It was a beautiful sight — a circle of the most daring surfers in the world, sitting on their boards in the calm shallows just inside the reef at Pillar Point near Half Moon Bay. Holding hands and bouquets, they gathered for the start of the Mavericks big wave surf competition season; the event happens in late winter–early spring, but only if the swell arrives. This past October’s “paddle out,” a traditional part of the annual Mavericks opening ceremony, was all the more powerful with the presence of seven of the world’s top female athletes, a select few women who are strong enough, talented enough and brave enough to surf this mind-bogglingly forceful and dangerous swell. For the first time in its 20-year history, female big wave surfers, including local surfing superstar and gender equity activist Bianca Valenti, were invited to compete in the contest.
It might not have happened if not for a very determined mother. Flash back 25 years to when Valenti was 8, and her mother, Shane, regularly woke her up in the dark hours of the morning. Valenti’s parents were divorced; her father lived in the Bay Area (where Valenti would move after college) and she lived primarily with her mother in Orange County’s Dana Point. “My mother would wake me up at 5 a.m. and say, ‘Hey, if you want to surf before school, you’ve got to get up now!’ Then she would take me to the beach and walk the dog while I surfed,” Valenti recalls. At a time when few girls were competing, Valenti’s mother would also get her to contests every weekend. “All the credit to my mom for being so super awesome and supportive, seeing my passion and love.”
Women supporting women is a tidal force in the monumentally shifting world of female surfing. In 2016, frustrated by meager prizes and lack of opportunity to compete, Valenti and fellow big wave surfers Paige Alms, Keala Kennelly and Andrea Moller, along with San Mateo County Harbor Commissioner Sabrina Brennan and North Bay lawyer Karen Tynan, formed the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing (CEWS). Over the past three years, as the four female athletes rode some of the biggest waves women have ever surfed, they simultaneously pounded away nonstop to gain access to competition and reshape the policies of their sport’s league.
Courage is key for a big wave surfer because while you may stay on your board, more likely you will drop in on a building-size wave and find yourself cartwheeling out of control, brutally pummeled and held under by the mass of water until you are on the edge of consciousness. Then you regroup and head back out. According to everyone who knows the CEWS surfers, what makes them warriors in the waves is exactly what makes them unstoppable in meeting rooms. “With Bianca, what I’ve seen is that if she puts her mind to it she’s going to do it,” says Sachi Cunningham, a surf photographer and filmmaker who has followed the CEWS team from the start and is in production on a documentary, SheChange, about their story. “Bianca’s a fireball, and she is unwavering. She is also very smart, so she understands how systems work.”
“Yes, these women are unique,” agrees Tynan, the Healdsburg-based pro bono legal counsel for CEWS who happens to also be a former Merchant Marine chief officer with her own reputation for tenacity. “They work in a challenging environment every day, so they manage fear. They know risk and how to manage risk, so they are sophisticated about negotiation and strategies.”
Buoyed by the the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, Valenti and her CEWS-mates gradually gained momentum as they applied steady pressure, first on Cartel Management, the previous owners of the Mavericks competition, then on the World Surf League. Harbor Commissioner Sabrina Brennan, who is married to a surfer and has in-depth knowledge of California’s coastal policies, devised a strategy for CEWS members as they fought gritty battle after gritty battle to secure equal access for women at Mavericks, one of just three major big wave competitions worldwide (the others are Jaws in Maui and Nazare in Portugal). Brennan and attorney Tynan designed and oversaw a strategy built around California’s equal opportunity laws. CEWS appealed to the California Coastal Commission, the governing body that issues the permit for the Mavericks event, pointing out that equal access to the coast, a public resource, and equal pay are mandatory under California law. “We powwowed and decided we were going to push hard for equal pay,” says Valenti, who spoke repeatedly before the coastal commission and WSL executives. “One thing I’ve learned from this process is that we are all part of the community, and the coast is our resource, so we all have a right to present our opinion.”
In early September 2018, after all the public testimonies, open- and closed-door meetings and heated negotiations, the CEWS team saw their advocacy pay off: the World Surf League made surfing history, and women’s sports history, with new inclusion and equity policies. Not only are women now invited to the Mavericks Challenge, but the league will pay equal prize money to female surfers at Mavericks and in all WSL-sponsored competitions. While surfing has lagged behind other sports in integration and compensation of women, this new policy means the World Surf League has leapfrogged over other major athletic groups, becoming the first U.S.-based global sports league to offer genders equal pay.
