A couple weekends ago, a monstrous XXL swell bombarded the north shore of Maui and set Jaws ablaze with some of the biggest waves we’ve seen all winter–and they were anything but tame. Some towed, some sat out of the session entirely, but others, like California big-wave charger Bianca Valenti, chose to give it a go. Valenti, a San Franciscan who works at her family’s restaurant to cover her strike missions, waited three hours to catch one of the many super-sized bombs that rolled through the lineup that weekend. But Valenti’s used to patience paying off—she’s a frequent visitor at spots like Jaws, Mavericks, and heaving Puerto Escondido and seldom leaves empty-handed. When senior staff photographer Ryan “Chachi” Craig, sent us a sequence of the mammoth peak she paddled into during that swell, we called Valenti to hear more about the harrowing session.
You’ve been surfing Jaws for a few years now—how was this last swell different from the rest?
Jaws is probably the most challenging wave I've been to. I still don't fully understand it and I don't feel comfortable at all out there. But what was interesting about this swell is that a lot of the locals didn't go out—Paige [Alms], Billy Kemper, Ian Walsh…
When you see the locals not going out you start to wonder, right? There were a lot of ribs on the wave faces. The waves weren't coming in very often—every half hour or so and they just didn't have that textbook perfection. They all had some crazy technical feature to navigate. We were seeing a lot of falls, and anytime you fall you can get injured, or worse case scenario, die. So I really respect when people choose to be smart.
But you still went out–and you caught a bomb in the process. Talk about that wave a bit.
When we pulled up in the morning on Sunday, Kai Lenny was getting towed out the back and those things must've been like 60 feet on the face. My plan was to wait until the swell dropped later in the afternoon and just watch to see which waves I would want to get, studying who was doing well. We were watching a lot of falls and few makes. Paige, my best friend, wasn't going out, so I started second-guessing myself because I wanted to be smart about it too. Finally, I paddled out at 1:30 or 2:00 p.m.; I just wanted to try it and I thought if I get injured, then so be it. I was out there for 3 hours without catching a wave, and then the jet skit came over and the driver said our boat captain wants to leave. I was like, “No! I'm not leaving until I get one,” and then this bomb comes. Twiggy, Jamie Mitchell, Laurie Towner and I were in the right spot and I told them I was going [laughs]. I just started beast-moding and paddled as hard as I could. I barely scratched into the thing and felt instantly that I was in the air, which is the last thing you want to do on a Jaws wave. I stayed low, then I hit the rib on the face and then I start launching again and landed. Then I just tipped over.
Was the wipeout pretty bad?
I got demolished, came up and there were like 5 stories of whitewater coming at my head. I ducked under that and rode the whitewash into the channel. Once I got to the channel, the Walsh brothers and Uri [Solidade] were giving me a lot of props.
Some people are saying it was possibly one of the biggest waves caught by a woman out there.
Man, I don't know. Personally, it was one of my biggest waves, but Paige and Keala have caught some big ones out there, so it's tough to say. It got me one step closer to the barrel and I felt like it was a mini-victory to celebrate–even though I fell.
It seemed like this last run of swell really highlighted an issue of overcrowding at Jaws. What’s it like dealing with so many people in big waves?
It's never easy, especially for us women, because it's crowded with all dudes, so it's not women making the lineup crowded. I also think that, as women, we tend to be more thoughtful and considerate of others. We tend to be more team players and work together. So that's one of the biggest challenges that I've had to overcome: focusing on the waves and not the people. That's why competitions are so cool because when you get that opportunity to be out there with just a handful of people, you really get so many more opportunities to see whats possible within yourself.
Does the hierarchy out there favor the locals or is it more just a matter of who is in the right spot at the right time?
The kind of hierarchy in places like Pipe doesn't quite work in big waves; I think hierarchy is sort of based on experience. If you watch Twiggy, he gets good waves wherever he goes. Why is that? A couple reasons. I think it's because he's so confident and comfortable and he knows exactly where to put himself all the time. But he also puts in more hours than anybody. He's a person who isn’t a local out there, but he's always out there a ton. I also think being comfortable and having fun goes a long way too.
I know there were also issues with there being more jet skis out in the lineup to cart photographers rather than making rescues. What do you think can be done regulate the jet ski situation out there?
It's a really big debate, but I think at the end of the day, if you're out there you should be able to rescue and self-rescue even if you don't have a jet ski. The jet ski should be used as a worst-case scenario. I question whether or not everyone has that approach. I think there should be a course required if you're going to rent or buy a jet ski. It would be nice for there to be accountability and responsibility imparted on those drivers and owners to make sure the people that are out there have really gone through the proper training to be responsible.
Did you get Mavericks too that next week?
Yea, I flew back home and went out to Mavs in the afternoon. I'll tell you, after catching that wave at Jaws it made seem Mavs seem easy at the moment—even though Mavs is not an easy wave and I have so much respect for it. But within the first five minutes, a set came and I turned around and went.
You’ve been a big proponent in getting a women’s heat out at Mavericks. How do you feel about women being included in the WSL Mavericks Challenge this year?
I'm really stoked, but I'm being patient because there are no guarantees it’s going to run. Still, I think this is a huge step forward. We didn't know what was possible for at Jaws without getting a chance to ride those waves in a heat, so it's the same thing. We’re going to see some of the best performances we've ever seen from women out there. I think it's an exciting victory to celebrate and there's still a lot more work to do to create equality in our sport, but it's a little progress and it feels really good to have contributed to that.
It feels like women are getting more exposure in big-wave surfing, thanks in part to the last two Pe’ahi Challenge events—do you feel like that is starting to have an effect on the younger generation of girls?
I think it's a really important component of accelerating the women's side of the sport—whether it's in big waves or smaller waves. It's so important for all those little girls out there to know that girls can do it all. And that all the little boys out there aren't flipping through surf magazines just seeing Reef models. When I saw Paige get her barrel a few years ago, I was like, “Oh if she can do that, I can do that and I want to do that.” It's really inspiring when you see yourself within someone else who is succeeding. That creates healthy competition.