.Q&A: Big Wave Surfer Sarah Gerhardt

Frigid waters. Jagged, tooth-like rocks. Great white sharks. And a punishing swell that folds in half, willing and able to crush anything in its way.

When they break, the waves at Mavericks look like nice, average-sized surf—from the shore. But that’s really only because, at 2 miles out, the action is a lot farther away than it looks. With its waves occasionally topping out at more than 60 feet, this break is anything but average.

For years, the famed surf spot was a boys’ club of big-wave surfers, slowly expanding to friends of friends who were brave enough to step up to the challenge. The first woman to ride it was Santa Cruz’s Sarah Gerhardt in 1999.

Fans of Gerhardt, who now serves as chemistry department chair at Monterey Peninsula College, were excited to see her announce that she would compete in this year’s Titans of Mavericks contest, along with five other women—thanks to a decision from the California Coastal Commission that it needed to diversify the contest in order to receive its permit. This season marked the first time women were invited to the contest, which has happened in various forms over the last 18 years. Unfortunately, board members officially canceled this year’s contest, one week after Red Bull—the event’s broadcaster and only sponsor—filed suit against its management groups for breach of contract.

It was a blow to Mavericks fans, and this landmark in women’s surfing will have to wait one more year, at least. Until then, Gerhardt, who has two children, will keep shredding. She spoke to GT about her history with the event, and her life in surfing.

secure document shredding


Sarah Gerhardt
BOARDED UP Sarah Gerhardt, the first woman ever to surf Mavericks, was among the invitees to this year’s contest, until it was canceled. PHOTO: NIKKI BROOKS

How long have you been surfing?

SG: It will be 30 years next year, a long time. And I surfed Mavericks for the first time 18 years ago, so it’s been a while.

What’s that first ride like?

Incredibly different than the first ride at Waimea or Sunset that I had surfed before, just because the place is so intimidating. Every single wave out there is so powerful. Every single wave out there can break you. It’s pretty cold, and the rocks are not friendly, and the sea life is not friendly.

I was definitely very intimidated by the surf spot. I had gone out twice before and not caught waves—just sat and watched it. So that first wave was really, really magical and amazing. It was amazing how long the drop was. Usually, you drop in one second and it’s over. I dropped in—one, two, three, four. Then I got to the bottom. It’s like a roller coaster ride, you know?

Does your stomach go into your throat a little bit?

That happens more before you go over the wave. You know when you’re driving and you go over a little bump, and you get a sense of weightlessness? There’s that sensation right around the 30 seconds before you catch the wave, and then it’s over so fast. It’s not a very long time on the wave. It’s more like, “OK, I’m doing it, I’m doing it.” You get an adrenaline sensation before riding the wave, and then right at the drop-in at that critical time, when you’re making that commitment. And then on the ride, you’re thinking, “Let’s get it done.”

How cold is it at Mavericks? Is it much different from Santa Cruz’s waters?

Yeah, Santa Cruz will be in the 50s to 55 in the winter. But I’ve surfed Mavericks at 49 degrees, maybe even 48, so every degree feels like five degrees colder. 50 is freezing. It’s really cold.

What’s your favorite big wave anywhere?

Pico Alto’s pretty amazing. My husband and I surfed there in Peru. That was rad. In terms of quality and length of ride, Mavericks is probably it. I’ve surfed all along the North Shore and Outside Alligators and Outside Lost Cabin.

What do you think of this winter’s waves? There have been some massive swells the past couple months, but a lot of the days have been choppy.

It started out as a really amazing winter. It started late. The first Mavericks swells weren’t ’til November. But then it broke 12 consecutive days, and it hasn’t done that since the 1997-’98 winter, which was an El Niño. November was incredible. December started to fall apart, except for two really good days, and then the whole contest controversy happened right after that. Everyone was asking, ‘Why wasn’t the contest held?’ The contest could have been held on multiple days this season so far. It hasn’t been a terrible season.

Yeah, some of us casual fans of Mavericks wondered why the contest wasn’t happening. Then news reports came out about the lawsuit and that it was essentially canceled for this year. Did you find out about all of this the same way we did?

I was definitely wondering. I felt very suspicious about the event not happening when it wasn’t held in November and certainly when they didn’t a couple weeks ago. Definitely.

How does it feel knowing that this landmark event for women’s surfing won’t happen this year after all?

I was really excited for all of the other women. For me personally, I have a job. For me, surfing isn’t it—it’s not my job. I still surf big waves, but it’s not going to be my future. But it’s really disappointing for the women who are pursuing surfing as a career. This is a huge disappointment. I hope for their sake and the sake of all of the competitors that the WSL [World Surfing League] will pick it up. I know they’ve applied for the permit before, and they were denied the permit. If they could pick it up and it were part of the big-wave tour next year, that would be fantastic and hopefully have the stability that it needs because the Mavericks contest has had a bunch of different sponsors, but it hasn’t had stability.

Obviously none of us know what happened, but it always seemed challenging to make Mavericks a bigger festival, with music and everything, when it can be called at a moment’s notice and might not happen every year.

All of the big-wave contests have a waiting period. And the only other paddle that’s independent would be the event at Cowell. And Quiksilver was the first to sponsor Mavericks. Quiksilver, as a surf industry sponsor, made a lot of sense. But Cartel as a management company, without being able to pull in major sponsorship, didn’t make sense. They didn’t have a major sponsor. And that’s really important. The advantage to having a long waiting period is that it’s tons of advertisement. You get two to three months of putting it out there—hey, the event might run!—piquing people’s interests. So from a marketing perspective, it’s probably not that bad. But Cartel didn’t have a major sponsor. How are they going to pay for it?


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