“At the very beginning of this journey with water photography was this desire to take photos of women [big wave] surfers so it would inspire other female surfers.” — Sachi Cunningham
When you witness Sachi’s distinctive visuals of women riding waves resembling houses, you realize that what she is doing is undeniably galvanizing. Her water photography becomes even more incredible knowing that she swims out with her camera and fins through hundreds of yards of huge, freight-train waves and whitewater, placing herself in calculated peril. Clearly, her journalistic drive to record the first draft of history knows few physical and mental boundaries.
Women pushing themselves as hard as possible to progress in their sport is not a new story. Furthermore, steady opposition and push back have been their most consistent companion, even in the face of proving their prowess and worthiness. Title 9, though it made no explicit mention of sports, accelerated by the women’s rights movement, allowed honorable and inspirational greats to emerge in traditionally “masculine” sports”. Billie Jean King (tennis), Bobbi Gibb and Katherine Switzer (marathon runners), Manon Rheaume (hockey), and Mary Ann Hawkins and Marge Calhoun (surfing) enjoyed wider publicity (and criticism), painstakingly constructing a new frontier for the next generation of girls.
Today, we have many gutsy ladies in the mix, a loud collective voice, and vital female mentoring (can I get a “hell yeah!”). Not unsurprisingly though, the moldy, unpleasant odor of discrimination based solely on gender still lingers.
Inside the Mind of Sachi Cunningham was one of the very first films Jeff den Broeder and I produced as SeaLevelTV, a documentary filmmaking project we formed in January 2015. It was the first in the Saltwater Daughters series, specifically aimed at exploring and celebrating the lives of women who are dedicated to redefining athletic, cultural, political and environmental norms. Personally, it was an opportunity to vindicate the sexism I’d experienced as a lifelong competitive athlete by contributing to possible role models for girls and women. Collectively, Jeff and I were just beginning to develop our creative and storytelling style for SeaLevelTV. We were curious to see whether audiences would be interested in our desire to critically address the lack of honest portrayal of water women in mainstream surf media through the use of a traditional narrative arc.
When Jeff pitched our short film concept to Sachi Cunningham, a woman with a closet full of journalism awards and stamina in the water that would make a dolphin smile and nod with approval, her first response was, “Why do you want to do a story on me?” Shortly thereafter, Sachi’s friend and collaborator Bianca Valenti, 2014 Big Wave World Champion, agreed to join the production. So on a temperate, sunny afternoon, right across the Great Highway from Ocean Beach, we cracked a few beers and settled in for what ended up being four hours of intense interview dialog peppered with the inevitable spontaneous silliness that comes with the stress of imparting the deep details of one’s life in front of the camera. Our production had formally begun, cementing Sachi’s position as the primogenitus of the “Saltwater Daughter” series.
Four months later we were thrilled when Inside the Mind of Sachi Cunningham was born into a shower of accolades. At the same time, a maelstrom of debate swirled around female big wave surfer’s participation at the Mavericks surf contest in Half Moon Bay, California. As one of the premier big wave spots in the world, known for it’s freezing cold water and treacherous “boneyard” on the inside of the break, it offered a proving ground on the world stage like no other venue.
Sachi’s observations and statements about female big wave surfers skill and worthiness gave unexpected weight and currency to the film, contributing a powerful voice in the fledgling history of women’s big wave surfing. Her message was greatly amplified when it was selected to tour with the Save the Waves Film Festival from November to December 2015.
“It doesn’t matter what color your are, it doesn’t matter what gender you are,” she says. “It’s the same wave, you can either ride it or you can’t. And so when they [the woman] can ride it, it’s like, “boom!” they did it. I think it’s equalizing.”
In early November 2015, The California Coastal Commission passed an amending motion to add a specific condition that asked the Mavericks contest event permit holders “to provide a plan for encouraging equal opportunity for women surfers in future events.” The moment after this motion passed 7-4, people began attempting to interpret what this meant in terms of the women athlete’s participation at the Mavericks event now and in the future.
Clay Lambert, writer for Half Moon Bay Review, supportively remarked, “Inviting women to be Titans of Mavericks would elevate the sport and bring attention to worthy competitors.”
Some of the social media buzz wasn’t nearly as encouraging. In fact, most of it brought me right back to the ludicrous ideas of the previous century that stated women were simply not designed to endure physical rigor. I found that many believed that there is an entire legion of men out there that are much more deserving of a spot in the lineup at Mavericks than any woman:
“Do the girls get in because they are amazing big wave surfers or because they are girls? If it’s for their big wave skills alone then they’ll need to get behind hundreds of guys that might out perform them and that want to join the field. Mavericks kills people and forcing the wave to accommodate women is a recipe for carnage.”
“I do like that they are trying to include women. Personally I don’t think the women can compete with the men, nothing against women, but let’s see some women take off in the bowl or behind it (not on a notch day). Yes and make it. Then wear a set on the head, no life vest, then see if they do it again. If I see that, I will be a believer.”
Both quotes excerpted from a public Facebook thread.
As my mind worked hard to parse so many polarizing points of view, I went out surfing by myself and had that moment of clarity I sorely needed: What about the athlete’s opinion in all this? Bianca Valenti agreed to generously share her point of view:
“There was an activist at the California Coastal Commission meeting that was our “secret angel”. She was the one that pushed the issue of allowing women to participate in the contest. This made sense, because The Coastal Commission strongly stands by access to the coastline for all, meaning women have to be allowed participation in the competition. It’s currently written in a manner that lawyers could figure out, but it needs to be made more clear. In a confusing twist, the managers of the event stated that women are not excluded from the event and never have been, since the event is about inviting the world’s top 24 big wave surfers, man or woman. I think this is a cop out.”
While Bianca clearly understands and respects her place in the lineup, as one of the best women in the sport worldwide she also recognizes what needs to be done in order to professionalize the sport. The men have only recently been able to make a living as professional big wave surfers, but their numbers are growing. It seems natural to imagine that a woman who surfs as well and works as hard as Bianca should be able to also aspire to make a living from the sport. Bianca points out that it’s important, “to work on building community and support that surrounds the sport and start developing those relationships with businesses, sponsors and media that will enable it to progress.” Clearly, Valenti sees competition as a useful tool in progressing the sport both individually and collectively.
You’d think that after all this time, there would be less sexism, that those threadbare arguments of “the weaker sex” being less worthy would cease to even find an interested audience any longer. But here we are, men and women, all together, repeating phrases and taking actions that have never served any of us well. In spite of my weariness, I hold the torch of vague optimism, mostly for the young girls that absolutely need these heroines, like Sachi and Bianca to light up their world with inspiration, possibility and new choices so they may tap into that sustained strength required to make our collective history.
Editor’s Note: SeaLevelTV’s Saltwater Daughters series is an exploration into the lives of exceptional women who draw strength and influence from the ocean and recognize the tremendous, continuous power it’s had in shaping who they are.
Their commonality orbits around connecting their life’s work to redefining athletic, cultural, political and environmental norms. Through exhibiting courage in word and deed, they demonstrate a dedication and responsibility to the significance of their actions, leverage expertise and gravitas to hold their place in the complex tangle of history, and tirelessly utilize their presence and voice to actively evolve and challenge traditional gender perceptions and limits both in and out of the water. SeaLevelTV reaches past the hype, deep into the hidden corners of ocean-centric culture where the resplendent, vulnerable heart of humanity resides to bring you #saltystoriesofsubstance.
You can see Inside the Mind of Sachi Cunningham in San Francisco this week at the Save the Waves Film Festival.