(WOMENSENEWS)–One of women’s professional surfing’s biggest events, the Roxy Pro on the Gold Coast of Australia, starts on Feb. 26 and goes through March 9. The winner of the event, part of the Association of Surfing Professionals Women’s World Tour, will take home $110,000, one of the highest prizes in professional women’s surfing.

The winner of the men’s event, The Quicksilver Pro, being held concurrently, will take home four times that amount at $425,000.

"The difference in winnings is really because of sponsorships, but having such big women’s events really does show our progress," said filmmaker Heather Hudson of Santa Barbara, Calif.

Hudson, a life-long surfer herself, is executive producer of the 2009 documentary "The Women and the Waves," which chronicles women in surfing.

Surfing dates to pre-historic Hawaii and Polynesia. Until missionaries came to the islands and banned surfing because of the mingling of the sexes, both men and women enjoyed the sport.

"One of the things I wanted to say with my film was that women have always surfed," Hudson told Women’s eNews in a recent phone interview. "But we do have a harder time breaking into it."

"The Women and the Waves" features legendary surfer Linda Benson, who at the age of 15 won the International Championship at Makaha in 1959. Between 1959 and 1969, Benson won over 20 surfing titles and became the first woman to ride the big waves at Waimea Bay, Hawaii.

Benson was also the surfing double for actresses Annette Funicello and Deborah Walley in several of the popular surfing films of that era, such as the Beach Party films and "Gidget Goes Hawaiian."

‘I Want to be Out There!’

Even with the popularity of women surfing on the silver screen, Hudson recalls that as a teen in southern California in the 1960s she would just sit on the beach with the other girls, watching their boyfriends surf. Then one day she thought, "What am I doing sitting here? I want be out there!"

In the 1960s there was no gear made for women, so Hudson got a boy’s wetsuit and taught herself to surf.

Surfing apparel companies began making gear for women in the 1980s. Board shorts and wetsuits for women are now readily available along with surf boards that are more flexible and lighter.

"Both of these things contributed to more women and girls getting into the sport," said Jean-Paul Garcia, founder the Santa Barbara Seals Surf School in Santa Barbara, Calif.

The surf schools and camps that now dot the U.S. coastlines are bringing girls into the sport.

"When I learned to surf," said Hudson, "I just paddled out on a board and tried over and over until I could stand up. None of the guys really helped me."

Garcia of the Santa Barbara Seals Surf School touted the benefits of formal instruction for girls. "All the kids are learning together, there’s no difference between the boys and the girls, everyone gets equal time learning to ride the waves. Intimidation isn’t part of the picture."

When Garcia founded the school in 2000 he had only one female student, but he says girls’ enrollment has gone up exponentially. Today he has 22 students and 10 of them are women.

One of the women Garcia has taught over the years, Lakey Peterson, has gone on to a high professional ranking and inclusion on the PacSun USA Surf Team.

‘Blue Crush’ Motivates

Women represent about 20 percent of professional surfers today, up from about 5 percent in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Some surfers give part of the credit for that to the 1995 film "Blue Crush," which portrays the trash talk girls faced when they paddled out to surf among the guys.

In the film, a young surfer is dreaming of winning a prestigious competition when she happens to fall in love. Her lover encourages her and goes to the competition to root her on.

"All the girls I teach have seen ‘Blue Crush’," said Garcia. "It was a movie that showed how much harder the girls have to work to compete and to be accepted. It really got girls passionate about surfing."

Another contributing factor to the mid-1990s sharp rise in female surfers was the appearance of Lisa Anderson on the professional circuit in 1994. Anderson was aggressive, hard core and fearless. Many said she surfed like a guy. In 1995 she became the first–and still only–woman featured on the cover of Surfer magazine.

As spectators have become more interested in women’s challenges and more females are buying gear, sports clothing and accessories giants like Roxy, Billabong and Rip Curl have increased financial commitments and sponsorships of individual athletes.

Beauty Over Skills

Still, Hudson says "the girls who get the sponsorships, unfortunately, aren’t always the best surfers, they’re the best-looking surfers. The industry still wants to portray women surfers as blond beauties in bikinis."

A big leap for surfing women came in 2010 when they broke into the sport’s most dangerous and male-dominated challenge, big wave surfing, where waves reach up to 30 feet and more.

At the first ever female exhibition, held at the Nelscott Reef Classic in Oregon on Nov. 3, 32-year-old Keala Kennelly, from Kauai in Hawaii, became the first big wave women’s champion. The event was part of the Big Wave World Tour.

Women’s eNews asked Nelscott founder John Forse why he decided to hold the women’s event.

"Because they deserved it," he said in a phone interview.

Forse, who has seen the number of female surfers in Oregon grow steadily over the past 20 years, also said Nelscott plans to include women in next year’s Big Wave World Tour event.

But in an already dangerous sport, Santa Barbara Seals’ Garcia says he can pass on the perils of big waves.

"Even I don’t do it; I’d rather not get myself killed," he said.

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Regina Varolli is a freelance writer based in Manhattan, and the owner of Words by Regina Varolli and Co. She blogs about food on The Huffington Post.

For more information:

The Women and the Waves:

The Association of Surfing Professionals:

Santa Barbara Seals Surf School:

Nelscott Reef Classic: