SAN FRANCISCO – It was the first set of the day at Mavericks, a once-secret surf spot near San Francisco, and Andrea Möller was out charging big waves when her surfboard hit her in the cheek.
It was a shock. It hurt. But the Brazilian had flown to California to ride the legendary Mavericks break, and that was what she intended to do.
She hopped a jet ski for a ride to the marina for Super Glue and duct tape. Using her skills as a paramedic, she patched her cheek so she could keep surfing but get stitches later.
Some say women aren’t quite ready to compete in the invitation-only Titans of Mavericks. But the California Coastal Commission recently gave a boost to their campaign, telling organizers that they should have a plan for including women if they want a permit to hold the event next year.
The competition is held when the surf is just right, between Nov. 1 and March 31. Waves can rise to 60 feet (18 metres).
“Women have been progressing at big wave surfing for many years, but they always lacked the recognition and trust from the man-dominated sport,” Möller, 36, said. “Times have changed. There are no more reasons to exclude them from any event.”
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Commissioner Mark Vargas of Southern California made the motion to require the contest to craft a plan for women.
“They are utilizing a public resource, and we are giving them permission,” he said. “If they are going to use that public resource, then there ought to be some sort of consideration for equal opportunity, or at least transparency for their selection process to ensure there is no discrimination.”
Arguments that Mavericks is too tough for women – two men have died surfing there – don’t hold up with Vargas. Participation by women “will encourage the next generation of girls to want to become women big wave surfers,” he said. “If they don’t see it, they won’t do it.”
In 1999, Sarah Gerhardt, 41, became the first woman to ever surf the Mavericks break. She has been included in a long list of potential contestants but never made the short list. No woman has.
The organizers, she said, are not really being inclusive. “They are gesturing, but (women surfers) don’t actually make it to the top 24 and (will) never be able to compete with the men. If there are going to be women in the event, they should have their own heat,” Gerhardt, a college professor, said.
Organizers say it’s not realistic to have women compete directly with the men, although that day is coming.
“Our intent is not to put aside a special class just for women but have the women go head-to-head with the men,” said Cassandra Clark, the wife of contest founder Jeff Clark, who discovered the surf spot at age 17.
“We have women we are starting to see now, and I can’t wait to see them surf at that level,” she told the commission.
Still, it may take some time.
“At this point, we haven’t seen that kind of performance,” Jeff Clark said.
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There also are logistical problems with adding a separate women’s heat, organizers say. There just isn’t time, they say, in what already is a daylong contest for two dozen surfers riding the same monstrous peak.
San Francisco surfer Grant Washburn has competed in each of the nine competitions that have been held since 1999, and he sees both sides of the dilemma.
“It would be great for the women, and I totally understand the interest,” Washburn, 47, said.
But he understands what organizers are up against when “the call” to Mavericks comes. The wave size, wind and swell direction need to be just right to summon surfers from all over the world.
“There’s so much to organize already, so to add (women) could make it impossible,” he said. “Even in the perfect scenario, we are rushing and we barely get it done.”