If you’ve ever been in the ocean, you inherently know the unbridled power of a wave.
It’s both indiscriminate and authoritarian.
It’s a wild beast begging to play, practically goading you to tame it.
But you don’t because you’ve been punished before for such foolishness.
Unless you’re Bianca Valenti.
And then it’s just another daily commute, a method of deliverance from the omnipotent surf to its more benevolent beaches.
Because as a big-wave surfer – defined as surfing waves at least 20 feet high – Valenti knows “taming” is neither an option nor a desire, but catching “a bomb” – for whatever distance the ocean will permit – is a gift.
“Every time I go out there, it is a deep, spiritual experience,” Valenti says from her Ocean Beach home in San Francisco. “Because you walk a line of total bliss and absolute chaos. Whether it’s the best sesh or not, you see just how precious and fragile life is.”
The 30-year-old big-wave surfer is more than just a fan of the surfing way of life; she’s an advocate.
Not because of the adrenaline rush a 30-foot face toppling down inevitably brings – well, not just because of that – but rather because of its metaphor for life.
“Your adrenaline jacks up, your heart spikes and maybe you get crushed, but maybe not,” she says, noting that facing the fear has a way of putting things like a tough situation or a bad day at work in perspective. “It makes those daily stresses seem insignificant.”
This was the feeling that a 7-year-old Valenti inherently knew, even if she didn’t articulate it that way. Mostly she just longed for “a hard board” after trying relentlessly to stand up on her boogie board just like the surfers at her local Doheny Beach in Dana Point, Calif.
So Valenti’s mother made a pact with her daughter – she had a budget and could buy a “hard board” as long as she didn’t make her mom “come out there and get her.”
Unlike so many groms in the sport today, with private coaching and summer camps available to learn the best technique and tricks, Valenti taught herself to surf.
Before she knew it, Valenti was competing in short- and long-board competitions, winning world championships and eventually staking her claim as a professional surfer.
But like an addictive drug, the adrenaline rush she craved eventually required bigger, better and faster. So while visiting Ocean Beach on a weekend break from her studies at UC-Santa Barbara, Valenti charged a 15-foot wave.
And she’s never looked back.
“I mean, I got pounded. I was under the water just swimming and turning, and I opened my eyes and it was all dark, and I was slowly coming up to the top, and I remember thinking, ‘If there’s another wave, I’ll die,’” Valenti told Surfer Magazine in 2015.
But there wasn’t another wave, so she paddled her 6-foot “gun” to shore and caught her breath in the parking lot.
“I was gasping for air and my entire body was convulsing. I went in and stood in the parking lot and thought, ‘Man, I want to ride those waves.’ They were just so perfect, and you could have gotten the best wave of your life,” she remembers. “And that was my new goal.”
Armed with a fleet of guns in the 9- to 10-foot range, Valenti started training for the new challenge, tackling the adrenaline-spiking fear one face at a time.
“I would just paddle out and be super scared,” she told Teton Gravity Research in 2014. “Then, the conditions that scared me became not so scary. All of sudden you’re at Maverick’s going, ‘Holy shit!’ I love that adrenaline rush and feeling of being out of your comfort zone. I love questioning whether or not I can do something and then proving to myself that I can.”
As it turns out, Valenti also likes proving that women can be big-wave surfers too. Becoming one of the first females to take on Mavericks, the renowned big-wave break near Half Moon Bay just south of San Francisco, Valenti isn’t just trying to “join the men” on a day when the swells are good.
She wants to compete – and she’d like to have a female field to do it in.
So what started as a desire to go for the obvious “next step” two years ago, has turned into a mission. In a sport ruled by men and without a lot media attention or financial incentive, Valenti has emerged a crucial voice for the female big-wave surfers.
She has even created the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing (with help from fellow big-wave chargers Paige Alms, Keala Kennelly and Andrea Moller) to push for more and more equality in the sport.
Their first success was getting the 2014 Big-Wave World Tour at Oregon’s Nelscott Reef to host a women’s trial heat before the main event. The Super Heat of eight female surfers was a “huge success” – not just for Valenti, who won the women’s heat, but for female surfers in particular and the entire surfing community in general.
“It opened up minds, and bent and confused them all at the same time,” Valenti said, noting that including women isn’t just a good idea because it’s inclusive and the right thing to do. It’s also good for business.
“This won’t just help women, but the sport as a whole,” Valenti adds. “Smart business people wouldn’t just ignore a huge potential market. The sport’s potential isn’t realized by excluding us.”
Although such obvious market expansion seemed like a no-brainer to Valenti, she learned the hard way that even in a barrel, there can be a glass ceiling.
“One of the issues this sport faces is figuring out the best way to grow,” Valenti acknowledges, adding that its traditional bravado attitude has diminished some of its popularity over the years. “The sport’s story has been seen through just one lens, and it’s time to start showing a lot of the other stories.”
The success in Oregon was followed by the inclusion of a two-heat field of 12 women for the infamous “Jaws” big-wave event in Maui last November.
Although she got “blown out of the water” in the competition, Valenti was stoked to have new women on the scene with the same passion for competing and pushing the limits.
And after battling as a teenager some of the more sexist ways professional surfing has viewed and promoted women – more as models than athletes – Valenti feels like she has found “her people” in the big-wave circles.
The ultimate inclusion, however, will be hosting a field of women in the ultimate big-wave contest – the Mavericks tour.
Although “Mavericks” refers to any big-wave swells that occur at Half Moon Bay, the annual competition is also a prized event that big-wave surfers from across the globe monitor all season, ready to drop everything at a moment’s notice and make the pilgrimage to their big-wave paradise.
Valenti and her CEWS pals were ultimately successful this past season in reluctantly getting women on the Mavericks program – but thanks to mismanagement and internal disarray by the event organizer, the 2017 Mavericks event never materialized.
Valenti’s efforts, however, have not been for naught.
The California Coastal Commission, which issues permits to the organizers of Mavericks, has determined that a women’s division will be required at any future Mavericks event. And World Surf League, which is petitioning to be the Mavericks’ new organizer, is also a big proponent of including women in big-wave surfing.
So the 2017-’18 season looks to be groundbreaking for Valenti and her fellow female chargers – and they couldn’t be more stoked.
“The next Mavericks event – and forever after – will always be required to include a women’s division,” Valenti said, adding that they hope to use this as a template for other big-wave events. “It’s pretty cool.”
But Valenti isn’t just busy promoting the sport for herself and her big-wave colleagues. She’s also promoting the sport by serving as a mentor – something she never really had as a young surfer learning the art on her own, surrounded mostly by males.
She recently traveled to Fiji with CEWS to share their big-wave passion with young girls just learning to surf. Although they never made it to the bombs with the novice surfers, Valenti and her crew learned a lot about bringing the sport to young girls and other cultures.
“When I was starting, there were no women to look up to, to mentor me,” Valenti said. Although she was mentored by some great men in the sport, having the perspective of surfing by other women would have been a nice dimension, she believes. “Women are more thoughtful and calculated risk takers.”
And once again, while Valenti and her fellow chargers keep tabs on the good swells and wait stoically for the right bombs, big-wave surfing serves as a metaphor for her life and her mission.
“The big-wave culture has a passion for going places that no one has gone before, and it has a way of grounding me, helping me focus on big-picture goals,” she admits. “I can choose to get pissed off and let that energy take over, or I can choose to contribute to society, make the world a better place and be a game-changer.”
Valenti has chosen the latter.