Women Who Ride Mountain

THOUGH ITS OCCASSIONALLY breathtaking peaks have drawn increasing media attention over the past few winters, there are still plenty of San Francisco inhabitants who don’t seem to realize that Ocean Beach even exists. Many longtime residents are only vaguely aware that if they head west far enough, across Divisadero Street and straight through the seemingly endless north-south grid of The Avenues, they’ll eventually reach the wild, thunderous edge of the Pacific. Despite the presence of a few surf shops scattered amongst the foggy outer reaches, and the growing congestion in its lineups on the most pleasant days, San Francisco is assuredly not a beach town. Ocean Beach’s moody disposition isn’t particularly welcoming to surfers, and, barring massive climate change that greatly warms the Northern Pacific, it never will be.

 

To be a year-round surfer in San Francisco, then, is to be committed, deeply and unreservedly, to a surf zone that’s unpredictable, often terrifying, and absolutely brutal for beginners. Those specks that you see bobbing way out to sea on big winter days, often spaced hundreds of yards apart amongst freezing, shifting mountains of malicious water, have paid several lifetimes’ worth of dues to be there. They’re badasses of the highest order.

 

Increasingly, those badasses are women.

 

Once rarer than all-day offshores in Northern California, women are more and more visible these days at Ocean Beach. Over the last half-dozen years, a hard-charging female crew has committed to challenging themselves in the punishing peaks that blitz the far outside sandbars. They call themselves “The Outer Bar Babes,” though a few members of the group hate that name. These are busy women with careers—a dentist, a small-business owner, a firefighter, a personal trainer, a chef, a teacher, a journalist—most of whom actually learned to surf in San Francisco’s intimidating lineups as adults, making their mastery of Ocean Beach all the more unlikely.

 

They share a steely physical and spiritual strength that’s apparent from yards away. They share it so closely, in fact, that it can be difficult to tell them apart in memory. (Was it Anna with that quip about making it outside in huge waves before she could surf? No, that was Beth. Wait, Rebecca maybe?) These are the women you’d want in the lead if you found yourself hairball kayaking through death-dealing rapids in a river canyon somewhere. Or, I suppose, picking your way through Ocean Beach’s sledgehammer peaks on a frigid winter morning.

 

Through grit, determination, and smiles, these women have carved out a respected place in the city’s surf hierarchy, surely one of the country’s most demanding. These are some of their stories.

Anna Wankel

“When I first moved here 12 years ago, I had no idea people even surfed in San Francisco,” says native Arizonan Anna Wankel. Once a chef, now a firefighter in Berkeley, Wankel worked with a surfer who offered to teach her to ride waves. She was 28 at the time. “We started out surfing a mellow spot in Pacifica, but we’d drive past Ocean Beach every day, and I finally said, ‘I want to try that.’”

 

Wankel was a veteran of serious ocean workouts, even completing the grueling swim from Alcatraz to Fisherman’s Wharf, so she was prepared for Ocean Beach’s poundings even before she could surf. “I could always make the paddle out because I was a strong swimmer,” Wankel explains. “But sometimes I’d make it outside, look around in the fog, realize there was nobody else out, and then a huge set would come and I’d think ‘Oh, shit,’ because I couldn’t even stand on my board.”

 

Eight years later, Wankel is a regular in the outer bar lineups. “If I had learned somewhere else and then came to San Francisco, I don’t think I’d have even surfed here. I would have looked at it once and said, ‘No way.’”

 

Gradually Wankel met the rest of the female outer bar crew, and she rarely misses a chance to surf when they’re all assembled. “It’s great having a group of girls to look out for each other and to know each other’s skill levels. Sometimes I’ll look at a big day and say, ‘This looks rad,’ but Bianca [Valenti] will tell me, ‘This might be too much for you.’ Yeah, often she’s right.’”

Sachi Cunningham

There’s a reason that you see few water shots of the surf at Ocean Beach when it’s roaring. It’s hard enough to paddle out on double-overhead days with a surfboard; it’s doubly hard swimming out there with a camera. Well, unless you’re former collegiate swimmer and water-polo player Sachi Cunningham, a photojournalist and professor at San Francisco State University who’s been dodging sets and snapping shutters at Ocean Beach for years. Cunningham has shot photos and video in places like Baghdad, Iraq, and Fukushima, Japan, for PBS and the Los Angeles Times, among other media outlets, so she’s no stranger to working in daunting locations.

