Sarah Gerhardt, Big-Wave Surf Pioneer, Takes On Mavericks Contest Sarah Gerhardt is the first woman to ever surf Mavericks, the famously dangerous big-wave spot in northern California. Soon she will be part of the first women's heat in a surfing contest there.

Women Take On Big-Wave Surfing, Once The Domain Of Men, At Mavericks

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


At a beach about 25 miles south of San Francisco, when conditions are just right, you can find ocean waves so tall they block out the horizon. Surfers call this place Mavericks. In 1999, Sarah Gerhardt became the first woman to surf Mavericks. That same year, it became the site of what has turned into one of surfing's most prestigious events - Titans of Mavericks. But until now, no woman had ever surfed in that competition. One woman who will be there for the first time this year is Sarah Gerhardt.

SARAH GERHARDT: I started surfing when I was heading into high school. And my first couple of times out in the water, I really got tossed around, and I loved it. In my high school of almost 2,000 people, I was the only girl to be attempting surfing, but I just wanted to be in the ocean as much as possible.


GERHARDT: My dad wasn't around, so it was just my mom, now quadriplegic, in a wheelchair. And we shared a bed so that I could get up in the middle of the night if she needed anything. And we always got up early. We had our special morning routine. And I'd get her out of bed, get her ready and get her bundled up as much as possible because she would go in her wheelchair and go through the cold and watch me surf.

It seemed like she was experiencing it herself through me, which was so cool. I had been already surfing for - for about five years, and I decided to experience big waves. I'd seen the men doing it, but I didn't know what to do, and I didn't have a mentor. I just sort of jumped in both feet. I really got trashed, and I loved it. And I never looked back. I always wanted to be out on bigger surf.


GERHARDT: The first wave at Mavericks was pretty amazing. This wave just stood up really tall. It was sort of like when you ride a roller coaster and you have that tension of waiting as the roller coaster's, like, going up - chunk, chunk, chunk, chunk - you know, that anticipation - and then getting to the top. My brain's freaking out, going, don't go. And then, when that roller coaster goes zooming down, all the sudden you're going 30 miles an hour, heading into oblivion. And when I kicked out, I was like, wow, I can't believe it. That was so amazing; I want to do that again (laughter).


GERHARDT: I just wish my mom - you know, she's no longer with us, but I just know that my mom would have loved to have been in the water. And we spread her ashes near Mavericks. And now, every time I go up, I always think of my mom, and she's with me.


GERHARDT: I've done a little psychoanalysis on myself, and I feel like I want to go in big waves because I want to experience that power, even if it's terrifying. When I first heard about the women's heat and that I was in it, I was very overwhelmed. And then, after letting it settle in, oh, this is going to be so amazing, being in the water with only women and then hopefully being able to inspire other people because women surfing big waves has not peaked yet, and it's just going to get better and better and better. And it kind of feels almost like closure that I can pass the torch on to that next generation who's coming after me.


GREENE: Surfer Sarah Gerhardt. I'm even more impressed looking at some of the photos of those waves. They are massive. Steve, you and I should not ever try that.



Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.