A still image of an upcoming documentary titled 'It Ain't Pretty,' about female surfers. (Courtesy of IAP Films)
n Friday, the infamous Mavericks surfing competition will be held off the shore of Pillar Point, just north of Half Moon Bay. Twenty-four of the best big wave surfers in the world are flying in right now, with just three days notice, to tackle the massive, powerful waves. Not one of those surfers is a woman.
In the 15-year history of the event, there has never been a female competitor.
But a handful of women do surf regularly and successfully at the famed spot. In 1999, Sarah Gerhardt was the first -- as far as anyone knows.
“I showed up and they said, ‘You’re the first woman!’ ” said Gerhardt.
Since then, women have paddled out more frequently. If you could tell them apart from the men, all in their full-length black wetsuits, you might have been able to spot Bianca Valenti or Savannah Shaughnessy during a swell in early December.
But no woman has ever been considered good enough to make the final list of 24 surfers invited to compete at Mavericks in the unique annual event.
Shaughnessy did make it through the second round of the most recent selection process and Gerhardt was an alternate in the 2000 competition -- back when what is now called “Titans of Mavericks” was known as “Men Who Ride Mountains.”
“If a woman is hitting the criteria, then they’re going to surf their way into the contest,” said Darryl “Flea” Virostko, who won the contest three times and now serves on Committee 5, the group that selects the surfers invited.
“So far, a woman hasn’t come to the table doing the stuff that men who aren’t even getting invited are doing,” said Shawn Rhodes, another Committee 5 member.
That could change next year. In November, the Coastal Commission voted 7-4 to require contest organizers to create a plan to include women in future events. In much the same way that the commission can add conditions to its approval of any permit, Commissioner Mark Vargas put forward a motion making inclusion of female surfers a condition of future permits.
“I didn’t walk into the meeting thinking I was going to be some kind of feminist champion,” said Vargas, the commissioner for Los Angeles. “I just wanted to follow up and find out if there is a plan. The answers I got from them didn’t inspire confidence.”
Those answers, he felt, lacked details about how surfers are selected in what is a somewhat subjective process, despite a listing of criteria on the event’s website. He said he also felt there was an attitude that seemed to suggest he shouldn’t be asking any questions in the first place.
There were comments made at that meeting, and comments have been made in the past, about how women aren’t strong enough, aren’t ready for the biggest waves or that they could die out there.
Two male surfers have died at Mavericks and a woman's attempt to ride the biggest wave ever for a female surfer last year, off the coast of Portugal, resulted in a horrific crash that prompted huge debates within the sport over just how ready women are.
“I think that’s total b.s.,” said Paige Alms, a big-wave surfer in Maui, who became the first woman to get barreled at Jaws -- meaning she rode through the barrel of the massive famous Hawaiian wave. She thinks there are already women good enough to be competing at Mavericks, and that if they were really being considered then they'd be included.
“Give us a heat and let us show you," she said.
But what an inclusion plan will ultimately look like is still very much up for discussion. Event organizers argue that they already include women in their consideration of who should be invited.
“We have never uninvited women,” said Rhodes. However, some of the female surfers, like Alms, would like to see a separate women’s heat, where they aren’t competing directly against men. Coastal Commission staff have said they’ll be reviewing the issue and meeting with stakeholders before next year’s permit application extension.
The commission decided this year to bring the Mavericks contest under its purview. The event previously was permitted only by a number of smaller coastal and harbor agencies, but it has grown over its 15 years.
“Mavericks got to the point where they were on the radar,” said Vargas, so the commission opted to require an application this year and to review the event’s impacts on the surrounding coastal community.
November’s commission meeting was held near Pillar Point. Sabrina Brennan, who serves on the San Mateo Harbor Commission, which also permits the event, decided the night before the meeting to make a short presentation about female big-wave surfers to the commission during the public comment period.
She put together just five PowerPoint slides, and drove the 10 minutes from her house to the meeting.
“If the meeting had been in Southern California, then I wouldn’t have been able to afford it,” she said.
Though not a surfer herself, Brennan said that she was motivated by her experiences being one of the few women at snowboarding races in her 20s. Plus, her wife surfs and they live on the bluff above the beach where the event is headquartered.
When they moved there, and the event was still called “Men Who Ride Mountains,” she said, “I thought, 'Wow, I wonder if there are any women who want to ride mountains, too.’ ”
As a harbor commissioner, she abstained from voting on the event’s permit this year, as there is a long and messy history between her and the event organizers. There are some who feel that her bringing this issue to the Coastal Commission’s attention was just part of that he-said/she-said mess.
Once the issue was raised, though, it couldn’t be taken back. Vargas started asking questions of Cartel Management, which took over the Mavericks competition in mid-2014 and renamed it Titans of Mavericks.
The event is held annually in a window between Nov. 1 and March 31, but it isn’t scheduled until a few days beforehand in order to take advantage of the weather and big waves. At that point, all 24 surfers are called and have to fly in, media are notified and the logistics crew goes into overdrive.
Because of the dry weather last year, there was no competition. This year will be the first held under L.A.-based Cartel’s new management -- which says it’s trying to grow the event and do more to support the surfing community, like establish a fallen surfers fund for the families of injured or killed competitors. All these other questions, they say, are just getting in the way of putting on a good event.
“We need to just get this off the ground,” said Virostko. “The Coastal Commission has no right to tell us what we should do with our contest. It’s totally wrong.”