 

Cunningham was initially drawn to the waves at sizable Ocean Beach 15 years ago, when she saw an orange swim cap bobbing around in the surf. It turned out to be San Francisco bodysurfing legend Judith Sheridan. “I couldn’t believe it when I saw her out there,” Cunningham says. “I figured if she could do it, I could, too, so I swam out to her and introduced myself. She ended up teaching me how to swim at big Ocean Beach. It was perfect.”

 

Like most of the women she photographs in the surf at Ocean Beach, Cunningham didn’t start surfing until she moved to San Francisco. “Not having learned to surf in easy, warm waves, I didn’t have anything to compare Ocean Beach with,” she says. “That certainly helped.”

Sarah Martins

Sarah Martins grew up just south of San Francisco, in San Mateo, and learned to surf the gentle closeouts in nearby Pacifica as a teenager. When she moved to the big city in 2004, her surfing horizons expanded rapidly out of pure necessity. “I didn’t even know what the outer bar was when I first started surfing here,” Martins says. “I certainly didn’t set out to conquer it or anything.” A natural fearlessness in the water helped, as did a willingness to look at the often-brutish conditions of Ocean Beach as an enticing challenge, not an impediment. “You really have to focus on just making it outside on the bigger days,” Martins explains. “It’s hard to be scared when your mind is consumed by the paddle.”

 

It also hasn’t hurt that her husband is Alex Martins, a regular competitor at Mavericks contests and one of the best surfers in Northern California. The two run a prosperous ding-repair shop in the Outer Sunset neighborhood. “Alex just wanted to help me become a better surfer,” Martins says of their early sessions together. “He’s never pushed me into anything I didn’t want to do.” She gets more than enough motivation from her fellow crew of hard-charging women, as well as the power of Ocean Beach itself.

 

Martins also gets plenty of support from the community of male surfers who tackle the bigger days. “The guys are supportive of women out here for sure,” she says, then adds, laughing, “Even when they’re giving us advice we don’t need.”

Beth Price

If ever there were a matriarch in this family of Ocean Beach chargers, Beth Price would be it. A physical marvel with bright, intense eyes, Price looks like the kind of athlete who could climb Everest one week and run an ultramarathon the next. She’s also probably the first name that comes up if you ask longtime locals about women who take on serious Ocean Beach. “I saw Beth out there and realized that women could do this” is a pretty regular statement from women who surf bigger days in San Francisco.

 

Though Price grew up in nearby Marin County and was friends with surfers in high school, she didn’t even start surfing the chilly waters near San Francisco until she was 29—an incredibly advanced age for somebody who surfs as well as she does. Price missed the adrenaline-soaked thrills she’d chased in the mountains while attending college and graduate school in Colorado and Utah, and she decided surfing would be her outlet when she returned to the Bay Area. As a lifelong open-water swimmer and triathlete, Price—a mother who runs her own personal-training business—was better prepared than most for the rigors of Northern California surfing.

 

“I was used to being exhausted in the water, so I didn’t really get freaked out,” Price explains. “And big days weed people out, so most of the people who surf the outer bars are friends. There’s a camaraderie that you’re a part of just for making it outside.”

Rebecca Wunderlich

After rock climbing, whitewater kayaking, and guiding googly-eyed tourists through rivers all across the Southwest, learning to surf among the frozen hammers of Ocean Beach was a piece of cake for then-26-year-old Rebecca Wunderlich. Well, maybe not a piece of cake, but she had the fitness, athletic background, and confidence to take the beginner beatings dished out there with a shrug.

 

Wunderlich grew up in Marin, but spent much of her 20s in the wilds of Colorado, Utah, and Alaska leading tours for Outward Bound. Her older sister was an Ocean Beach surfer, but Wunderlich wasn’t really interested in surfing herself until she returned to the Bay Area to get her teaching credential. She started slow, in protected breaks north of the Golden Gate, but that grew boring quickly. “Within a year of learning, it was obvious that Ocean Beach was the only wave around here that mattered. I think the first year I surfed there I didn’t even catch a wave. But I’d study the lineups, where the rips formed, and how the currents worked, so I was always able to make it outside—even when I had no business being on the outside.”

