fascinated about personal training. When you put the work in to get stronger, there are just so many things you can do.”
In addition to her windsurfing success, Hauser also has a lot of heart, and dedicates time to volunteering and committing herself to helping others. “It’s the right thing to do,” she said. She started the Trashy Selfie Project with surfer Paige Alms, where they encourage social media users to take selfies with plastic and trash found on the beach and tag it with #trashyselfie as a way of promoting awareness about pollution. “If you have time to take a selfie at the beach, you have time to pick up some plastic. That way, we can raise awareness in a fun way. That’s a fun project we do.”
Last year, she worked on a project in Peru to bring water filters to people with the Women & Water Project “to empower younger women through surfing and media workshops, and bring water filters to the town.” Through her campaign she raised $1,500.
As we chatted about service, surfing, and her journey, what struck me about Hauser is her humble attitude and her wish to impact those beyond herself, both in her projects and in her hope that other people will be inspired to live their dreams. “I was told to live a safe life,” Hauser says in the opening scenes of Girl on Wave. Good thing she didn’t.
Cover design by Darris Hurst
Photos by Eric Aeder