Ocean Beach event highlights pay equality for female, male surfers

Professional big wave surfer Bianca Valenti surfs Ocean Beach on Oct. 12, 2018 in San Francisco, Calif.
The coming months have historic potential for women’s surfing. A major obstacle has been cleared, and there’s a sense of freedom that hasn’t existed before.

Such is the everlasting shine of equality.

When the World Surf League announced in September that equal prize money will be awarded to men and women in the upcoming Mavericks contest, it wasn’t a triumph solely in the big-wave realm. The WSL will distribute equal prize winnings in all of its tours, including the conventional pro circuit that travels the globe each year.

“When I heard the news, it immediately brought tears to my eyes,” said Australia’s Layne Beachley, who won six straight women’s world titles (1998-2003). “I felt so deeply proud, immensely satisfied and quite overwhelmed, considering everything women’s surfing has endured.”

“I never thought this would happen during my career,” said Stephanie Gilmore, who also has won six world titles. “I can remember winning an event in 2007 and getting $10,000 when the men’s winner, surfing the same waves, won $50,000. It’s just such a special moment for all of us.”

No one could be prouder than San Francisco’s Bianca Valenti, an Ocean Beach and Mavericks regular whose organization, the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing, was a driving force behind the change. “It’s just so exciting,” she said. “Now that we’re getting the support, we’re gonna see performance skyrocket. We just needed the chance.”

Sachi Cunningham, a San Francisco filmmaker preparing a documentary on women’s big-wave surfing, said, “Everywhere we go, there are little girls on the beach who really want to do this. They look up to these women as their heroes. So this is a real game-changer.”

It won’t be long before the Bay Area surf community gets to witness women competing directly against men in the most challenging conditions imaginable. The window has opened for the annual Red Bull Heavy Water contest for stand-up paddling at Ocean Beach, an event that ran the past two years and now is making room for nine women in a 32-person field.

It surely took a crazy person to dream up this event. Organizers wait for a large, nasty Ocean Beach day (up to 15-foot waves last year) and ask surfers to make two trips from shore to the outer calm waters, a monumental achievement on stand-up paddleboards up to 14 feet long.

And there’s a new twist this time. In the past, the Ocean Beach segment came first, followed by a paddle through Land’s End, underneath the Golden Gate Bridge and finishing at Aquatic Park. Now, it’s in reverse; after that long, flat-water paddle, entrants will have to surf their way to the beach, paddle back out, catch another wave in, then go back out before surfing in to the finish in front of the Beach Chalet restaurant. The waiting period runs through Nov. 2.

“This is by far the gnarliest event in stand-up paddling,” said Maui’s Kai Lenny, 26, widely acclaimed as the world’s most capable young waterman, who then added with a laugh: “With the new format, I look for even more carnage than last year.

“And don’t rule out these women. They’re some of the fittest, most driven athletes in the world.”

The list includes top SUP professionals Candice Appleby and Izzi Gomez, plus a number of women known for their feats in big-wave surfing, including Maui’s Andrea Moller and Brazil’s Nicole Pacelli.

Could some of them leave the men behind? “Absolutely,” Lenny said. “Amongst the guys, that’s like their biggest fear. For the women, it’s almost not about winning, but taking down as many guys as they can.”

That won’t be the theme at Mavericks, where — so far, at least — men have a clear and undisputed edge over women in riding the biggest waves. But this winter, for the first time, there will be two five-woman semifinal heats, then a six-woman final on the same day as the men’s event. “I can’t wait to just be out there with the girls, almost all of them my friends, without having to hassle for waves in a huge crowd,” Valenti said.

(With segments of the permit process still to be completed, the Mavericks window is expected to open Nov. 1, with first-place prize money around $25,000 for men and women.)

Meanwhile, the good news keeps coming. If a sufficient swell arrives before Nov. 21, Hawaii’s famed Waimea Bay will be the scene of the “Red Bull Queen of the Bay,” the first big-wave surf contest reserved strictly for females. The entry list includes Valenti, Keala Kennelly, Paige Alms, Bethany Hamilton (who lost her left arm in a shark attack when she was 13, yet presses on in world-class fashion) and Brazil’s Maya Gabeira, recently honored by the WSL for the biggest wave ever ridden by a woman (estimated at 68 feet, on a tow-surfing mission in January at Nazare, Portugal).

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