 

Drawn to the energy of bigger surf—“The physics of larger waves made surfing them easier than small, weak waves,” she says—Wunderlich now passes on her love of powerful surf to her fifth-grade students. She teaches oceanography and weather lessons based on the surf zone at Mavericks and runs a small surf school in Santa Cruz and Marin each summer. She mostly surfs alone these days, but when conditions are right, Wunderlich’s phone lights up with messages from the rest of the women who surf Ocean Beach. “When it’s big and clean, we always rally.”

Bianca Valenti

The newcomer of the group, Bianca Valenti moved to San Francisco only six years ago, but she’d been fascinated with Ocean Beach since getting pounded there while visiting a decade ago: “I paddled out with a friend; we had no idea how big it was, and we got destroyed. Afterward I stood on the beach and watched the surf, really wanting to ride those waves.”

 

Valenti, originally from Dana Point, California, had dabbled in the pro longboard circuit growing up. Just before relocating to San Francisco, she spent time in Mexico packing serious tubes at powerful beachbreaks, so she had the surfing chops to tackle difficult waves. After a couple years navigating big Ocean Beach on her own, Valenti finally started seeing other women in the water. “I remember meeting Rebecca first,” she says. “Which was great—when you see another woman out in waves like that, you get a little boost of confidence.”

 

Not that she needed it. Valenti is a budding star in the big-wave scene. She’s becoming a regular at Mavericks and won a women’s big-wave contest at Oregon’s Nelscott Reef in 2014. Her talent and fearlessness quickly endeared her to the Ocean Beach community, both male and female, and she’s become something of a mentor/coach for some of the women who surf there. “I absolutely encourage the rest of the women who need a push to go out when it’s bigger,” Valenti says. “We get group texts going when it’s good, and everybody gets so pumped. The talent level among the women has jumped the last few years, too.”

 
Video Credit: Dayla Soul, It Ain't Pretty.
Monique Kitamura

Monique Kitamura had been surfing for only four years when she left Southern California for San Francisco in 2001—a move she made for culinary school, not surf. But the moment she saw Ocean Beach, she was smitten where so many are shell-shocked. “It reminded me of the beaches near where I was born in South Africa,” she says. “The rawness was just beautiful.”

 

Entranced, Kitamura gathered her courage and her Malibu log—a board choice she admits was disastrous at serious Ocean Beach—and started scratching into the biggest waves she’d ever ridden. “The first time I rode double-overhead waves out there felt like an incredible accomplishment,” she remembers. “But I immediately went and got better big boards.” Gradually she started surfing with some of the local guys, like Mavericks standout Ryan Seelbach and her future husband, John Kitamura, but years went by before she would see another woman in the lineup.

 

Eventually she met Rebecca Wunderlich and a few other women taking on Ocean Beach, and fast friendships formed. “The guys love seeing us out there,” Kitamura says. “We paddle out smiling and bring empathy and good energy to the lineup.” Six dislocated shoulders, one near-drowning, a demanding career as a chef, and the responsibilities of motherhood have done nothing to dampen her willingness to push herself. “I want to surf it as big as I can,” Kitamura says. “I’m completely devoted to that wave.”

Suzie Yang

Suzie Yang could have had a much easier beginning to her surf life. She went to college in beginner-friendly Santa Cruz, but wasn’t interested in paddling out until she moved to San Francisco for dental school. At age 29, something clicked and Yang found herself meeting up with a surfing friend at the southern end of Ocean Beach for her initiation by thrashing. It went about how you’d expect. “It was way overhead, and I had no idea what I was doing out there,” she recalls. “But I thought the beatdowns and the intense amount of paddling was normal. I didn’t know any better.”

 

Yang’s trial by fire is typical of the women she surfs with. Though a few kids do learn to surf at Ocean Beach, adults often have the mental fortitude it takes to endure the steep learning curve and smile through the endless paddling and punishing duckdives. Clearing those hurdles also lands you in a place of respect among the hardcore locals. “I definitely had to establish myself to be accepted by the guys out there,” Yang says. “At first, they’d drop in because they’d assume I wasn’t going to go on bigger waves. But after a while—a couple years, not a couple sessions—I earned respect.”

 

“I have friends in Santa Cruz and Southern California that won’t surf here,” Yang says. “Ocean Beach has such a tough reputation.” Yang’s on her way to building one herself.