WSL Insider Says Surf Equity Advocates “Threaten Men’s Contests” Following Mavericks Cancellation

Photo by  Jason Goecke

The Big Wave Surfing Patriarchy: A Brief History

The elite culture surrounding big wave surfing has long insisted that waves of consequence are inherently macho and unsafe for women. 

Jeff Clark, the widely esteemed big wave surfer who is credited as the first to brave the waves at Mavericks, has been an outspoken champion of the view that women should not be included in contests there. Men were the gatekeepers of the wave. Mavericks events were invitation-only, and an all-male panel called the Committee 5 hand picked those deemed most worthy to compete. As part of the organization that managed and held exclusive permits for events at the famed break, Clark defended the Committee 5 selection process at a 2015 Coastal Commission hearing:

“The way we choose those invitees to surf in the Mavericks event is through a polling of the peers, the guys that surf out at Mavericks and the guys that are pushing it to the level of performance that is the absolute highest level of performance. Now, there are women that surf Mavericks, I’ve surfed with many of these women at Mavericks, and there’s the Bowl at Mavericks, the most extreme and intense place to take off, and there’s – [pause] – well, we call it the West Bowl, the much easier place to catch the waves.

“The guys in the early 90’s that actually surf Mavericks and still surf Mavericks...they have a very good eye of the performance level that we’re looking at, not only to surf Mavericks at the highest level, but to surf it safely and be in the condition that if you go down out there it’s not going to become a problem for the lifeguards...we want to avoid the rescue situations.”

Clark’s argument is not grounded in substantive facts about heightened danger for safety teams and competitors when women are in the water. Physiological differences have not prevented women from succeeding in the world’s heaviest waves so much as bias has. For decades women have paddled out in monster surf. They’ve proven their abilities in the world’s most ferocious waves from Northern California to Hawaii, Mexico, Tahiti, South Africa, and beyond. Sure, there have been accidents; who could forget Maya Gabeira washing up unconscious at maxing Nazaré, or Keala Kennelly’s face blown wide open after being driven into the reef at Teahupo’o? But these dangers are not particular to women. Men, too, have been injured – and killed – while surfing these waves. Kennelly and Gabeira both survived, recovered, and paddled right back out.

Regardless of the women’s proven success, they have struggled to gain access – let alone acceptance – in the competitive ranks of big wave surfing. “It was sexist since it started,” said San Mateo Harbor Commissioner Sabrina Brennan of competitions at Mavericks. The inaugural event was called Men Who Ride Mountains. “That just doesn’t set the stage for opportunity,” Brennan noted.

News Flash: Gender Based Discrimination is Illegal

Brennan, a Half Moon Bay local who lives on the bluff overlooking Mavericks, has watched women competently braving the powerful surf there since the 1990s. Shutting women out from competitions held on public land, Brennan recognized, is not consistent with California law. She teamed up with a lawyer and four top big wave surfers to form the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing (CEWS), which brought the issue of inclusion to the agencies responsible for issuing the Mavericks permits. This campaign was a continuation of years of organizing work by the badass women who surfed at Mavericks and wanted a shot at competing there. California took the side of progress, requiring future permit holders to demonstrate a serious commitment to equality and inclusion. 

When Cartel Management went bankrupt, the World Surf League (WSL) swooped up the permits, thereby becoming subject to the new requirements. In order to hold an event at Mavericks, the League would have to establish a women’s division and provide equal prize money for the female competitors.

Photo by  Jason Goecke

Thinly Veiled Contempt for Women Activists revealed

After pushing back against CEWS in negotiations behind closed doors, the WSL unexpectedly announced in September of 2018 they would implement equal pay for women not only at Mavericks, but across all of their events worldwide. WSL CEO Sophie Goldschmidt proudly announced that years of work had culminated in this monumental decision. “We’ve been pushing for equality for a while; this isn’t a sudden decision,” she declared. No mention was made of the WSL big wave surfers who had risked their careers to campaign for this policy overhaul.

For weeks following the announcement, the WSL was lauded in the global media for leading the entire sports world towards a more equitable future. As any corporation would, WSL capitalized on the attention.

Pictured: Paige Alms, a member of CEWS, in a WSL ad.

Pictured: Paige Alms, a member of CEWS, in a WSL ad.

Then, in August of 2019, the WSL quietly withdrew their permits to hold a contest at Mavericks, effectively putting the Big Wave Tour on an indefinite hold. Surfline reports that the League’s decision was based on issues with the prize parity requirement. 

The WSL released the following statement about the cancellation: “The lack of being able to run the event has made sponsorship really hard. We employed all kinds of different tactics, but it hasn’t been successful. And it’s a difficult permit. Not expensive, but time, energy and resources.”

Fans were not satisfied, and speculation began to percolate about the real reasons for canceling the much-hyped contest. The discussion came to a head when Still Stoked, a women’s adventure website, published an interview with a WSL insider. That person requested that their name and identity be removed from this article.

The article opines that politics are to blame for this disappointing cancellation – or, more specifically, the “aggressive tactics” of CEWS in “using the political system to push for so much so quickly.” Excerpts are included here as they relate to the discussion at hand, but interested readers should check out the interview in its entirety over on Still Stoked.*

“We are limited by numbers, so when I first heard about Brenner’s [sic] request of 10 female competitors, it came as a shock and quite a concerning one. If a two-day permit was allowed at Mavericks to catch the tail end of the swell, or if the Committee for Equity in Women Surfing could consider that women are not quite at the same level yet as the male big wave riders (which is OK), maybe we could organize a smarter and better organized event.”

