The Mavericks Surf Challenge 2018

Legendary surfing, lifeguard and waterman Brian Keaulana's father, Buffalo Keaulana, used to tell his son as a young boy, "We're not divided by land - we're connected by water."

With this story of aloha, Keaulana kicked off a morning of in-water safety training for the big wave community in Half Moon Bay, CA, setting the tone for a most memorable Opening Ceremony for the Mavericks Challenge.

And for the first time, the lineup of competitors included women.

"They say it's a band of brothers but it's also a band of sisters now," said past Mavericks Champion Greg Longbefore leading the training exercises for the big wave men and women in skills such as water rescue and breath holding. "All fear is, is lack of knowledge," added Keaulana.

The training focused on proper jet ski pick-up techniques and tips on lining up in what WSL Commissioner Mike Parsons said may be the most challenging of waves on the big wave world tour, "because of how committed you have to be on the hollow takeoff."

Parsons would know - the first time he surfed Mavericks in 1994, he witnessed Mark Foo drown, and nearly drowned himself.

"I always have anxiousness over Mavs," said Parsons. "Concern over competitor safety is number one."

The morning's water safety exercises bonded the seven female competitors in attendance, Bianca ValentiKeala KennellyAndrea MollerEmily Erickson, Sarah Gerhardt and Jamilah Star.

"I didn't know if a contest would be able to be put together in time for me to surf it, since I'm aging out," said Sarah Gerhardt, the first woman to surf the break twenty years ago. "I'm excited about this training, which I've wanted to do for years, and I'm excited to be with all of these women."

'They say it's a band of brothers but it's also a band of sisters now,' said past Mavericks Champion Greg Long.WSL / JONATHON REIS

Gearhardt says that she's never been much of a competitor, but rather focuses on the fun.

"I've never been here for the money," said Gerhardt. "There's very few places on earth that human beings can touch the presence of God." Gerhardt credits the break as being a "game changer" in her personal life. "That's what it's always been about."

Good vibes were aplenty as the women joined the lineup with their male counterparts on the beach with their boards. As if on cue, the fog lifted and the sun lit up the lineup.

After ceremonies led by Bill Sharp and Jeff Clark, the surfers paddled out to create a circle and bless the event.

Clark proudly wore a special pink wet suit for the paddle out in honor of the women. "I've always felt responsible and tried to be the best steward I could," said Clark, who surfed the wave alone for 15 years before the surfing world caught on.

Clark said he had confidence in the women's performance as they continue to spend more time at the break. His tips? "Slow and sure, and know before you go."

Bianca Valenti, on the heels of her recent outstanding performance in Puerto Escondido, has a good shot at winning.WSL / JONATHON REIS

Long shared the overall excitement in the air for the women joining the contest and showcasing their skills.

"It's a very tight and sometimes claustrophobic lineup (at Mavericks)," said Long. "For them to have the freedom to sit where they want, without having to combat 50 over aggressive males in the lineup? I think that we're going to see them step up to a new level of performance for women's big wave surfing and probably ride some of the greatest waves ever ridden by females."

Bianca Valenti, who surfs the break with the most frequency of any of the competitors because of her passion and dedication to the spot - and its proximity to her home in San Francisco - remembers watching the opening ceremonies from the sidelines four years ago.

She has since been at the forefront of creating a heat for women at the event. "It feels different, if feels supported, it feels right," said Valenti. She felt as if a "weight lifted" and she was happy that everyone was now, "concentrating on just having the best possible event."

Valenti, on the heels of her outstanding performance in Puerto Escondido has a good shot at winning. "I'd love to win," she said, "but I'm sure KK would love to win too," she joked with Keala Kennelly by her side.

Kennelly's goal: "To send it really hard … and I don't want to end up in the elevator shaft into the darkness place," she joked with sincerity. Above all, Keala was simply happy to be here. "It feels really good," she said of the event, "because, you can show up at somebody's party, but it's way nicer to be invited."

Mark Sponsler, one of the weather forecasters deciding when the contest runs said that odds are good this year because, "A weak El Nino should help fuel the jet stream, but it's slow in coming so later in the season is probably a better option."

He put the odds of the contest running at 65-70%. The ideal conditions for a swell according to Sponsler and Parsons, would have the swell peaking in the afternoon in order to run 4 semifinal heats for the men, 2 semis for the women, 2 semis for the men, and a women's final and men's final.

A perfect swell for the contest according to Sponslor would be, "A northwest swell, coming in at less than 300 degrees, at 17 feet and a period of 17 seconds."

The waiting period for the Mavericks Challenge opens November 1st and runs until the end of March.

Jeff Clark proudly wore a special pink wet suit for the paddle out in honor of the women. 'I've always felt responsible and tried to be the best steward I could,' said Clark, who surfed the wave alone for 15 years before the surfing world caught on. Jamie Mitchell (L), Tyler Fox (R).WSL / JONATHON REIS

2018/2019 Mavericks Challenge Competitors

Women's Invitees:
Paige Alms, Keala Kennelly, Justine Dupont, Bianca Valenti, Maya Gabeira, Sarah Gerhardt, Emily Erickson, Andrea Moller, Jamilah Star, One wildcard to be selected on Green Alert.

Women's Alternates: 
Wrenna Delgado, Laura Enever, Felicity Palmateer, Raquel Heckert, Easkey Britton, Silvia Nabuco.

Men's Invitees:
Billy Kemper, Kai Lenny, Ian Walsh, Makuakai Rothman, Lucas Chianca, Jamie Mitchell, Tom Lowe, Alex Botelho, Greg Long, Natxo Gonzalez, Will Skudin, Grant Baker, Nathan Florence, Jojo Roper, Russell Bierke, Travis Payne, Patrick Shaughnessy, Matt Becker, Anthony Tashnick, Jason Stark, Hunter Murison, Peter Mel, Nic Lamb, One wildcard to be selected on Green Alert.

Men's Alternates:
Ryan Hipwood, Tyler Fox, Luca Padua, Ryan Seelbach, Colin Dwyer, Ben Andrews, Kyle Thiermann.

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