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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, April 18, 2005

A legend young at heart

By Gwen Kekaula
Advertiser Staff Writer

Betty Heldreich Winstedt has lived the kind of adventures that could fill the pages of a novel. A pioneer of women's surfing, a jeweler, potter and pilot, her philosophies on life include "try anything exciting" and "it's never too late to learn."

She started surfing at 40; she shows her form at Makaha in 1956.

Heldreich Winstedt family photo

She's living proof of both creeds.

Once an Olympic swimming hopeful, she learned to pilot small planes, took up longboarding at the age of 40 and traveled the world as an international surf competitor, counting legendary Waikiki beach boys among her surfing friends.

Today, at 91, Heldreich Winstedt has turned her attention to pottery, maintaining her sunny outlook despite health struggles. Last year, she overcame open-heart surgery. She's also legally blind.

Heldreich Winstedt's story was recently picked up by Malibu Shirts, creator of a "Surf Legends" line. Other Hawai'i legends include Peter Cole, Fred Van Dyke, Fred Hemmings and Rabbit Kekai.

She was chosen because of her late start in surfing and for pioneering the sport for women.

She was born Betty Pembroke in Utah in 1913. Her adventurous nature traces to her great-grandparents, who traveled to Utah's Salt Lake Valley by wagon train from Missouri.

Life wasn't easy. Her parents moved to Santa Monica, Calif., during her junior year of high school after losing their home during the Great Depression. After graduating, she and her sister, Jane, joined her family.


Duke Kahanamoku stands with members of the Hawai'i surfing team before their international competition in Lima, Peru. The surfing team included, from left, Rabbit Kekai, Conrad Canha, Ethel Kukea, Betty Heldreich and Anne Lamont.

Advertiser library photo • 1957

California weekends were spent bodysurfing and swimming around the pier at Santa Monica Beach.

She took a job in the field of dental hygiene — still a new profession at the time — after graduating from the University of Southern California Dental College, and worked in Los Angeles.

As a youth, Heldreich Winstedt entered many rough-water events and made the swim team at the Los Angeles Athletic Club. It was there she began training to compete at the Olympics in Germany.

By the time she was 22 she had her pilot's license, flying a Waco single-engine biplane.

On a whim, she soloed a glider built by Gus Briegleb, who would later become famous for his gliders — but she ended up in a cast.

The injury happened during a glider trip above Los Angeles Municipal Airport. Though she was "feeling free as a bird," she realized she was heading toward some high-tension wires.

In an effort to gain altitude, she lost speed and nose-dived into the ground, breaking her leg in several places. Her words to the ambulance driver: "Shhh, don't tell my mother."

In a cast for several months, she went back to work, but her Olympics dream was over.

In 1937, she married Ronald Heldreich, a diamond-cutter and jeweler. They moved to Palos Verdes, where daughter Victoria was born.

Soon after, the United States joined World War II, and though she wasn't in the military, she felt the effects when a Japanese submarine sank a lumber ship off the coast of Southern California. Nightly blackouts followed, and the military banned all water activities along the beaches.

Fearing for their safety, the family moved inland to Chino in 1944 and bought a walnut farm. There, daughter Gloria was born. Besides farming, Heldreich Winstedt learned to craft custom-jewelry. She sculpted intricate designs in wax that would then be cast into precious metals.


Betty Heldreich Winstedt works at the pottery wheel.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

Though the family moved inland, Heldreich Winstedt never lost her love of the ocean. In 1953, she took the girls to visit her sister Jane on Moloka'i, which led her to O'ahu. She fell in love with the Islands.

That same year, at age 40, she learned to surf. Initially, she took her girls to Canoes in Waikiki for lessons with beach boy Charlie Amalu, but once the girls were riding waves, Amalu yelled "Get on the board, Mom!"

So she did. And when she caught a wave all the way to shore, she fell in love with the sport. She remained in Hawai'i through the summer, surfing every morning.

Within months, the family moved the jewelry business to O'ahu. They lived in a cottage in Waikiki owned by Dad Center.

As it happened, Center was a longboard surfer and one of Duke Kahanamoku's trainers.

To surf, she borrowed Center's 12-foot redwood board.

"They didn't have leashes in those days, so the board was like a lethal weapon," she says.

It was the "golden era" of surfing, and Heldreich Winstedt paddled with Blue Makua, Curtis Iokea, "Scooter Boy" Kaopuiki, Jimmy Wong and other surf legends. "I found surfing very challenging and exciting, like no other sport I had experienced before," she said.

