Mavericks Surf Contest Begrudgingly Allows Women To Compete

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

For the first time in its history, one of the most prestigious surf contests in the country will include a women’s heat in its 2016-17 competition. But the addition to the Titans of Mavericks competition wasn’t done solely because Mavericks organizers felt like it. It was required by the California Coastal Commission as a condition of the competition receiving a renewed permit—and that happened because of lobbying to the commission by female surfers.


Back in 2015 the competition was granted a single-year permit by the commission covering the contest period—from Nov. 1, 2015, to March 31, 2016—with the ability to apply for a four-year extension on the permit. The permit allowed single-day “exclusive use of the Maverick’s offshore surfing area near Pillar Point Harbor during the event,” along with a bunch of logistical stuff about parking lots and areas cordoned off for spectators. To get the permit, Mavericks had to prove to the commission that the environmental impact of its event would be “minimal.” The permit also included this (emphasis added, here and elsewhere is mine):

Plan for Inclusion of Women Competitors in Future Events. The Permittee shall submit a plan for the inclusion of women surfers as competitors in future Mavericks surf events, as part of an amendment application pursuant to Special Condition 7.

Then in February, several female surfers reached out to the commission. They wanted to give their thoughts on including women in Mavericks.

“The ocean does not discriminate based on gender, ethnicity or sexuality.”

At the February meeting, the group agreed to come up with some suggestions they would give to the commission and they did. In a letter dated Sept. 5, 2016, a group of four women representing the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing wrote to Renee Ananda, a coastal program analyst with the commission. The conclusion of that letter reads:

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The commission said it received the letter on Sept. 20. A little earlier, on Sept. 9, Mavericks submitted a proposal for the permit that said Mavericks would “reach out” to female surfers and allow them to compete against men if they qualified. Another proposal was sent on October 14* with a note to Ananda that it was “updated.” The update included details for a women’s heat in 2017-18.

The commission checked if it was within its legal rights to require Mavericks to include women, to which the answer was short: “Yes.”


“Even if Mavericks has a right to exclude women in the abstract, it probably does not have the right to use public resources for its exclusionary activities.”

The Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing sent a follow-up memo to the commission on Oct. 14:

We are writing to express our concern about the lack of women athletes among those surfers who have been invited to participate in the Maverick’s 2016/2107 event. The morning of Sept. 20, 2016 the Titans of Mavericks announced their first cut of 56 athletes for this year’s contest. The list included four women, but eight days later the second cut of 38 included none. At present, it is possible women might become alternates, but alternates historically have a slim chance of actually surfing. It appears likely that no women will surf at Mavericks this year. Why? The Committee 5’s requirement that women surf against men has created a playing field in which women surfers can be denied entry by an all-male committee who are authorized to judge the exclusion of women as fair and warranted.

Our proposal for a Women’s Division makes clear that among researchers and experts in issues of sports and equity, it is widely agreed that women must compete against women in a women’s division. For example the World Surf League (WSL) recently announced 12 women competitors and 7 women alternates invited to compete in the 2016/17 WSL Big Wave Tour. The tour includes both a Men’s Championship and a Women’s Championship. Each division will have their own prize purse thereby guaranteeing that women and men athletes will win prize money based on performance. No mixed gender heats are included in the Big Wave Tour.

The refusal of Cartel Management, the Titans of Mavericks board of directors, and the Committee 5 to include a women’s division suggests they do not act in good faith. They are currently enacting a flawed and prejudicial selection process that puts women athletes at a competitive disadvantage and an economic disadvantage. This privilege must be stopped.


Assorted letters of support for a structured women’s competition this year were sent to the commission, including a two-page memo from Brown Girl Surf that called bullshit on the competitions claims of meritocracy:

The organizers’ plan to have a five person all-male committee use their highly subjective criteria to determine the fitness of women for inclusion in the contest smacks of the type of “gatekeeping” that for decades has allowed more powerful political groups to exclude less powerful groups. This is of particular concern to Brown Girl Surf.


“... holding a contest without a women’s heat would not maximize access for all”

The commission staff did realize that Mavericks’s early concessions wouldn’t really amount to much and called them out in its summary of events. (In the memo, Cartel refers to the company that manages the Mavericks competition).

In terms of women’s participation, Cartel initially suggested an outreach program, and then ultimately expanded that plan on October 14th to agree to create a women’s heat starting in the 2017-18 contest window. Given that this was not consistent with the action taken and direction provided by the Commission in their approval of the 2015 permit, staff discussed this issue with Cartel and indicated that delaying the inclusion of a women’s heat until that time would not be consistent with the Commission’s action, and that staff intended to require a heat starting in 2016-2017 and continuing in all subsequent years of the contest authorized by the amended permit through 2020. In staff’s view, holding a contest without a women’s heat would not maximize access for all, rather it would reduce access opportunities for a specific subset of the population. 


On Oct. 19, Mavericks agreed to have a women’s heat this year and in following years. The staff report summary says that the final proposal for a permit extension “proposed to include women as competitors starting in the 2017-2018 event calendar, and as of October 19th included a women’s heat starting in 2016-2017 with a purse of $30,000.”

Titans of Mavericks announced the inclusion of women that day on Twitter:


The $30,000 monetary award is equal to what first-place winner Nic Lamb took home in the February 12, 2016 competition.

The competition takes place intermittently on the California coast about 40 miles south of San Francisco, happening 10 times since its inaugurate in 1999. It can take place any time between November 1 and March 31, and the event has been skipped in years when the surf is not suitable during that period, so there is no guarantee that it will happen this year. The invitation only event is announced just up to 48 hours in advance, as soon as conditions show they will be up to par.


Surfline describes the often-dangerous conditions at Mavericks as a “natural phenomenon.”

“It is not just a perfect wave, but a perfect 20-foot wave that breaks like a hollow 6-footer, exploding top to bottom with a ferocity that makes brave men shudder.”


A few days later, Brian Waters, an operations employee* with Cartel, gave an interview with the Santa Cruz Sentinel. Despite all the negotiations with the coastal commission, lobbying done by female surfers to finally be included, and their own paltry offering of “outreach” at one point, he told the paper: “It’s quite simply the right time. There was no compelling driver other than it was the time to do it.”