Since the late 1990s, the famous big-wave contest at Mavericks near Half Moon Bay invited only men to compete in the treacherous surf off rugged Pillar Point.
This week, however, the California Coastal Commission shattered the glass ceiling in that part of the surfing world when it required the Titans of Mavericks to have a heat for women if it wanted a permit for its 2016-17 contest.
The unanimous decision advanced the inroads women are starting to make in professional big wave surfing, which now includes national and international events organized by the World Surf League.
“This is a great step forward for our sport, women’s athletics and women. You know, it’s about human rights,” said Bianca Valenti, a top female big-wave rider and co-founder of the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing.
The contest, which has been held nine times since 1998, is invitation only and usually features 24 top male surfers from around the world. When huge waves arrive during the fall and winter, competitors get 48 hours’ notice to report for the one-day event.
Mavericks is a premier big-wave venue. Conditions are perfect when groundswells cross a crescent-shaped reef and morph into well-formed waves three to four stories high — large enough to swallow small office buildings and so thunderous they can register on seismic instruments at UC Berkeley 30 miles away.
Sarah Lucas, a body boarder, broke the gender barrier in 1994. Five years later, Sarah Gerhardt became the first woman to ride Mavericks on a surfboard. Since then, female surfers have been joining the ranks of big-wave hunters interested in the break. Though two or three have been selected as contest alternates over the years, none has competed in the event.
For this year’s contest, the Coastal Commission granted a one-year permit to Titans of Mavericks on the condition that a one-hour heat for six women be created and that work continue on a comprehensive plan for the further inclusion of female surfers.
Under state law, the commission has a mandate to maximize public access to the shoreline and the power to approve events that involve coastal resources. The panel considered the Mavericks permit Wednesday night during its regular meeting in Half Moon Bay.
In its decision, the commission approved a one-year permit and rejected its staff’s recommendation of four years as sought by the organizer, Cartel Management Inc. They sharply criticized the event for failing to prepare a detailed plan to include women as requested by the commission in the permit issued for last year’s contest.
“We have reached a historic milestone in that a women’s heat is being added at the Titans of Mavericks,” said Commissioner Mark Vargas, who has pushed for more female surfers at the event. “While it’s great that we have a heat, that’s not a plan.”
In October, Cartel applied for a four-year permit, and proposed an outreach program for women, commission officials said. The suggestion was eventually expanded to include a women’s heat for the 2017-18 contest.
Commission staff, however, noted that this did not comply with the earlier directions from commissioners who were concerned that approving a contest without a women’s heat could be considered a denial of equal access.
Organizers eventually committed to a one-hour women’s heat for six competitors and two alternates, with $30,000 in prize money. They also proposed including women on the contest’s seven-member selection committee.
Commissioner Martha McClure said she found it “disheartening in the soul of my being” that organizers seemed to add a women’s heat only when it appeared they might not get their permit.
“There was a time climbing up Mount Everest was listed as only a man’s sport because women were not capable, women were not strong enough, women were not smart enough,” McClure said.
Commissioners said that if the organizers came back with a comprehensive plan for women within the next year they might consider a multiyear permit.
Supporters who lobbied the commission to add women included representatives from the Surfrider Foundation, the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing, the Coastal Protection Network, the Brown Girl Surf organization and San Mateo County Harbor Commissioner Sabrina Brennan.
Many called the addition of a woman’s heat a step in the right direction but wanted to see a traditional contest format with more heats, prize money equal to what male competitors get and representatives on the selection committee picked by female big-wave surfers.
Maverick’s representatives said they supported including more women but remained concerned about pushing the limits of safety, saying these waves were bigger, colder and deadlier than at other surfing locations.
They estimated there are fewer than 10 professional female surfers currently able to compete at this level and said the tight contest schedule makes it difficult to add heats.
“Since the beginning of the event, women have never been excluded from that. I want to make that clear,” said Cassandra Clark, a member of the contest board. “I believe there has been a misunderstanding that women have been deliberately excluded from the event during its history. They are considered equals among the men where they can compete.”
Clark noted that women have been selected as alternates, judges and committee members.
Brian Waters of Cartel Management said organizers were not pleased with the one-year permit, and he described the commission’s earlier request for a comprehensive contest plan for women “vague and ambiguous.”
“This puts our business at risk and is damaging. … We had a plan,” Waters said, adding that the San Mateo County Harbor District granted the contest a multiyear permit and the commission staff had recommended a four-year permit.
The female surfers selected for this year’s competition are Gerhardt, Jamilah Star, Emily Erickson, Paige Alms, Keala Kennelly and Andrea Moller. Valenti, who has pushed for the inclusion of women in the Mavericks event, was picked as the first alternate.
Valenti’s supporters and some top female surfers believe she deserved to be chosen for the heat and that her designation as an alternate was political.
They have launched a drive on social media, requesting that Valenti be added as a seventh contestant in the women’s heat. Cori Schumacher, a three-time women’s longboard champion, also has written Cartel Management and asked that Valenti, a very accomplished big-wave surfer, be included in the heat.
“Mavericks is 20 minutes from my house and I have logged 60-plus sessions there in the past two years,” Valenti said. “If I were in the event, I’d have a very strong chance of winning. Why would event organizers choose to not have someone who’s a potential winner? It’s very confusing.”
Clark said that the under the criteria to qualify, Valenti was selected as a first alternate, which provides a good chance to compete if someone is hurt or cannot make it to the event.
“It’s not about politics. It’s about the surfing,” Clark said. “Bianca is highly respected. Being an alternate is not a bad thing. Most people would consider that an honor.”