Wading Into the Undertow
June 03, 2020
How women descending into some of the coldest, wildest water on the planet’s face are overcoming systemic sexism and racism
By Meghan O’Dea | @live.true.stories
“Those who brave all waters and weathers have a conviction and zeal most blank-eyed citizens of Leechfield lack.”
Mary Karr made that observation in her memoir Cherry, in which she describes an early 1970s adolescence spent huddled up on the Texas Gulf Coast near her hometown of Leechfield watching surfer boys hit the waves. Back then, it was standard for women to be observant beach bunnies keeping an eye on the archetypal surfer boy (always a boy) who “paddles out, digging hard before an oncoming swell because he has to match its speed to drop in—catch it, have it pick him up like a hitchhiker.”
But Karr’s credo applies just as well to the stormy atmosphere currently gripping professional surfing. Some of the toughest fights in the sport haven’t taken place between surfers and the pummeling waves they ride, or even the reefs they occasionally crash into. Instead, they’ve taken place behind the scenes as activists and athletes alike have pressed for women to have an equal opportunity to present their skill–and get paid fairly for it.
That ongoing battle has taken plenty of conviction and zeal, especially in the hyper-macho world of big wave competitions. While recreational surfing has never been more diverse, thanks to a population boom in Western coastal cities with proximity to curls, in the top echelons of professional surfing there’s plenty of the casual, even benevolent sexism that’s clung to the sport since Gidget was on the air.
That’s especially true at Big Wave events like the now-canceled Mavericks, once run by now-bankrupt Cartel Management. While these events have always had a fairly spotty presence on the calendar of the World Surf League—the international governing body that oversees much of professional surfing—the demise of Mavericks was as much a matter of politics as weather, finances, and logistical hurdles.
“It's really kind of sad that the men around here have essentially blocked the competition from happening,” said Sabrina Brennan from the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing (CEWS) of what happened to Mavericks. “If they feel like they're not in control over it, and it doesn't happen the way they want it to happen, then they're going to prevent anybody else from having a competition if they possibly can.”
That might be surprising, given the recent headlines celebrating the arrival of pay parity for professional surfers. In September of 2018, the World Surf League announced that male and female surf athletes would be awarded equal prize money at events under the WSL umbrella starting in 2019. The WSL described the move, which they may or may not have been planning for some time, as “simply the right thing to do.”
At first blush, the ensuing press gave everyone something to feel good about. Sophie Goldschmidt, who was about a year into her tenure as the first female CEO of the WSL, got to usher in a new, long-overdue era of equality in surfing. As a result, the WSL got a fresh girl-power boost ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, when surfing will debut at the Games for the first time. And many headlines pronounced a victory for women like Bianca Valenti and Keala Kennelly, surfers who had agitated for equal pay and equal opportunities to surf in big-wave competitions like Mavericks. The truth was, inevitably, more complicated.
Women have been riding the steep, multi-story break at Mavericks since 1999, the same year a contest called “Men Who Ride Mountains” put this beach at Half Moon Bay on the map. Sarah Gerhardt was the first person without a Y chromosome to take on the wave and was even included as an alternate a few years later on the exclusive, invite-only, single-sex line-up.
The gesture was more of a pat on the head than a professional opportunity though. Well over a decade after Gerhardt’s historic drop-in, women still weren’t being invited to compete at Mavericks, though women surfers were performing well at other events at Nelscott Reef, Ocean Beach, and Puerto Escondido. Big wave surfer Bianca Valenti attempted to approach the organizers of “Men Who Ride Mountains,” which had by then been renamed “Titans of Mavericks.” But Cartel Management made it clear that women titans need not apply.
Jeff Clark, the man who pioneered Mavericks long before it became the pinnacle of surfing it is today, played a big role in not only blocking Valenti’s requests to get a women’s heat at Mavericks but giving her the kind of cold shoulder even a Pacific-grade wetsuit can’t protect against.
Over the years, Clark has cited all sorts of reasons to keep women out of the Mavericks competition. Most of his arguments have been familiar to women at beaches all over the world since the 1950s–the claim that women can’t surf safely, that they lack the physical characteristics and judgment needed to assess waves and ride them to completion, that they’re a danger to male surfers and rescue teams, and that they’re simply not as good.