There is precedent for the Coastal Commission making these kinds of decisions. In 1985, the commission required that the exclusive beachfront Jonathan Club in Santa Monica stop discriminating in its membership policies as a condition of its expansion permit on public lands.
But the commission was split this time over whether it had the authority to get involved in the selection process for a sporting event, with one commissioner saying it’d be like requiring certain teams to make the World Series finals.
The process for making that final list of selected surfers is both relatively simple and a bit secretive. After it took over the event, Cartel Management appointed five well-known local surfers, Committee 5, to put together a list of possible big-wave surfers to be considered and then narrow it down to 24.
“There’s a lot of different things besides being a good surfer,” said Rhodes, like dedication to tackling Mavericks year-round. There is also an unwritten rule about not criticizing the event organizers for their handling of situations that have sparked public debate, like media access or the negotiating of existing contracts or the inclusion of a women's heat.
Rhodes calls it “drawing a line in the sand” to stop people from undercutting the event. Former winner Peter Mel found himself banned for exactly those reasons.
If every surfer is held to the same standard, then it is probably accurate to say that there are not many women surfing at the very same level as the top men. “They’d be the first to admit that,” said Rhodes.
“I think that women do get an equal shot at making it to the 24,” said Shaughnessy, a Santa Cruz surfer who has loved the event since she was 13 years old and who has been surfing there for the last six years. “None of the women surf at the same level as the top men. However, we progress every year. There was a huge change in women's paddle-in surfing starting in 2010, and the progression has been gaining momentum.”
Shaughnessy made the Committee 5’s short list, and was invited to judge the event the last time it was held. Gerhardt, also a local, was invited to serve on the committee, but had to decline because of other commitments. The organizers point to these as examples that they’re open to including women. They just want the women to get better before they're added to the contest lineup.
“We don’t want to open a door where all of a sudden we’re the fire department and we’re lowering the standards for women,” said Rhodes.
The question of why women may not be good enough yet, though, does not have a simple answer.
While surfing has historically been a bit of a boys club, in recent years female surfers on the world tour have become popular in their own right. The World Surf League, formerly the Association of Surfing Professionals, has made equality in pay and event access a priority, said WSL vice president Dave Prodan.
But big-wave surfing -- the kind of surfing seen on massive, death-defying waves like at Mavericks -- is still predominantly the domain of men. It's an issue that's been discussed at length within the sport, like in an article in Surfer Magazine called "Boys' Club."
In part, it may be a chicken-egg problem. Are there so few female big-wave surfers because there’s so little opportunity for them or is there so little opportunity because there’s no one to take advantage of it?
While there is a WSL Big Wave Tour for male surfers, there is no tour for women. A big-wave event at Nelscott Reef in Oregon attracted just three female surfers in 2010, which discouraged the organizers from continuing the event.
Gerhardt said that the problem was that the location was so remote and there was so little prize money it would have cost the women more than they could have gained by competing and winning.
None of the top female big-wave surfers are able to make a living at surfing. All have other jobs.
In 2014, eight women showed up at the next event held at Nelscott Reef, just to make a point and to support the women’s side of sport, said Alms.
San Franciscan Bianca Valenti won.
Valenti doesn’t make a living surfing. She partially owns a restaurant in San Anselmo with her dad, where she serves as the soigneur and runs the bar. In the mornings, she heads to Ocean Beach to get in as many hours of surfing and training as she can. That’s typical of the life of most female big-wave surfers.
Big-wave surfing, even more than regular surfing, struggles to attract sponsors. Events, far from the coast and difficult to follow, don’t have as much media attention or as many fans. Trying to extend that small amount of money and time to women spreads it even thinner.
And, as Alms and Valenti are quick to point out, it’s men who are in charge of the events, the organizations and the surf companies. So it's men who get to decide where that attention and those dollars go. It doesn't help that when female surfers are featured in photos or ads, there tends to be a focus on bikinis and butt shots.
“The ones who make the most money are basically models for these companies,” said Alms. Big-wave surfers, conversely, tend to be dressed in full wetsuits. They get bloody and beaten up, when they’re not freezing. Basically, there’s a reason Dayla Soul named her documentary about female big-wave surfers "It Ain’t Pretty" -- because it really isn't.
The women, though, believe that if they just had a platform, then they could win people over with their surfing. That’s why last year a group of them -- Alms, Valenti, Shaughnessy, Gerhardt and another four surfers -- participated in a multimedia project called Super Sessions.
They filmed their own surf sessions over a series of months at different famous surf spots, submitted videos online for viewers to vote on, and even met together at Mavericks to surf it in a sort of informal festival. It’s not an official competition yet, but it’s what they’ve got for now.
“If we want something to happen, we have to do it on our own,” said Valenti. However, they fell short of their Kickstarter goal to fund a second year of Super Sessions.
It's just not that easy to build up the entire future of a sport. The logistics of getting the Mavericks event off the ground each year are also fairly challenging, given the location and small time window. Along with the weather, organizers have to contend with a number of blackout dates from the permitting agencies.
On the selected day, there’s a limited amount of time to have all the men surf. Getting a heat of women in as well would be difficult, said Rhodes and Virostko -- but they hope they might be able to fit it in at some point in the future.
“Eventually, maybe we could figure something out to have a heat in between the semis and the finals,” said Virostko.