It’s never too late to follow a dream

It’s never too late to follow a dream

On July 1954, at the age of forty-one, Betty Pembroke Heldreich Windstedt fell in love with surfing and became a surfing pioneer being one of the first women to ride the big surf of Makaha (Hawaii). She was a jeweller, a dental hygienist, a pilot, a potter and a poet. Betty was a true adventurer living life with passion and approaching any obstacle with courage and a positive attitude. 

Betty was born in Utah in 1913. She was the second of six siblings. From a young age, Betty was an outdoor adventurer, a natural athlete and a fierce competitor. During the Great Depression, Betty’s parents lost their home and moved to Santa Monica (California). That first summer by the sea was a remarkable time for Betty. She became a good swimmer and competed in rough-water swims in Santa Monica. In 1933, Betty was invited to train at the Los Angeles Athletic Club for the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. After graduating from the University of Southern California Dental College, she took a job as a dental hygienist in Los Angeles. During her spare time, she started taking flying lessons. By the age of twenty-two, Betty got her pilot’s license. During her first solo flight in a glider, she crashed and broke her leg in several places and had to put an end to her Olympic dreams.

Betty with her flight instructor. Image courtesy of Vicky Durand.

Betty entered night school to become a dentist. It was at that time when she also met Ronald Heldreich. Ron was a jeweller making rings, necklaces and earrings. Betty fell instantly in love with him. They were both very creative and had a passion for the ocean. A few weeks after they met, they eloped. Betty started helping Ron in the jewellery business and gave up on dental school. In 1937, Betty and Ron got married and moved from Los Angeles to Palos Verdes where their daughter Vicky was born. Soon after, the United States joined World War II and all water activities along the beaches were banned. Fearing for their safety, Betty and Ron decided to move inland to Chino where they started a chicken farm and continued to manufacture jewellery. Ron was a skilled goldsmith and expert stone setter. Betty used her manual skills to carve wax models. In 1944, two years after they moved to Chino, their daughter Gloria was born.

In 1953, Betty’s older sister, Jane, and his husband, Smithy, came to Chino to visit. They both lived in Hawaii and worked at Kalaupapa, Molokai, Hawaii’s leper colony. They invited Vicky to spend the next summer in Hawaii with them. Vicky fell in love with Hawaii. When she returned to Chino after the summer, she was feeling miserable. After questioning what she liked about Hawaii, Betty decided she had to see what had made such an impact on her daughter Vicky. The following summer, Betty and Gloria flew to Hawaii. Betty loved the Hawaiian lifestyle. After several weeks, Betty sent for Vicky. 

Betty with a Joe Quigg surfboard in Waikiki. Image courtesy of Vicky Durand.

Betty took Vicky and Gloria to Canoes in Waikiki for surf lessons with beach boy Charlie Amalu. Charlie pushed first Gloria and then Vicky into a wave. When it was Betty’s turn, Charlie pushed her and yelled, “Stand up, Mom!”. So she did. Betty caught her wave and rode it all the way to shore. From that moment, she was hooked. Betty moved to Hawaii with her family before the end of the year. They rented the guest cottage at the Dad Complex Apartments, located on the Gold Coast of Waikiki. Dad loaned Betty his skegless redwood surfboard. She said she could sit outside all of the other surfers and catch most of the waves before anyone else could. But it was not easy to manoeuvre. Betty wanted her own and a more modern one. She heard about master craftsman Joe Quigg and purchased one of his surfboards.

By the end of the summer, Betty’s family moved to the centre of Waikiki where Betty and Ron started a jewellery business. She surfed every morning and started to follow the ocean surfboard paddling races. She loved the idea of racing other women. The champion female paddler, Ethel Kukea, was a graceful surfer, a fierce competitor, and Betty’s good friend.

Betty started to make surfing friends. One of them, Jimmy Wong, invited Betty to Makaha to check out the beach, the waves, and his new kit house. Betty’s family drove to Makaha. On the beach next to Wong’s lot, there was a property with a FOR SALE sign. Betty walked up to it, pulled it out and said, “This has to be mine”. The following weekend, Betty and her daughters packed up their beach clothes, surfboards and some camping equipment and drove back to Makaha. They camped on the beach with a group of friends and surfed Makaha for the first time.

Betty surfing with John Lind and Mud Warner (1956). Image courtesy of Vicky Durand.

The waves at Makaha were more powerful and challenging than the ones at Waikiki. Betty and Vicky put their mind to learn how to surf them. There were no leashes at the time, and local children would often grab the boards and catch waves in the shore break. In 1957, one of those kids was the seven-year-old Rell Sunn who became later on Betty’s neighbour and friend. Betty and Vicky were now surfing regularly with a new group of friends. They would often get tips from pioneers of big-wave surfing Peter Cole, Fred Van Dyke, George Downing and Buzzy Trent to improve their surfing skills. It was the beginning of surfing’s revival. 

