Big-wave surfing fans are eagerly awaiting word of when the Titans of Maverickscompetition will take place this winter. Announced just days before the event, thousands will line the rocky cliffs of Pillar Point in northern California to watch 24 of the world’s best take on the waves that barrel into the legendary spot Mavericks.
Propped up on their boards and ready to ride 60ft swells, the riders are an elite group. But one that has yet to include a woman.
That will have to change since the California coastal commission has told the competition organizers that they must develop a plan to include women or risk their permits to hold the event being revoked.
At a meeting in November, the organizers Cartel Management and all-male judges of Committee 5 were confronted by community members and commissioners who pointed out the lack of female competitors. Jeff Clark, who first rode Mavericks in 1975 and is a Committee 5 member, replied that the event had always been open to women, but that the group had yet to see a women with the skill level to compete.
That sentiment was recently echoed by top big-wave surfer Grant Washburn, 48, of San Francisco, who has competed in every Mavericks event since it started in 1999.
“There is a huge difference between the top 24 who make it into the competition and the rest of the group,” he said, “and the women are just not at that level yet. There are a lot of guys who belong on that list first.”
Savannah Shaughnessy and Sarah Gerhardt, who have been surfing Mavericks for years, disagree.
“I get it why there haven’t been any women in the event yet but there has been a lot of progress,” said Shaughnessy, 26, began at Mavericks when she was 16. “And now there are women who are getting good waves at Jaws and other spots,” she said. “Right now I have the best shot at Mavericks.”
Gerhardt, 41, who was the first woman to surf Mavericks in 1999, said that when she first started, there was no career track for women, and that Mavericks could open up a lot of doors for sponsorships. She added, though, that she would like to see the image of female surfers be less sexualized and more about the sport and athleticism.
“Good male big-wave surfers get sponsorships no matter what they look like, but if you are a woman who wants to be a big-wave surfer, it’s much harder to get sponsorships if you are not attractive,” said Gerhardt, who was sponsored by surf company Roxy for five years and is now sponsored by Patagonia.
“Patagonia uses athletes, not models, to represent their line,” she said.
Bianca Valenti, another successful big-wave rider, noted the stereotypical portrayal of female surfers: “There are more butt shots of female surfers than any other angle of them surfing.”
Shaughnessy was the only woman in 2014 to make it to the second-to-last round, but ultimately wasn’t selected for the final 24. This year, she’s been selected as the seventh alternate.
“Number seven is pretty far down the alternate list – it doesn’t seem like I will get into the final but this is like the committee validating my effort and saying, ‘We are watching you and if you prove yourself and work extra hard you can get into the final”. Shaughnessy added that many alternates don’t make it to the final competition at all and some stay on the list for years.
“Savannah is ready to compete at the higher level,” said Gerhardt, who started mentoring Shaughnessy more than a decade ago. Gerhardt added that other women, like Paige Alms and Keala Kennelly of Hawaii, have been riding waves as big and even bigger than Mavericks at the Jaws spot on the north shore of Maui.
The competition, which takes place about 25 miles south of San Francisco, is held on a day between January and March chosen by a committee looking for the ideal surf, wind and weather combination. As one of the top big-wave competitions in the world, Titans of Mavericks generates millions for San Mateo County, according to a Cartel representative.
Despite any tension over Mavericks, surfers of both sexes talked about how it did not extend to the beach.
“In the water, we are all wearing wetsuits and you can’t tell who is a man or a woman,” Washburn said.
Shaughnessy felt the same, saying that the male surfers were supportive and that “on the beach and in the water, we are all surfers”.
Fans and community activists have questioned how Committee 5 selects the 24 competitors.
It’s “through a polling of peers, guys that surf out at Mavericks and the guys that are pushing it to the level of performance that is the absolute highest level,” Clark said at the November meeting.
“You keep referring to the guys … and that is kind of the problem,” said Mark Vargas, a commissioner, responding to Clark.
Cartel Management won’t say what they are planning for next year’s competition or how they will include female surfers.
Clark and representatives for Cartel have been tight-lipped on the subject since the November meeting, and Clark did not respond to several messages seeking comment.
Gerhardt said Shaughnessy, Valenti and many more women were well poised to be in any option Cartel and Committee 5 create.
“For me, Mavericks is more than just the one-day competition, but competitions advance the sport and if you include women, it advances the sport for everyone,” she added.
“We are highly skilled and we want to put on a good show,” Valenti said.