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Mavericks surf contest adds women’s division

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Big-wave surfer Bianca Valenti rides at Ocean Beach in San Francisco. (Sachi Cunningham/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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San Francisco-based professional big-wave surfer Bianca Valenti is among those celebrating the recent addition of a women’s division to the Titans of Mavericks surf competition held annually off the coast of the Peninsula.

But some say the change falls short of providing true equality for female competitors because, for now, the one-day event will include just one group of women’s surfers, called a heat.

Valenti is a founding member of the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing, a small group of athletes petitioning for the Titans of Mavericks to include women.

San Mateo County Harbor District Commissioner Sabrina Brennan has also been advocating for such a change, and the California Coastal Commission appears to agree with her.

Because Titans of Mavericks takes place on a public beach in Princeton-by-the-Sea (just north of Half Moon Bay), the Coastal Commission has jurisdiction over the event.

Last year, Brennan asked the Coastal Commission to require Cartel Management, which produces Titans of Mavericks, to open the event to female athletes. In response, the commission directed Cartel to come up with a plan to include female surfers, but Brennan and some commission staff were unsatisfied with Cartel’s timeline, which would have added a women’s heat for the 2017-2018 season.

Cartel is petitioning the Coastal Commission for a four-year permit for the event, and commission staff recommended denying the application if Cartel did not include women in its 2016-2017 season. That prompted Cartel to add one 60-minute women’s heat to the upcoming event.

While the Coastal Commission generally addresses land use and environmental issues, spokesperson Noaki Schwartz said it is not unprecedented for her agency to require equal access to facilities and events.

“The [California] Coastal Act mandates that the commission maximize public access,” Schwartz said. “So the inclusion of women at an invitation-only surf competition on public land certainly helps fulfill that mandate.”

Brennan has criticized Cartel for not moving more quickly, and believes the event should include multiple women’s heats. A woman should also join the five-person selection committee that decides which athletes are invited to the prestigious competition, she said.

But Cartel spokesperson Brian Waters said award-winning surfer Sarah Gerhardt had previously been offered a spot on the Titans of Mavericks selection committee, but had declined due to other obligations.

“We’re not fighting here; there’s no pushing back,” Waters said, though he added that adding multiple women’s heats might not be feasible.

Each Titans of Mavericks competition depends on the presence of big, challenging waves. Organizers have a window from Nov. 1 through the end of March to look at wave and weather conditions and select a date for the event, Waters explained.

On that chosen day, there are only so many hours and waves available, Waters said.

“It is impossible to put three more heats in a day,” Waters said. “Within an hour, you might get eight to 10 contestable waves.”

The lack of equal representation in events like Titans of Mavericks has taken an economic toll, Brennan said, because being deprived of the spotlight means even the best female surfers struggle to obtain prize money and endorsement deals.

“You could be the greatest surfer in the world, but if nobody has a picture of it, it’s like you don’t exist,” Brennan noted.

While Brennan is outspoken in her critique of Cartel’s gender parity track record, Valenti is optimistic about this year’s change to allow female surfers to compete.

“You’ve got to start somewhere,” Valenti said. “Obviously, we’d love to have two heats and a final, but at the same time, there are a lot of moving parts to organizing a one-day event.”

Originally from Orange County, Valenti has been surfing since she was 7 years old, and entered her first professional competition at 15. In 2014, Valenti won the first women’s big-wave competition, which happened at Nelscott Reef, the Oregon coast’s only spot for big-wave surfing.

Now 30, Valenti co-manages her family’s restaurant when she’s not surfing.

Having Titans of Mavericks opened up to women is a huge step forward, Valenti said, adding that she is very interested in competing this year, although no decision has been made by the selection committee about which female surfers will be included.

“It means we get to contribute to the community and grow our side of the sport,” the surfer noted. “We’re excited to add to the awesomeness of the event.”

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