Still riding the big one

In “Wave Woman,” surfing champion Vicky Heldreich Durand pays tribute to the sport, Hawaii and her mother, surfing champion Betty Pembroke Heldreich Winstedt.

As a 12-year-old on summer break in the early 1950s, Vicky Heldreich Durand fell in love with Hawaii while visiting the island of Molokai — home of what was one of the last colonies of leprosy sufferers in America. It was, she said, unusual at that time for a child to travel alone from her home in California across the Pacific Ocean to what was then an American territory. Unusual, too, for a child to visit Molokai, but then her uncle, Arnold Smith, was the superintendent of the colony, which had been established in the unincorporated area of Kalaupapa in 1866 during the reign of King Kamehameha V. (Today, leprosy or Hansen’s disease, which is not as communicable as was once thought, is curable with multidrug therapy. Though the Hawaiian quarantine law was repealed in 1969, a dozen or so elderly, former leprosy patients have chosen to live out their days in community on Molokai.)

The island was and is, Durand says, a place of spectacular if forbidding beauty with its shark-infested waters, lofty cliffs and deep crevasses with waterfalls cascading into lush valleys. In that place, the lepers led entirely separate lives, she says, but were still observable. Their fingers mutilated by the disease, along with their ears and noses, they were nonetheless still able to bait their fishhooks. “It was pretty amazing,”she says, as were her days spent hiking and canoeing. Indeed, when Durand returned home, she pined for Hawaii so much that her family moved to Honolulu’s Waikiki neighborhood the day after Christmas, 1954.

There she and her mother would both became champion surfers.

It’s a story Durand tells in her new biography of her mother, “Wave Woman: The Life and Struggles of a Surfing Pioneer” (Spark Press, $29.95, 186 pages). As Ben Marcus, former editor of Surfer magazine, describes her in a back-cover blurb, Betty Pembroke Heldreich Winstedt was an amalgam of Amelia Earhart, Frida Kahlo, Emily Dickinson and Esther Williams. Athlete, jewelry and ceramic artist, aviatrix and poet, Winstedt (1913-2011) was also an adventurer, one who didn’t blanch at taking up surfing in her 40s as the sport was just taking off. Challenging the big surf at Makaha, on the west coast of Oahu, Winstedt finished second in the third Makaha International Surfing Championships, the sport’s unofficial world championships, in 1956. That same year, she was on the first Hawaiian surf team invited to Club Waikiki in Lima, Peru, where she won the women’s championship.

Durand was not to be outdone. As a student at Punahou — the same Honolulu school former President Barack Obama attended — Durand found the atmosphere “cliquish.” “Surfing was my escape,” she says. In 1957, she would go her mother one better, winning the Makaha championship. The two traveled to Peru together in 1960 as a mother-daughter surfing team.

College would take Durand back to the mainland’s West Coast. She received her associate’s degree from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles and a bachelor of science degree from California State University, Long Beach, in family and consumer science. She holds a master’s from Oregon State University in clothing and textiles, with a minor in adult education. (Durand received a certification in secondary school teaching and special education.)

In fashion, she established a cottage industry sportswear and textile design company that she directed for a number of years, with boutiques, department stores and museum shops across the country distributing the company’s products. In education, she taught for many years at a school for underprivileged students in Waianae, Hawaii. While there, she worked with community groups to provide better education and services for her students. She also started an early-education and childcare facility to enable teenage parents to finish school and graduate that was later taken over by Head Start.

In 2013, Durand married Bob Liljestrand, who manages the Liljestrand House, an architecturally significant midcentury modern house by Vladimir Ossipoff in Honolulu that also serves as a center for peace and understanding. Durand serves on the Liljestrand Foundation board. The mother of two grown daughters from a previous marriage, she manages family property in Hawaii, gardens and is involved in animal rescue, mainly with cats. And though she no longer surfs, she swims, does water aerobics and pays attention to the breath that is key to water sports.

“You have to be really calm and confident and have your mind in a certain place when you surf or you can drown,” Durand says. In videos, she demonstrates breathing in and out deeply, hands placed on her diaphragm in the middle of the body while seated on an exercise ball. She also recommends breathing in through the nose to a count of four, holding your breath for the same count and out again to the same count. As you gain more control, you can increase the counts.

Last but certainly not least, Durand is enjoying the viral promotion of her book, a valentine to her extraordinary mother, for whom nothing seemed impossible. And who was quite prescient.

“When we surfed, it was not taken that seriously,” Durand says. “But my mother said, ‘This sport is going to be big, so you might want to hold on to all these things to write about them later.’”

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