Big Wave Women

There are going to be questions about why women should or shouldn’t have their own division in the Titans of Mavericks big wave contest. Since my latest column in the Santa Cruz Sentinel newspaper posted, a friend of mine served up some worthy questions such as: What about other contests? Why not a female rescue team? Why not the Jaw’s contest? I have also heard other grumbles about a public agency meddling in a private event, why women should be paid the same when there are fewer of them vying for a competitive spot, and why does  it matter?  (This will make more sense if you read that article first.)

Each of these topics really deserves its own conversation, but I wanted to at least address a few of these to get started. My hope is that people keep talking  enough to realize that status quo for a lot of these issues is completely antiquated and misogynistic. If more people ask questions then maybe more women will stand up for equal opportunity. And that is exactly what needs to happen for change to occur. Sitting in silence will get you nowhere. As Ed Abbey perfectly phrased;


“Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.”

The subject of equality in sports between men and women is an ongoing issue and was inadvertently addressed with Title IX in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It states (in part) that:

No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.

Title IX is great if you’re talking about the high school soccer team; however, when it comes to a private company holding a privately funded event, they can do whatever they want, except, that is, when they are seeking a permit to close public access to coastal public property in California as is Cartel Management with the Titans of Mavericks contest.

This is exactly why Titans of Mavericks contest is the only big wave contest that needs to apply for a Coastal Development Permit through the California Coastal Commission (CCC). The impact of one of the world’s most famous big wave contests on the little town of Half Moon Bay is gargantuan and prompted the CCC to require a permit for Cartel to commandeer part of the public coastal access.

While Cartel complains that nobody can tell them how to run the event, they are partly right and partly wrong. The CCC can’t tell them exactly how to run the event, but they can deny a permit application for the event if Cartel can’t prove that they’ve enacted a plan that is equal opportunity and not gender bias. The CCC is not acting off the hip; a case like this already happened 30 years ago.

In 1985, the CCC faced a similar case in Santa Monica when the Jonathan Club wanted to expand part of its club onto the public sandy beach of Santa Monica. The CCC refused to issue the permit until the club publicly denounced discrimination of women  and minorities. The club was known for its gender segregation (women entered through a separate door near the kitchen and weren’t allowed in the main dining room) and refusal to admit Jews and other minority groups. Jonathan Club took the CCC to court where the California Court of Appeals upheld CCC’s decision to withhold the permit on the grounds of equal protection based on the constitution. The ruling stood when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case in 1988, essentially siding with CCC’s decision and leaving the Court of Appeals decision in place. Eventually the Jonathan Club rewrote its membership policy and explicitly opened its doors to women and minorities. Then the permit was issued.

As for other surf contests, yes, there is talk of equality. When the Association of Surfing Professionals sold to ZoSea Media last year, it was revamped into the World Surf League and new rules came into play. ZoSea is owned by Dirk Ziff and his wife, Natasha Ziff, who had a transformative experience with surfing. Between Natasha and the new deputy commissioner of the WSL, Jessi Miley-Dyer, the push was made for equality in the women’s world tour. They added women’s events in Fiji, Honolua, Trestles, and Margaret River. While the men’s prize purse was raised to $500,000, the women’s was said to be raised to $250,000. That’s not equal by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s apparently an increase by nearly double for the women. I say apparently, because I haven’t researched hard facts on the issue yet and there are conflicting reports online about whether the women’s prize was equal to men’s or just double what it used to be. Overall I give the move a ‘B’ grade. It’s an improvement that deserves congratulations, but is not worthy of stamping out a template.

As far as individual contests go, such as the Cold Water Classic in Santa Cruz, some are all men’s events and in this case, the Cold Water is a stop on the men’s WSL qualification tour. Why is there not a women’s category in these? Probably because women haven’t pushed hard enough to make it happen. But at least these contests aren’t pretending to include women by making them compete head to head with men and then just saying women aren’t up to par.

Women are out there in the rescue scene. Shawn Alladio is world renowned for her rescue training company, K38, and for being one of the first and best personal watercraft rescuers in the world. In my sixth year as an ocean lifeguard in Santa Cruz County I was in a class alongside Peter Mel and other big wave surfers training to operate PWCs in the heavy Mavericks surf under Shawn’s stern instruction. A handful of women trained with me and more came after me to operate PWCs in the trashiest giant surf I’ve ever seen.

After eight years of beach lifeguarding with CA State Parks I continued to work on a marine search and rescue team for ten years and I was never the lone women. My answer to ‘why not a women’s rescue team’ is; look closer, there are women out there. You may not recognize us because just like men, we are in wetsuits, helmets and paddling just as fast. Not all of us have pig tails poking out from our helmets, so please don’t assume you know who you’re looking at. We don’t need our own team for this. It’s not a competition, it’s a job, and women can do this job just as well as men.

I have two words for a women’s contest at Jaws: Paige Alms. She’s the first woman to get barreled at Jaws (last January) and she says there is no reason that Jaws couldn’t have a women’s division. As I said in my article, it’s a matter of speaking up and being heard. If women want to compete at Jaws, maybe they should collectively write letters and contact the organizers. They could offer up ideas of what would work best for them. The organizers have to be receptive, but it will take a push. Equality does not come easy.

And yes, it all matters. It matters that Sarah Gerhardt’s two kids think it’s a normal thing for her to go surf giant waves. It matters that former Santa Cruz lifeguard Dara Herrick’s kids think that their mom has a normal job because she’s a firefighter. It matters that when Savannah Shaughnessy was a kid and saw a big wave surfing video nobody told her, “girls don’t surf those waves.” Perceptions matter, role models matter. I never questioned whether or not I could join a swim team in high school, but it wasn’t an option for my mom. Women fought incessantly to allow me to think nothing of heading to the pool after school for swim practice. What seems the norm today has not always been so. The norm of tomorrow is something we have to work diligently towards to make it so.

This is the first post I’ve written that has no accompanying photographs. I’ll leave it to the pros and suggest you visit the pages of Sachi Cunningham (@seasachi instagram) and Nikki Brooks (@nikkitola instagram) to see amazing photos of women surfing fantastically huge waves.

Listen to this KQED interview with big wave woman Bianca Valenti to get inside the head of the local San Francisco surfer who is a regular at Mavericks and is ready to see change in the way the Mavericks contest is run.

Mavericks Faces Pressure for Women to Surf Big-Wave Contest

Comments are welcome. That’s what this is about – having a conversation.

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