“[A]lthough I am fully aware of the struggles of female athletes and I also fought for equal pay, it’s my opinion that threatening the men’s event and the few competitions we had on the Tour seems very counterproductive. Certain quotes from Committee members in the New York Times talking badly about the WSL and the founder of the Big Wave Tour were red flags to me that things were getting out of control and no longer serving its original purpose of helping other women.”

“If I was on their Committee board I would manage things differently to create growth throw [sic] empowerment and mainstream sponsorship and marketing strategies, thinking outside of the box to brand the sport of women’s big wave surfing. It seems counter-productive to threaten the men’s contests.”

“The vibe from the men on the Big Wave Tour is currently in a very dark place, as they also took more than a 50% hit on their prize money to make room for the women.”

These statements confirm my suspicions about the folks at the WSL: they were happy to take credit for investing in women’s surfing and equality when it served the organization, but they don’t think women actually deserve the level of inclusion that CEWS and the California government are demanding.

We’ve already addressed the argument that the women aren’t skilled enough, or, in other words, that proper big wave surfing is just too dangerous for the weaker sex. Now we’ll turn to the second assertion: there’s not enough pie to go around, and the women are demanding too big a slice. Is it feasible for the WSL to pay its women equally and include a multi-heat women’s division in Big Wave Tour events? 

The Inertia’s Dylan Heyden did the math in an investigative piece published after the equal pay announcement came: “While the mechanics of how this change will be instituted are still fuzzy… the WSL assured us there would be no decrease in the men’s prize money to achieve this change in 2019,” Heyden wrote. Thus, the assertion that “the men took more than a 50% hit on their prize money to make room for the women” is directly contradicted by the WSL’s statements to The Inertia. It’s not clear whether the WSL’s financial arrangement changed, but either way they’ve exhibited a frustrating lack of transparency. 

Heyden went on to reveal that the additional cost of equal prize money on the Big Wave Tour would amount to roughly $84,000 per year, which, he noted, is .03% of the net worth of the WSL’s owner. An organization of the WSL’s scale should be able to handle that kind of fundraising, especially given the unprecedented global media exposure they enjoyed during their “equal by nature” campaign. 

With regard to the shock and concern over the proposed number of women’s division participants: Yes, there’s a small window during which the event can run due to fickle conditions. Yes, including the women would mean that the men don’t get a monopoly on the whole entire swell window. But what exactly is the problem with that? Advocating for the meritocracy system by which men are deemed to be entitled to more waves because women aren’t “at the same level” seems to be inconsistent with any coherent feminist perspective. 

The WSL should be more clear: are women “equal by nature,” or are they “not at the same level” as men? Is the WSL investing in women’s big wave surfing to make it a profitable and sustainable business, or are they waiting for the women to magically do so on their own?

Photo by  Jason Goecke

Let the Women Surf

There are plenty of female big wave surfers that want to compete, and there is no reasonable justification for limiting their ability to do so. Let them tumble over the falls as they did in the 2018 Jaws Challenge. Give them equal opportunity and watch them rise to the occasion (as they have done in the past, despite the paltry prize purses and sexist media coverage). 

If women’s heats cut into the men’s competition, so be it. The WSL has publicly committed to equality, and now they need to get their male athletes on board. Anyone who streams WSL events can see that men competing on the Championship Tour and Qualifying Series have enjoyed uncontested access to the best conditions, leaving the women’s division to work with whatever onshore windy scraps might remain. THIS IS NOT JUSTIFIED, certainly not under the WSL’s heavily-marketed theory of equality. Let the women surf during the prime swell window, and more people will tune in to watch. They’ll bring in more revenue and sponsorship dollars. They’ll attract more fans. And they’ll continue to push the boundaries of surfing.

Bianca Valenti, founding member of CEWS, took to social media to lay out a positive vision for the future of surfing at Mavericks:

“What’s up with Mavericks? It’s been 5 years since I’ve been trying to get a chance to compete. We started when I was in my 20’s and next month I’ll be 34. So when I got the news @wsl was pulling out of the event last week, for their reasons, I sat and cried, a lot… Alas, this isn’t about me. This is about our community. This is about incredible athletes - male - and - female - and breaking barriers and challenging the status quo to explore what’s possible. This is about our ocean and this majestic wave. This is the wave. This is the wave that enhances a legacy that started with Jeff Clark @maverickssurfcompany and is supported by an entire coalition of male and female athletes. Re-birth. Regeneration. Yes. Imagine what’s possible? I’m enjoying envisioning a celebration of all kinds of big waves in Northern California Culture. @burningman but not burning man...meets big wave surf event? New formats with teams so the men can continue to support and encourage us to catch our biggest waves @granttwigbaker @gerglong@rseelbach @lucaschumbo A regenerative and Sustainable event experience that brings together our community, in celebration of what’s possible when we work together and with equity and the environment at the forefront. A Massivius festivus? Yestivus. Innovation. This is the wave and anything is possible! And PS I’ve got skin in the game so you know I’m dedicated to turning this bad news into a win. Valenti’s never give up. I’m committed to catching better and bigger waves at Mavericks and beyond. And sharing my waves to support opportunity and equality for all! And the environment too. Said with Love. and hope.”

Let’s continue to push surfing forward through dialogue, activism, resistance, and courage. Anything is possible.

*The original interview on Still Stoked was deleted following the publication of this editorial.

Molly LockwoodComment