Big wave events are almost exclusively the domain of male surfers.
But look carefully next time a storm swell rolls into Cape Town and you’ll likely see a petite figure among all the neoprene-clad souls risking life and limb in the monster waves at Dungeons.
It’s here, in the frigid Atlantic, where Tammy-Lee Smith found her fire again after a devastating double blow halted what had been a dazzling surfing career.
Born and bred in KwaZulu-Natal, Tammy cut her teeth in the warm waters of Ballito on Durban’s north coast.
She was a water baby and credits her father for encouraging her to take up the sport.
Despite an initial fear of surfing, Tammy quickly picked up the skill and within just one year she would finish matric and depart on a whirlwind tour the globe for 6 years, living the dream as a professional.
But then her world fell apart.
At 25 she faced a double tragedy – the death of her dad and a hip operation that saw her unable to surf, bringing about an abrupt end to her career.
By the time she was ready to start rebuilding her life, she decided to take on the big wave scene. But the void left by her father’s passing left her groping for a strong figure to encourage and reassure her.
It was the advice of friend and famous big wave surfer Grant ‘Twiggy’ Baker that made the penny drop when he told her: “No one can do it for you… Just get to the beach and survive”.
But she went further than that, making history by being the first South African woman to be invited to the Big Wave Championships in Hawaii in 2016. Tammy was a wild card for the Pe’ahi Challenge, which saw the big wave surfers coming together to take on the 15-20 foot swell at the spot colloquially known as ‘Jaws’.
But despite the rise of talented and powerful female surfers, she says the scene remains a male-dominated one. She says women are still fighting for a place at big wave events worldwide, as well as equal prize money.
Tammy often finds herself the only woman out on big waves among a group of guys. While she says some are supportive, there are some who make snide remarks.
But she refuses to let these obstacles daunt her.
“I like the path being a woman is taking me on – even if it’s a little harder,” she says.
Despite the call of Cape Town’s big swell, Tammy is always drawn back to the KZN coast, where the warm waves roll in just a few minutes’ drive from her home.
She isn’t dwelling on the past either.
‘Be bitter or get better’ was her motto while she was rebuilding her life and that’s what she’s doing every day – getting stronger and standing by for the next big swell.
Her hiatus has made her more determined than ever to test her own boundaries and show what can be achieved with pure grit and determination.