In the four years it took me to make my film about women surfing big waves, “It Ain’t Pretty,” I met many amazing women, including big wave world champion Bianca Valenti and San Mateo County Harbor Commissioner Sabrina Brennan. Valenti’s experience surfing Mavericks and Brennan’s fight for equity in competitive big-wave surfing became central to my documentary.
Women’s surfing won a huge victory on Nov. 5, 2015, when the California Coastal Commission voted to require that a women’s heat be included in the Mavericks event beginning in 2016. A victory made possible by Brennan’s discovery of a clause in the San Mateo County Harbor District’s five-year event permit that states, “This permit shall be the sole Permit issued for the purpose of using District facilities in connection with holding a surfing event at Mavericks surf break during the term of this agreement.” The five-year permit is effective from Nov. 1, 2016, through March 31, 2021.
Over the past 17 years, Mavericks has gained recognition as a world-class big wave break. Federal, state and local government agencies heavily regulate the event because it’s located in a protected marine reserve near Pillar Point Air Force Station.
Brennan discovered the Coastal Commission would require a permit in 2015. She attended the November hearing to critique the Exclusivity Clause in the Harbor District’s event permit. Her grasp of the Coastal Act provided basis to ask for a condition that would require a women’s heat.
Brennan said, “Women athletes have never been allowed to compete in the event.” Cartel Management, the Titans of Mavericks event promoter, denied excluding women; however, the argument fell flat and a condition was required.
Brennan’s advocacy opened the door for female surfers everywhere, and Valenti took the stand at the 2016 hearing, spoke out in the media and rose as the face of the women’s big wave movement. Valenti and three big wave surfers — Paige Alms, Keala Kennelly and Andrea Moller — banded together to create the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing (CEWS), a united front against sexism.
In November 2016, shortly after the CCC voted in favor of a one-year permit that required a women’s heat, the Titans announced the five women who would compete in this year’s contest; Valenti was not on the list. Instead she was chosen as an alternate.
It was clear to the media, the surf community and the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing that Valenti was being punished for speaking out. Over 600 people signed a petition to add Valenti as a competitor, but no changes were made.
In January 2017, financial mismanagement and numerous lawsuits forced Cartel Management to file Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The 2016-2017 event was not held despite excellent conditions in November and January. This was a letdown for everyone and especially disappointing for women athletes.
Brennan has also experienced a backlash. Her call for equity has stoked the flames of myopic tribalism in the surf community and local politics. Since 2015, she has experienced acts of retribution, false claims and political attacks.
Last month, Virginia Chang-Kiraly, Brennan’s fellow board member, sent an email to the Harbor District general manager claiming that Brennan has a “financial interest” in the event. Chang-Kiraly provided no evidence for her false claim and wrote that it was “pure speculation on her part.” Chang-Kiraly’s smear didn’t stop there. She phoned the Harbor District’s lawyer and demanded a search warrant for Brennan’s “personal server.”
Chang-Kiraly, elected to two special districts, should know that a judge would require evidence supporting her request for a warrant; she ignores probable cause and the Fourth Amendment. Brennan doesn’t own a server.
Chang-Kiraly has political aspirations. In 2006, she was the Republican candidate for State Assembly in District 21. She lost by a wide margin to Democrat Ira Ruskin. In 2016, Chang-Kiraly befriended Jeff Clark in an effort to gain his support for her Harbor Commission candidacy. Next up, Chang-Kiraly would like to replace Don Horsley on the Board of Supervisors in District 3, possibly as soon as 2018.
My film takes a close look at sexism in the surf industry. While working on the film I discovered that men are not the only people supporting the patriarchy. The recent presidential election has many of us thinking about the consequences of shortsighted leadership, whom we elect and how we spend our money. Future generations will be impacted by our choices. It’s up to us to make sound decisions.
Thank goodness we live in California. Brennan’s advocacy for women athletes and the Coastal Commission’s commitment to coastal access will bring Valenti’s dream to reality. It’s only a matter of time.