Big-wave surfing is a dangerous sport that only a few surfers practice, and even a smaller, bolder few try to turn into a career.
The waves are at least 15-20 feet high and can climb upward of 60 feet, carrying tremendous forces behind them. One of the most famous big waves in the world is Mavericks, often called the “Mount Everest of Big Waves.” The powerful swell is generated in the Pacific Northwest and travels thousands of miles until it arrives just south of San Francisco, crescendoing into a giant wave, shaped by oceanic storms and high-pressure winds.
There is tremendous risk in facing these huge ocean walls, but today, more people are surfing big waves than ever before. A growing number of those big-wave surfers are women, who have been fighting a professional surfing industry that has long refused to support them.
A Male-Dominated Industry
Like surfing in general, the big waves have long been overwhelmingly male-dominated.
For pro surfer Bianca Valenti, she didn’t even see big waves as an option for her when she was growing up. Valenti started surfing at 7 years old and saw no female role models at that time. Her bedroom wall had a poster of Kelly Slater, “the greatest surfer in the world,” she said.
Other than a female instructor at a surf camp, she was surrounded by boys out in the water. Valenti said, “As a kid, it didn’t matter to me that the other surfers my age were boys. I would make friends with those kids and we’d go surfing and it wasn’t a big deal. You didn’t realize that things were unequal because of your sex.”
When she was 13, she was one of only two girls to travel with the U.S. Junior Surf Team to Bali and compete with the Indonesian Junior Surf Team. She had, at this point, gotten some sponsorships and was taking the first steps of her nascent pro surf dreams. But during these early competitions, though she would be at the top of the podium, she wouldn’t get the same sponsorship packages as a boy on the same team as her. Women’s divisions would often be treated as second class, being slated for the worse weather conditions of the day and granted substantially lower prize money. All of these facets led Valenti to give up on her childhood dream of becoming a pro surfer in her late teens.
“It was heartbreaking because I kind of was realizing that, hey, you’re not going to be Kelly Slater, that poster on the wall. I couldn’t be that person no matter, pretty much no matter how good I am because of all the inequality.”
Making A Change
At the same time she turned away from professional surfing, Valenti also began surfing big waves. Originally, it was a way to channel her anger at the state of pro surfing and to also rediscover surfing for fun. In 2014, a friend reached out to her about a big-wave contest in Nelscott Reef, Oregon. At this point, Valenti had put the competitive scene firmly out of her mind but was intrigued by the chance to participate in a contest that had only allowed women to participate four years prior.
Valenti was one of eight women surfers to surf at Nelscott Reef. Here, the inequity was made apparent once again, just as it was in her adolescent career. Although the men’s division at the 2014 Nelscott Reef event had a prize purse of $50,000, the women were offered nothing. Later, the organizer was able to arrange $5,000 to be split up between all of the women.
In 2016, Valenti teamed up with other female surfers from the event including Andrea Moller, Keala Kennelly and Paige Alms to form the Committee for Equity In Women’s Surfing. Attorney Karen Tynan and Sabrina Brennan, the president of the San Mateo County Harbor Commission, also came on board as co-founders. Their first step was to find another contest to compete in — and the natural choice was Mavericks. The organizers came back with a list of objections. Valenti and her group were prepared to fight back.
“If someone tells me, ‘You can’t compete ‘cause it’s too dangerous,’ and if they said, ’The skill level wasn’t there,’” then we would say, “Well, check out these videos and these pictures of us catching these huge waves.” They would say, ‘We don’t have the time in the day.’ And we would say, ‘Well, you know if you have women in the event, you’re gonna have a larger demographic, a bigger viewing audience, which is what these surf events are looking for.’”
Valenti has a clear explanation of why pay equity is important and it comes down to one main point — resources necessary for female surfers to progress in their sport. For example, in June 2018, Valenti made history as the first Women’s Big Wave Champion in Latin America at the Puerto Escondido Cup. The men’s division champion, Lucas Chumbo, took home $7,000, while Valenti’s winnings were $1,750.
She explains, “the amount of money I just won is gonna pretty much cover the cost of my trip, but Lucas is going to get to go on a handful of other trips and surf big waves and so therefore he’s gonna get the opportunity to practice more, to get more footage, to further his career and so that’s when it starts to feel stifling.”
California has a Public Trust Doctrine in order to promote common use of the shoreline. Valenti and her co-founders were able to successfully lobby the California Coastal Commission to support the addition of a women’s heat to Mavericks as well as guaranteeing equal pay. Bianca argues that it’s a basic equal rights issue. “If you’re shutting down the coast and you have an all men’s event, you are effectively excluding women.”
Once the California State Lands Commission was on board, the Committee had a strong ally to push back against the World Surf League, the international organizing body for professional surfing. On Sept. 5, 2018, the WSL announced that they would guarantee women’s heats and equal prize money not only at Mavericks but every WSL event moving forward.
Valenti is incredibly proud of the work she and her fellow co-founders at CEWS have done. “I have made all of my dreams possible through supporting myself rather than getting the support from the industry that I desired,” she said. “So I’m really looking forward to the young girls getting the support from the industry because it’s just what’s right.”
For Valenti, surfing is everything — her livelihood, her therapy, her religion. Hearing her describe the experience of swimming out and riding the giant waves at Mavericks, you would think you were listening to someone describing a Zen meditation. It is a transcendent experience for her, and has been since she was 7 years old riding boogie boards. Now, she’s been able to make her dream job more accessible and equitable for everyone.