Women surfers and their allies pointed out that those claims were something of a self-fulfilling prophecy guaranteed by male organizers’ refusal to get out of the way. For years, men have typically been given first dibs on the best waves and prime conditions at surf competitions, while women’s heats have had to wait for the next best tides and times of the day. That creates circumstances that seem to prove women simply can’t perform as well on a board and the belief that women’s surfing isn’t as interesting to audiences tuning in from the shore, on TV, or checking out surf videos on YouTube.
Not only that, surfing has never been as profitable for competitors of either sex as for, say, pro football players or even pro tennis players. While purses for male surfers look gigantic next to the ones women were competing for up until a year ago, most athletes in the sport also rely on other revenue streams like sponsorships to make a living. But it’s harder for women to get sponsorships than their male counterparts—and when they do, there’s a much-discussed gap in how they’re portrayed.
Even today, male surfers are likely to be photographed in a way highlighting their athletic prowess and the extremities of the sport, while women surfers are reduced to rippling lines and angles around which swimsuits and rashguards are temptingly wrapped near the sand. Yet again, women’s athletic proficiencies are sidelined, not because of their lack of talent, but because it’s not part of a prescribed, deeply ingrained narrative. That lack of representation keeps more women from seeing themselves as potential surfers and potential pro athletes, even before they have to face the kind of obstacles Gerhardt and Valenti have just to make a living in the sport at which they excel.
But the state of California ultimately didn’t care whether men felt they should be first in the lineup for waves at Half Moon Bay. When the Mavericks organizers went to renew their permit for the competition with the California Coastal Commission in 2015, San Mateo County Harbor Commissioner Sabrina Brennan noted that if an athletic competition was going to take place on state lands, that competition needed to treat male and female competitors equally. In 2016, Brennan teamed up with several female surfers who had bonded at an Oregon Big Wave event to form the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing to tackle issues like inclusion in Mavericks.
That kicked off a multi-year battle that culminated in bill AB 467, more pithily known as “Equal Pay for Equal Play.” That fight involved not just Cartel Management, CEWS, and the Coastal Commission, but ultimately also the California State Lands Commission. After all, CEWS’ concerns about how Mavericks was excluding female surfers while using California state beaches for its contest had implications for other pro sports on state lands, like skiing and cycling.
When AB 467 finally passed in September of 2019, it put pressure on the World Surf League, which included Mavericks in its broader Big Wave tour alongside the Jaws Championship Pe’ahi in Maui and the Nazaré Challenge in Portugal. The WSL had long insisted that it simply didn’t have the money to offer equal prizes in the women’s heats on its calendar. But in 2017, the WSL had paid handsomely to take over the permits for Mavericks from Cartel, which was by then in bankruptcy.
The California decision effectively forced the WSL’s hand if they were going to keep Mavericks on the Big Wave World Tour. Within weeks of AB 467’s passage, the WSL announced it would offer equal prizes for men and women. But there was a critical loophole left in both California’s legislation and the WSL’s new policy. Just because men and women now have to be paid equally, doesn’t mean that contests have to include women.
This year, for example, there are just two Big Wave contests for men on the 2020 docket–Jaws and Nazaré. Of those, only Jaws has a women’s heat. That limited offering can’t, however, be pinned on parity alone. Big Wave contests are inherently financially unstable; Cartel couldn’t sustain Mavericks even when it staunchly insisted on staying single-sex.
There are too many variables of hard-to-predict marine conditions, international logistics, and local politics to have made it as stable a proposition as other surfing formats. This year, for example, the Nelscott Reef Big Wave Classic website sadly announced that “Lincoln City officials have decided not to issue any permit for a big wave surfing event this season because of the ongoing violations of the other surfing event staged out of Canyon Park.”
Even in the best of times, the WSL only ever has a handful of Big Wave contests on the roster. That makes each one all the more crucial for athletes hoping to not only prove themselves but make a living. But male athletes are afraid that giving women a larger place—and larger prizes—in surfing will cut into their profits and prime waves times, rather than expanding the sport for everyone.
The result has been, unfortunately, that women are finding fewer inroads than ever. You can't get paid (equally or otherwise) for a job that you're not able to do. That loophole doesn’t only affect surfing, but other sports, too. Kathryn Bertine, a former professional cyclist who founded the Homestretch Foundation to help female athletes overcome the pay gap in sports, explained to Cycling News in 2019 the necessity for and problems with AB 467: "If a men’s event is seven days and a women’s is only three, then the women are not being paid equally because they are not allowed to work equally.”
