Maverick’s is one of the most feared and respected big wave spots in the world. Located off Half Moon Bay in Northern California, Maverick’s breaks half a mile from the rocky coastline. With freezing water temperatures and abundant sea life, including seals and Great Whites, it is one of the world’s most intimidating lineups. Even though the first surfers paddled out in the 1970s – with Jeff Clark allegedly surfing Maverick’s alone for nearly 15 years before others joined him – the spot was not popularized until the late 1980s and early 1990s. Its pioneering surfers were (and still are), for the most part, men. Even as Mavericks gained widespread recognition in the ’90s, no female surfer stood up on a surfboard on its giant swells. That is, until the winter of 1999.
On February 26, Sarah Gerhardt would become the first woman to ride the enormous wave, cementing the collapse of the gender barrier at Maverick’s (bodyboarder Sara Lucas caught a 15-foot left at Maverick’s five years earlier in 1994). Sarah developed a passion for big waves in Hawaii, where she began surfing Waimea Bay and honed her skills under the tutelage of big wave surfers Ken Bradshaw and her soon-to-be husband Mike Gerhardt. She soon married Gerhardt, and the two relocated to Santa Cruz, California where Sarah pursued her Ph.D in Physical Chemistry at University of California Santa Cruz. And it was during her time in Santa Cruz she was introduced to Maverick’s, unable to resist Northern California’s famed break.
That fateful February, Sarah and Mike paddled out together. The first time, Sarah only watched as mountains of water from the channel pushed through. However, the next time, it was different — on a glassy day with surf towering at 25-feet, Sarah stroked into the lineup. Despite the thundering whitewash, Sarah was determined. Eventually, with a growing set in sight, she spun around, put her head down, and paddled into one of these huge waves. And in doing so, Sarah became the first woman to surf Mavericks. The next few sessions, photographers began snapping pictures of her dropping in on the massive walls, and she soon covered the pages of surf magazines and coastal publications everywhere. Sarah was officially Mavericks’ first bonafide hell-woman, paving the way for other women in the sport of big wave surfing.
Following Sarah’s lead, big names like Keala Kennelly, Maya Gabeira, Savannah Shaughnessy, and Paige Alms have continued to push the limits at spots like Teahupo’o and Jaws, even Portugal’s Nazaré. In her movie, One Winter Story, Sarah claims she never intended to be a pioneer. And today, as mother of two and college professor, her priorities may have shifted. But in surfing, she will be remembered for a fearlessness that opened a world of possibilities for women in big wave surfing.