Female talent in the spotlight at Pe‘ahi Challenge and Titans of Mavericks
by Haven Livingston
On a bright day in mid-November, a dozen big wave surfers made history and set a new precedent for all who will come behind them. These 12 intrepid women stood up to dangerously windy conditions at the Pe‘ahi Women’s Challenge in Maui and became the first women to compete in their own big wave event alongside their male counterparts.
This was no demonstration event or token add on. This was a fully sanctioned, cash prize world championship event with two semi-final heats and a final produced by the World Surf League. This is what a growing number of women have been fighting for over the past few years.
Welcome ladies, the world of big wave competition is officially open to you.
While Hawaiian Paige Alms took the win, she reported to espnW.com that she felt like she won for everybody.
Alms’ sister competitors included Andrea Moller, Keala Kennelly, Emily Erickson, Justine Dupont, Polly Ralda, Silvia Nabuco, Bianca Valenti, Jamila Star, Laura Enever, Tammy Lee Smith and Felicity Palmateer. Dupont of France and Palmateer of Australia took second and third, respectively.
Andrea Moller, a Brazilian-American who lives on Maui, was one of the first women to tow-in surf and the first woman to ever paddle into Pe‘ahi. She was thrilled at the invitation to compete, yet also surprised that after so many years of waiting and asking for this, it was finally about to happen.
“This is where I’ve surfed for over ten years and to see the history changing right here at home with women coming from all over the world was definitely emotional and I was very humbled and thankful that I was a part of this,” said Moller.
The women’s world championships at Pe‘ahi, also known as Jaws, was just a one day event, but the women’s field hopes it will start a tidal wave of support for true representation of women athletes in surfing.
“That contest is making me want to chase my dream again to surf big waves and push barriers,” said Moller. “I think women are going to start charging and we’re going to see a big change in women’s surfing. Women are motivating each other. I came away thinking, I want to do better next year, and I know the other girls are thinking the same thing.”
While Pe‘ahi was the only official event on the WSL big wave world tour for women this season, WSL Vice President of Communications, Dave Prodan, said the WSL commissioner’s office is working with athletes and event organizers to potentially increase the number of events next season. The women hope that eventually WSL will hold a big wave women’s world tour just like the men get.
On the other side of the Pacific, tucked into the pit of a monstrous California wave is a different kind of big wave women’s story. Just days before the call to Pe‘ahi, Bianca Valenti was standing in front of the California Coastal Commission defending women’s equality in the line-up. The Titans of Mavericks big wave contest was under scrutiny for not presenting a comprehensive plan for including women in the Mavericks surf event.
During the 2015-16 CCC permitting process for the Titans event, surfing fan Sabrina Brennan introduced the issue of including women during public comment. Up to that point, less than a handful of women had been selected on the long list, and none had ever been selected as one of the final 24 competitors.
Because the CCC is charged with maintaining equal access to public coastal resources, they couldn’t, in good faith, grant a permit that did not offer equal opportunity for women to compete against each other. Precedent for this decision was set in 1985 when the all-white men’s only Jonathan Club in Santa Monica was denied a permit to expand on public land because of discriminatory practices. The club sued all the way to the US Supreme Court and lost.
Commissioners granted Cartel the 2015-16 permit on the condition that they return this year with a plan to include women. This fall, when the final list of Titans invitees was announced, there were no women included. Only after learning that the CCC planned to withhold the permit did Cartel concede to including a women’s heat at the last minute.
At the November meeting where Valenti spoke, Cartel was requesting a four year permit for future contests. Cartel’s COO Brian Waters and Committee 5 representative Cassandra Clark said that they still had no plan to grow a larger women’s field in the future because there aren’t enough qualified women. While the number of women who regularly surf Mavericks may be small, it’s a good bet that the recent women’s WSL Championships at Pe’ahi will influence more women to try. Coastal Commissioner Mark Vargas congratulated Cartel Management for evolving a world class event, but told them they should start acting like a world class organization.
Cartel Management and the Committee 5, as well as the two new female additions who now make them the Committee 7, did not respond to interview requests for this article. Three weeks after the Titans opening ceremony and two days after the official opening to the contest window, the women’s heat invitees’ names began to trickle out through social media. The name of the last invitee was released towards the end of the CCC meeting in which Valenti spoke out. To everyone’s surprise, Valenti, the big wave surfer who had been championing women in the contest the most was missing from the line-up. She holds a place as an alternate.
“I definitely expected to be invited as one of the six,” said Valenti. “But the big picture is that it’s a step forward. It’s not just about big wave surfing for women, it’s about human rights and now women get to be a part of the event.”
Moller says that when she first started surfing Pe‘ahi, some men would ask her what she thought she had to prove. The truth is, these women love surfing and that’s why they’re there.
“Before it was maybe just me asking local Maui organizers (for a women’s event), but then you see Bianca asking for Mavericks and women in Europe surfing big waves. They could either fight to keep women out or they could give us a chance and see where it goes,” said Moller.
The WSL doesn’t release viewer information, but Prodan reported that the media interest in the women’s event at Pe‘ahi was considerably high. CNN, ESPN and Huffington Post all covered Paige Alms victory and the women’s event.
Moller, Valenti, Kennelly and Alms have founded the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing (CEWS) to work on improving equality for women in surfing. “We have an agenda for how we can pave a better future for women’s surfing,” says Valenti. That agenda spans equality in professional contests to de-sexualizing women in surf media. As one of CEWS first achievements, they built a ground swell of support for getting the women’s heat in Mavericks.
“The women know that they are stronger together,” said Moller. “Over the past two years as we joined together to argue for a contest we got to know each other and found a common dream to travel together and surf the world. We all – the men and the women – have that passion that brings us together.”
WOMEN OF MAVERICK’S FUN FACTS
Sarah Gerhardt, the first woman to stand up surf at Mavericks. Gerhardt has surfed the break for the past 18 years, only missing one season due to pregnancy.
Paige Alms, was the first woman to get barreled at Pe‘ahi in 2015 Hawaiian and she won the 2016 Pe‘ahi Challenge.
Hawaiian Keala Kennelly, one of the hardest charging big wave surfers alive, took on Teahupoo and came out as the first women to receive the Pur Scot Barrel Award by the WSL.
Jamila Star is a highly decorated big wave surfer from Santa Cruz who has won the women’s performance award from WSL multiple times.
Andrea Moller is a pioneer of women’s surfing at Pe’ahi and a professional water woman.
Emily Erickson is the youngest of the six, but the Hawaiian surfer has been proving herself in big waves and was nominated for performance in the 2015 XXL Big Wave awards by WSL.