Women Take On Big-Wave Surfing, Once The Domain Of Men, At Mavericks

Nov 23, 2016
Originally published on November 27, 2016 7:52 pm

Imagine a wave so big it darkens the horizon as it rolls in.

Just south of San Francisco, this surf spot is called Mavericks.

Sarah Gerhardt is the first women to surf this famously dangerous big-wave spot. She did that in 1999 when she was 24. Now, at 42, she's one of six women comprising the first women's heat in a surfing contest there.

The women will compete for $30,000 in the Titans of Mavericks, surfing waves that swell well beyond 30 feet.

"Mavericks is the best big wave spot in California, regularly 40 to 50 and sometimes 60 to 100 feet tall with huge rocks, and there's a shark attack out there every year," Gerhardt tells NPR. "People's leashes have been caught in the mouths of sharks, and it is very cold. That water temperature gets down to 48 or 49 and then of course the air temperature in the winter can get be in the 30s or 40s. It's terrifying — but I wanted to surf it anyway."

Gerhardt started surfing as a teenager, and eventually was lured by big waves — even though, she says, they left her "trashed." "I loved it, and I never looked back," she says. "I always wanted to be out in bigger surf."

Paddling up to the top of that first Mavericks wave, she says, her brain told her "Don't go!"

"And then ... all of a sudden you're going 30 miles an hour heading into oblivion," she says. "And when I kicked out I was like, 'Wow, I can't believe that was so amazing. I want to do that again.' "

As part of the first women's heat in the Titans of Mavericks event, she hopes to inspire younger surfers. "Women surfing big waves has not peaked yet, and it's just going to get better and better and better," she says. "And it kind of feels almost like closure, and that I can pass the torch on to that next generation who's coming after me."

The event will be called when the conditions are right, anytime between now and March 31.

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At a beach about 25 miles south of San Francisco, when conditions are just right, you can find ocean waves so tall they block out the horizon. Surfers call this place Mavericks. In 1999, Sarah Gerhardt became the first woman to surf Mavericks. That same year, it became the site of what has turned into one of surfing's most prestigious events - Titans of Mavericks. But until now, no woman had ever surfed in that competition. One woman who will be there for the first time this year is Sarah Gerhardt.

SARAH GERHARDT: I started surfing when I was heading into high school. And my first couple of times out in the water, I really got tossed around, and I loved it. In my high school of almost 2,000 people, I was the only girl to be attempting surfing, but I just wanted to be in the ocean as much as possible.


GERHARDT: My dad wasn't around, so it was just my mom, now quadriplegic, in a wheelchair. And we shared a bed so that I could get up in the middle of the night if she needed anything. And we always got up early. We had our special morning routine. And I'd get her out of bed, get her ready and get her bundled up as much as possible because she would go in her wheelchair and go through the cold and watch me surf.

It seemed like she was experiencing it herself through me, which was so cool. I had been already surfing for - for about five years, and I decided to experience big waves. I'd seen the men doing it, but I didn't know what to do, and I didn't have a mentor. I just sort of jumped in both feet. I really got trashed, and I loved it. And I never looked back. I always wanted to be out on bigger surf.


GERHARDT: The first wave at Mavericks was pretty amazing. This wave just stood up really tall. It was sort of like when you ride a roller coaster and you have that tension of waiting as the roller coaster's, like, going up - chunk, chunk, chunk, chunk - you know, that anticipation - and then getting to the top. My brain's freaking out, going, don't go. And then, when that roller coaster goes zooming down, all the sudden you're going 30 miles an hour, heading into oblivion. And when I kicked out, I was like, wow, I can't believe it. That was so amazing; I want to do that again (laughter).


GERHARDT: I just wish my mom - you know, she's no longer with us, but I just know that my mom would have loved to have been in the water. And we spread her ashes near Mavericks. And now, every time I go up, I always think of my mom, and she's with me.


GERHARDT: I've done a little psychoanalysis on myself, and I feel like I want to go in big waves because I want to experience that power, even if it's terrifying. When I first heard about the women's heat and that I was in it, I was very overwhelmed. And then, after letting it settle in, oh, this is going to be so amazing, being in the water with only women and then hopefully being able to inspire other people because women surfing big waves has not peaked yet, and it's just going to get better and better and better. And it kind of feels almost like closure that I can pass the torch on to that next generation who's coming after me.


GREENE: Surfer Sarah Gerhardt. I'm even more impressed looking at some of the photos of those waves. They are massive. Steve, you and I should not ever try that.


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