Bianca Valenti’s prominence in her field means she could easily be mentioned in the same sentence as hometown heroes Jonny Moseley or Jared Goff, although in Marin she’s still not a household name. Last fall she caught a barrel wave in Puerto Escondido, Mexico, touted on viral social media as “the biggest wave ever paddled into by a woman.” And last year Outside Magazine named her one of the top accomplished athletes among the likes of free climber Alex Honnold and international tennis phenom Naomi Osaka.
Valenti’s father is chef Duilio Valenti of Valenti and Co. Italian restaurant in San Anselmo, where Bianca can often be found either waiting tables or eating what she calls the “best and healthiest performance food ever,” specially made by her dad. She now considers Northern California home and an ideal training ground for her big wave career, but she spent most of her youth surfing the Southern California coast. Contests had no girls’ divisions at first, so she surfed shortboard competitions against boys. Then, when she was around 11, she joined a local Women’s Open Longboard division, which helped extend and hone her skills.
But even as a teenager she felt the current working against her. Prize money for girls and women was pennies compared to what boys and men were getting, and the only female surfers profiting through sponsorship were the ones who looked like bikini models. Discouraged, she soured on the competition circuit until UC Santa Barbara, where she joined the surf club. It was then she heard about great Northern California breaks. “I had spent a lot of time in Marin, but I actually didn’t realize there was such good surfing until friends on the surf team from Marin said, ‘Next time you come up, bring your wetsuit and we’ll surf.’ So that’s when I started to get into big wave surfing.”
Today, San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, with its notoriously arduous break, is her regular stomping ground, and she surfs Mavericks whenever possible. Mill Valley’s Proof Lab co-founder Nate McCarthy has been a huge supporter, surfing with Valenti and helping her get the right board for big waves. He sent her to a board shaper in Pacifica known for making Mavericks “guns” (long, thick boards designed for big waves), but Valenti had to convince the shaper to make her a board. “The guy was really hesitant. He didn’t feel comfortable making a female a board. I told him, ‘I got this, don’t worry about it.’ I just didn’t let it get to me.” As the rare female in big waves, Valenti has made it a habit to focus on encouragement from men like McCarthy. Additional supportive ranks include surf legends like Ryan Seelbach, Kelly Slater and Kai Lenny, who have likewise championed her CEWS peers.
The long-standing pay disparity for male and female surfers has been not only dispiriting but prohibitive for women who want to surf for a living. Professional big wave surfers must train and condition daily, in the water and on land, including breath and survival training. It is full-time work, yet the meager prize winnings have barely paid women enough for airfare to get to the waves.
“My friend Paige Alms, a top female big wave surfer, lives near two male surfers in Hawaii who are making a bunch of money, buying huge houses,” says Valenti. “And Paige, who has won the past few years, who is literally training with these same guys, has just been hitting her head on that glass ceiling.” Media coverage and commercial opportunities are a significant part of the professional surfing equation, so access to high-profile events like the contest at Mavericks, one of the most infamous sets of waves on the planet, means not only the opportunity to compete and win, but more visibility and sponsorship.
“There is a nuance to this story. It’s not about bikinis; it’s about real athleticism,” says Tynan, who believes the location of the CEWS battle in California is relevant. “This state, with our very strong laws and protections, is really the prime forum to make sure there is equality in sports for women and girls. People are already talking to us about legislation and codifying this kind of requirement for no discrimination in sporting events.” Indeed, on February 11 of this year, California Assemblymember Tasha Boerner Horvath introduced Assembly Bill 467, the “Equal Pay for Equal Play” measure, requiring sports prize equity for both male and female participants in all competitions held on public lands, which CEWS supports if amended to require that permits and leases include female categories, male categories and open/nonbinary categories in athletic competitions held on California state lands.
So how, after all this struggle, is Valenti feeling about the sea change? “It’s a huge relief,” she says, shaking her head. After years of confronting everything from eye-rolling pushback to aggressive personal abuse in her campaign, it’s a relief to be able to do what she already knows she can do: surf Mavericks — which she’s been surfing since 2012 — in competition.
“You have these goals and you get bullied and it distracts you,” she says. “The last thing you want is to feel distracted when you are doing something so challenging and dangerous. Now we are past that and it feels like anything is possible.”
This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition with the headline: “Dropping In”.
Kirsten Jones Neff is a journalist who writes about all things North Bay, with special attention to the environment and the region’s farmers, winemakers and food artisans. She also works and teaches in school gardens. Kirsten’s poetry collection, When The House Is Quiet, was nominated for the Northern California Book Award, and three of her poems received a Pushcart nomination. She lives in Novato with her husband and three children and tries to spend as much time as possible on our local mountains, beaches and waterways. For more on her work visit KirstenJonesNeff.Com.