That’s why Sabrina Brennan advocated for AB 467 to include a provision requiring athletic competitions on state lands to have divisions for both men and women, not just the portion about equal pay. “They didn't want the requirement for gender categories because they don't believe in it,” she said. “They fundamentally don't believe in it.”
Instead, many proponents of equal pay think that men and women should have separate competitions–like the divisions between men’s and women’s basketball—rather than gender-divided heats under one umbrella—like Wimbledon. But the gender divided approach creates divisions that hurt women surfers and don’t resolve the barriers they currently face.
As Brennan put it, “The few women-only competitions do not nearly make up for all the competitions that women are excluded from. We're still losing big time on the amount of opportunity for young people and athletes to get into surfing or any other sport, really, if you do it that way.”
Single-sex competitions don’t resolve, for example, the vast problem of geography that already presents a huge financial and logistical hurdle for surfers hoping to break into the professional echelons of the sport. If you’re a young surfing hopeful who lives, say, near Half Moon Bay and grew up tackling surf up and down the U.S. west coast, it might be logical to start entering contests near home. Unless, of course, you’re a woman and none of the contests in your area allow you to enter.
Many surfers, even top athletes like Valenti, have side gigs and day jobs at restaurants and surf shops, whatever it takes to pay the bills and leave time to practice. Young surfers still supported by their families face different financial constraints. If you grow up in California or Maui but have to fly to Australia just to find a women’s competition, it’s an enormous barrier that locks all but a privileged few out of the sport.
When competitions like Mavericks—already rare and which don’t take place every year—bar women from entering, it creates a barrier that is devastating for women trying to build their careers. That’s one of the paradoxes of the WSL’s pay parity decision, especially if it was motivated by the fine details aligning with the regulations of the upcoming 2020 summer Olympics in Tokyo. Just when the sport is about to be more visible and, theoretically, more aspirational than ever, women are struggling to not just get a foot in the door, but even find the entrance.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however. There are a few bright spots on the horizon that have women surfers and their supporters excited. Two women, Justine Dupont of France and Maya Gabeira of Brazil, recently tackled huge surf at this year’s Nazaré Tow Surfing Challenge in Portugal. The Jacks Surfboards Pro in Huntington Beach has, for the first time ever, made space for female competitors this March 26-29. As co-owner Jamal Abdelmuti put it, “The level of competition in women’s pro surfing is so high right now. To showcase that in our event and to provide women with the same opportunity to earn QS points [qualifying series scores that contribute to overall WSL rankings] was an easy decision.”
Meanwhile, girls are breaking into the sport even in communities where religious and cultural barriers, as well as systemic racism, have kept young people from trying to get up on waves. As Reuters reported in November of 2019, surfers like Kailani Johnson are making strides on the WSL Women’s Championship Tour even in deeply conservative countries where women historically haven’t even been able to get swimming lessons, like Indonesia. There, religious and cultural barriers discourage women from wearing form-fitting swimsuits, promote beauty standards like pale skin, and pressure women to prioritize housework over athletic pursuits like surfing.
In the United States, systematic racism has discouraged generations of Black Americans from learning to swim. But many Black communities are seeing a sea change as more people of color give surfing a try through organizations like Black Girls Surf and The Black Surfers Collective in Los Angeles. Not only will 2020 be the first time surfing debuts at the Olympic games, but it will also be one of the first occasions when surfers like Khadjou Sambe of Senegal can really show the wider world of sport just what Brown women can do on the waves.
Indeed, it was in October of 2019 that Brown Girls Surf announced that its Sister Summer Camp for young girls of color was a big success on no other beach than Half Moon Bay. While Mavericks was for decades synonymous with men riding mountains, these days the same beach (if not the same break) is where a new generation of young women are honing their skills, even going so far as to carpool up from Oakland.
It may take conviction and zeal to brave all waters and weather at surf breaks around the world, but it takes a whole other kind of guts to wade into the strong undertow of gender expectations, systemic sexism and racism, and assumptions about women’s athleticism, bodies, and professional merit, all while trying to climb on top of a surfboard to descend into some of the coldest, wildest water on the planet. For women who feel the call of the waves as both a challenge and an answer, there’s little alternative. It’s all for the love of the sport.