Wong, whom she met while waiting for sets off Waikiki, invited her to Makaha to visit the home he and his wife, Emily, built. That's when she noticed the "For Sale" sign on the beach lot next door.

"I took one look at the waves breaking on the white sandy beach, a second look at beautiful Makaha Valley, pulled out the sign and said, 'This has to be mine,' " she said.

She bought the property and would camp there with her daughters while her husband maintained the Waikiki cottage.

She soon discovered the waves at Makaha are more powerful than those at Waikiki.

"My biggest wave was out at Makaha on a 10- to 12-foot day," she recalls. "As I was trying to catch a wave, Johnny McMahon yelled, 'Betty, come over here and sit on my right side.' We took off together on the next wave. I slid right and continued down the face of the largest wall of water I had ever been on.

"When I came to the end of the ride I went in and sat on the beach and actually shook. I had a hard time believing that I really made it. It must have been a good 12-foot drop!"

Heldreich Winstedt got surfing tips from Makaha surfers Buzzy Trent, Peter Cole, George Downing and Fred Van Dyke.

"Back then in Makaha, there were never more than five or six people out surfing. ... Now the beach doesn't seem big enough," she says.

At times, she had to swim to shore to retrieve her board, and a little girl of 7 or 8 would be on it in the shore break. That girl was Rell Sunn, later to be known as the "Queen of Makaha."


Having lost most of her sight to macular degeneration, Heldreich Winstedt now works with clay to stimulate her creativity.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

In 1956, Heldreich Winstedt entered her first competition at the Makaha International surf meet. She came in second after Ethel Kukea.

Peruvian playboy Carlos Dogny was there. He invited her to join a new Hawaiian surfing team and to compete in an international surf competition in Lima, Peru.

Other team members were Rabbit Kekai, Ethel and John Kukea, Conrad Canha, and George and Anne Lamont.

Heldreich Winstedt brought back the first-place trophy in the women's division that year.

She recalls a surfing excursion in Kon Tiki, Peru, where she, Ethel and Rabbit paddled out over a mile to the big waves — and quickly paddled back in after discovering the waves were dripping with jellyfish.

To this day, she says it was the fastest she has ever paddled.

The next year, daughter Vicky won first place at the Makaha International and the two were invited back to Peru as a mother-and-daughter team.



Socializing: Enjoy being with family and friends.

Exercise: Swim or walk, daily if possible.

Eating healthy: Eat a balanced diet, include lots of vegetables.

Clean air: She has never smoked.

Humor: “Don’t take life too seriously; don’t get mad.”

Curiosity: Keep your mind active; try to learn how things work.

For more information about the “Surf Legends” T-shirts: www.malibushirts.com

Shortly after her first visit to Peru, Heldreich Winstedt divorced and she built a kit home on her Makaha beach lot with her girls.

Her daughter, now Vicky Durand, says her mother was "adventurous" and "very determined."

"She kept herself busy all the time but would always be willing to go surfing," said Durand, who creates hand-made beachwear and hand-painted silk scarves and sarongs in Makaha.

Heldreich Winstedt, who still lives in Makaha, started a business doing laboratory and porcelain work for dentists. That's when she met Charlie Winstedt, a builder and fisherman.

Winstedt was building a 55-foot fishing boat he named "Ku'u Huapala." She asked if she could help with the painting.

He agreed, and they married in 1969, traveling and fishing almost every weekend in what she calls "the best part of my life."

It's also the time she quit surfing.

"I didn't want to get hurt surfing anymore," she said. "So I stopped while I still had my front teeth."

Charlie died in 1989. Although she lives in her Makaha cottage alone today, her daughters, grandson, Sean, and great-grandson, Tony, all live nearby in separate houses on the property.

She has macular degeneration, an eye disease that has rendered her legally blind. She no longer drives or buys her own groceries, but her outlook on life remains bright.

"I love life, I have a lot of fun and I don't dare give up," she said.

She swims in her pool for exercise, doesn't follow a particular diet and believes in having two cocktails a day.

"My doctor says if you've lived this long, just keep on doing what you're doing," she said, laughing.

For more than a decade, she has been attending pottery classes at a program sponsored by the Waianae Coast Culture & Art Society. She changed her medium from sculpting to clay when she began to lose her sight.

In February, she nearly died during an asthma attack, spending five days in the intensive care unit at St. Francis West.

She was back in pottery class within a month.

Last year, Heldreich Winstedt had open-heart surgery. Weeks later, she was back in her pool, swimming. She made sure to call her doctor to thank him for another year of life.

She turns 92 in June.

"Looks like I'm going to have to call him again," Heldreich Winstedt said, laughing.