Ocean Beach, San Francisco, can assume the mood of about a million different surf breaks--sometimes all within the same hour--depending on swell, tides, wind, or the particular malevolence of your God that day. But the place can really be reduced to two surf spots: under eight-feet, and then anything bigger than that. The (growing) crowds too can be cleaved along the same lines: those who surf when it’s eight-feet or less, and then the few dozen iron-willed chargers who surf it from two-foot to twenty.
One of those iron-willed chargers is Bianca Valenti, 29 years old, and an almost criminally unknown member of the female big-wave surf community. She won the women’s big-wave event at the Dive N’Surf Pro Nelscott Reef event last year, and the 2012 SeaHawaii Women’s Pipeline Pro. She’s now a Mavericks regular. And she has no sponsors. If you should ever find yourself sipping a coffee while safely perched up on the dunes overlooking Ocean Beach on the biggest Outer Bar days, Valenti will be one of those specks you see bobbing halfway out to the Farallons, hunting down the hulking beasts. We chatted recently about how she got into big waves, and what it’s like for a woman to crack heavywater lineups.
“I got pounded. I was under the water 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.'”
You’re a native Southern Californian who used to be a pro longboarder. How did you become an Ocean Beach regular?
I’m from From Dana Point, but my dad has lived here in San Francisco since I was 8, so I came up to visit a lot. I finally moved up here about six years ago. I pretty much rode only single-fin longboards until I was 16. I used to do the women's world longboard championship, actually. But I went to school in Santa Barbara at UCSB, and when I was there, I started driving up north and getting into bigger waves.
Before I moved here, I came up to San Francisco to surf with a friend one day. We thought it looked perfect. We saw some guys going out on guns and we sort of wrote 'em off, and both paddled out on like 6'1"s with no idea how big it was. We made it out pretty easily and luckily, but all of a sudden, this 15-foot wave was about to break 10 feet in front of us. I looked over at my friend, and he's like "Welp, see ya on the other side."
That's kind of the perfect Ocean Beach experience.
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." But I came up and there wasn’t another wave, thank God. 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. And that was my new goal.
So what was your strategy?
I started training. I also realized that equipment was huge, getting the right board for big waves. I found that, because of my experience as a longboarder, I could ride big boards pretty well. I felt super comfortable on boards with a lot of size.
What do you normally ride at big Beach?
I have this 8’6″ Pyzel that I like for the big days. Whenever I'm questioning it, I always go larger.
You’ve had a fair amount of success as a competitive surfer, is that something you’d like to do full-time?
The first year they did the ASP Women’s World Longboard Championship, in Biarritz (2006), I got 3rd. And then I never went back. It's expensive, and if you don't have sponsors, and none of the events are here at home, it's like, “Do I want to spend my money traveling to longboard contests, or do I want to spend my money going to Puerto Escondido or Pipe?” I actually won a women's Pipe event in 2012 (the SeaHawaii Women’s Pipeline Pro), and took down a bunch of pretty big names: Rochelle Ballard, Keala Kennelly, and Melanie Bartels. I think I could probably do well on the 'QS, but it's the same thing as my experience as a pro longboarder. If you're not getting $100,000 a year in sponsorships, do you really want to spend your money groveling?
Do you think there will ever be a full-time Women’s Big Wave World Tour?
That's something we're really pushing for. All the women who do the occasional big-wave event want that. Whenever we get together and surf big waves there's a really cool energy and the level of surfing gets raised every time. We would love to be included. So this year our goal is to show up at the men's events and surf before and after them. Just to show the contest organizers that we can do it too. People see men charging big waves, and they think "Oh, those guys are nuts." Then they see women surf big waves, and their minds bend. I got all the Hawaiian girls who were with me to surf that big Mavericks day in January and they all caught waves. I think that was a real eye-opener for them, for everybody. We knew it was going to be crowded, and we knew the swell was on the increase, so we started out just watching the cam at my house, then we all went down to the cliff to look at it, then finally I just said "We're getting our wetsuits on now." I sort of forced us all to go out. A few of the Hawaiians were like "If I catch one wave I'm going in." But then Keala got a good one, and she was so stoked, and paddled back out. Paige Alms got a few bombs. Andrea Möller got some too.
“I feel like the surf industry just wants to support young girls, and they put their money into the butt-shot model route. I'd like to see them focus more on athleticism than looks.”
When did you first start surfing Mavericks?
The first time I paddled out there was three or four years ago. They were filming the Jay movie actually. It was a huge, glassy day, with some 30-foot faces. I was sitting out in the channel thinking, "This is nuts." But I ended up getting one on the wide bowl. This year, I've committed to surfing it every time it breaks. I want to get some bombs there. It's so challenging, and has so many faces depending on the conditions. It's a really confusing wave and can be a very counterintuitive place to surf. So many of the good ones look like they're beyond vertical, but then you see guys like Anthony Tashnick or Nic Lamb make it, so you know it's possible.
Are you sitting right there in the bowl, or keeping your distance out wide?
I mostly sit in the bowl, but it depends, I try to mix it up. If you watch somebody like Skindog (Ken Collins), he moves around a lot and has a really high wave-count, so I like his style too.
Are those guys pretty welcoming to you? Do they see a woman in the lineup who can make the drop and invite her into the fold?
They're super nice to almost everyone out there. At the same time, you have to prove yourself. Nobody's going to say "It's your turn, go." If you want the wave and you're the one in position, the only way you're going to get it is if you put your head down and paddle.
Worst experience out there?
It was the first big swell this year, and I was trying to paddle over a wide one that started to crumble. It pulled me backward, then underwater, but it wasn't so bad. But then I came up right in the bowl, and there was a 35-footer about to break in front of me. I thought, "OK, here we go" and I started doing my breathing. I went under thinking that I should be able to handle it and I didn't want to inflate my vest. But then I came up, there was another wave, and went back under. I finally came up again, and there was another one; I decided to pull the vest and of course it didn't inflate. By that time I was sort of gently washing up against the rocks inside. I hopped up on the rocks, saw two more waves coming, then jumped off and beelined for the channel.
What's your experience been like breaking into the local scene in San Francisco? It’s a notoriously tough nut to crack.
It definitely took awhile, but at this point I've become friends with a lot of the guys who have lived here all their lives, like Marty Magnusen, Matt Lopez, and Andy Olive. A lot of these guys are skeptical of newcomers at first, but I'm always out there with them on the biggest days, and now we all text each other about where we're gonna surf. I love surfing with them. They're the best surfers out here, and I like surfing with the best. They're a hard group to crack, but they're soft in the center.
What's your sponsorship situation?
I don't have any [laughs]. I feel like the surf industry just wants to support young girls, and they put their money into the butt-shot model route. I'd like to see them focus more on athleticism than looks.
What are your thoughts on the, uh, butt-shot route?
I think not going down that route helps people in the lineup respect us women more, you know? I have nothing against people being models, or wanting to wear thongs or anything but to me that's just modeling, and it's separate from surfing. I admire and respect women athletes for their athleticism.
What's your big-wave goal?
I really want to help establish a women's big-wave tour. I think coming together as a united group, there's a lot we can do together. I also want to win a Billabong XXL Award. I've been nominated before, for Best Performance, but I want to win next year. I want to go to Jaws, hopefully this season. I want to go surf tons of other big waves with Paige Alms and Andrea, Keala, Savannah Shaughnessy. Do what the guys do. Get a little crew together and go chase big swells.