The inaugural contest of the annual Makaha International Surfing Championships took place in 1954. The first two years of the competition only men were allowed. It was in the third year of the contest, in 1956, that women were welcomed for the first time. Betty entered the women’s surfing division, along with Ethel Kukea, Violet Makua, Joan Kalahiki, Esther Kalama, Mary Ann Hawkins, Christy Donaldson, and Cynthia Hemmings. Betty took second place behind the winner, her friend Ethel Kukea. Carlos Dogny, the president of the Club Waikiki in Miraflores (Lima, Peru) was one of the judges at the 1956 surf meet. He was impressed with the ability of the women surfing. Back in Lima, Carlos convinced his fellow Waikiki members that they should bring female surfers to Miraflores to create interest among the women of Peru.

The Honolulu Advertiser’s article on surfers set for Peru (1957). Image courtesy of Vicky Durand.

A Hawaiian surfing team was formed in March 1956 to compete in an international surf competition in Lima. The surfing team consisted of Betty, Ethel and Joe Kukea, Anne and George Lamont, Conrad Cunha, Rabbit Kekai, and Roy Ichinose. The surfing team stayed for a month as guests of Club Waikiki in Lima. They surfed the Miraflores break where the club was located and the Kon Tiki break at Punta Hermosa. The main event of the trip, the surfing contest, was held at Kon Tiki. After practising at Makaha, Betty surfed the bigger waves with the longer rides winning the women’s championship in Peru.  

The next year, in 1957, Betty and Vicky both entered the Makaha International Surfing Championships. Vicky won the women’s division beating her mother Betty and Ethel Kukea. Betty and Vicky were invited back to Peru as a mother-and-daughter surfing team to promote surfing among women. 

The sea set Betty free. After years of putting up with her husband’s infidelities, Betty and Ron got divorced in 1959. Betty moved to Makaha. Since there was nothing on the property, Betty rented her neighbours Quonset hut which was located next to their lot. She surfed every morning and started putting attention to the home she would build on the beach lot. Betty found a prefabricated model that suited her and started working alongside subcontractors and carpenters. She oversaw every stage of the construction. 

Ethel Kukea and Betty in front of Waikiki Surf Club. Image courtesy of Vicky Durand.

Betty loved building projects. She built a studio on the street side of her property where she could make jewellery and live there when she was renting the main house. After her studio was built, she convinced her neighbours to let her replace their Quonset hut with a pair of two-bedroom prefab houses. It was her natural way to improve the neighbourhood. 

Betty had a lively energy and wanted to do more creative work. At age sixty, she started her own dental laboratory to make custom porcelain bridges and dentures. As well as working as a part-time hygienist, Betty did custom porcelain work for several dentists in Honolulu. It was at this time when Betty met Charlie Winstedt, a builder and a fisherman.

Charlie was crafting a fifty-five-foot fishing boat, and Betty offered her help. She would meet him every day to sand, paint, or do whatever was needed to get the boat ready. Shortly after, they were dating. Charlie named his boat Kuu Huapala (My Sweetheart). Betty started joining Charlie on fishing trips to Molokai, Maui, Big Island and Kaua’i. She had slowly stopped surfing and was becoming a fisherwoman. Betty and Charlie married in 1968. They both soon retired, lived in Makaha, went fishing, travelling and worked together on creative projects. Charlie died in 1989. Betty called their time together, the best years of her life.

Malibu Shirts store grand opening (2007). From left to right: Rabbit Kekai, Clarence Maki, Betty, Vicky, Ricky Grigg and Peter Cole. Image courtesy of Vicky Durand.

In June 1990, Betty had been diagnosed with macular degeneration and became gradually blind. But she never let age or disabilities get on the way to live life to the fullest. In 1992, at eighty-six, she purchased a potter’s wheel and began sculpting bowls and cups. She made ocean-themed pottery and attended a local pottery group, where she improved her skills.

In 2001 she had open-heart surgery and as soon as she recovered she continued with pottery and writing haiku. She kept challenging herself with confidence and a positive attitude despite any difficulties. Betty was living what she called a happy and quiet life at Makaha Beach. In August 2011, at the age of ninety-eight, Betty contracted a blood pathogen and was hospitalized. After two weeks, she was released from the hospital, but she would need to continue the treatments daily as an outpatient. On the day she decided to go to Makaha and received her last treatment, she passed away. 

Betty was an unconventional woman who was not afraid to live the life she loved. It’s never too late to follow a dream. 

Betty swimming with dolphins at Pokai Bay (2008). Image courtesy of Vicky Durand.

“Wave Woman – The Life and Struggles of A Surfing Pioneer” written by Betty’s daughter, Vicky Durand will be launched in 2020.

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