By Ann Killion San Francisco Chronicle.
The first time Bianca Valenti surfed big waves, the experience was terrifying.
In the winter of 2006, she and a friend paddled out into a huge Ocean Beach surf break. Without warning, a towering wave broke a few feet away from them. Valenti was slammed under the wave, tossed and turned, lost all sense of up and down, was pinned down for several seconds and opened her eyes into total darkness, she was down so deep. When she finally surfaced, she was trembling, almost convulsing.
So when she made it back to shore, what did Valenti do? Say her prayers? Head for a hot bath? Swear off the ocean forever?
No, the 5-foot-4 native of Orange County sat in the Ocean Beach parking lot, watching the monstrous break, and announced, "OK, this is what I want to do. I want to get good enough to be able to ride those waves."
That might run counter to how most of us would handle a near-death experience. But Valenti is a different type of person -- an extreme athlete.
"Their fear level is way different than most people's," said Dayla Soul, a surfer who is making a documentary about women who surf big waves. "Their limits are much larger."
Valenti, 29, is one of a handful of women around the world who test those limits on big waves, defined as at least 20 feet high (waves are measured from the back, and the face can be double the stated size).
This week, 14 women from that small tribe will gather in the Bay Area and surf together at the legendary Mavericks break, in Half Moon Bay. While the session isn't a competition, it is a landmark event: More than a dozen women will be in the lineup at one of the most intimidating big-wave spots on the planet.
"It's like a grassroots political party," said Valenti -- a wine buyer and restaurateur by night and big-wave surfer by day.
"We're going to show up and surf together. It's usually an all-male lineup -- I've never seen more than three women out in the break, on days when there are about 50 guys. And now all these women who rip big waves will be out there together."
The event is part of the WickrX Supersessions, the first endeavor of the Wickr Foundation, dedicated "to celebrating, advancing and supporting human evolution in all its forms," with a focus on adventure sports and education.
Nico Sell, the CEO and cofounder of Wickr -- a San Francisco company that enables encrypted, self-destructing text messages -- was on the professional snowboarding circuit and knows firsthand how difficult it can be for women to break into a male-dominated sport.
The Supersessions are a multimedia experience allowing female big-wave surfers to upload their own footage, share their own stories and create a community.
The goal is to celebrate these athletes and also help them get exposure and perhaps something more. There is a men's big-wave professional tour, and some men have the financial ability to chase giant swells around the world.
"We hope that one day there's a women's big-wave tour," Soul said.
But for now it's a sport that runs almost exclusively on the passion of women like Valenti. She works with her father, Duilio Valenti, a longtime Bay Area chef who ran the kitchen at Mill Valley's Frantoio for more than 15 years, where Bianca worked as the banquet manager.
Last year, the Italian native started his own restaurant in San Anselmo -- Valenti & Co. Bianca, who now lives at Ocean Beach, is a partner and the wine buyer.
"I love food and wine," she said. "But my passion is surfing. My dream is to be a professional big-wave surfer and travel around the world chasing swells and promoting awesomeness."
She has surfed professionally. Growing up in Dana Point (Orange County), she got her first surfboard at age 7, after her mother saw her attempting to stand on her boogie board. Valenti was immediately hooked, gradually giving up her other sports, competing on junior circuits and eventually winning professional longboard contests as a teenager.
After suffering "competitive burnout" she started shortboarding. She went to UC Santa Barbara and helped the surf team win three national championships.
After her epiphany at Ocean Beach, she graduated from UCSB and made good on her goal of getting better at big-wave surfing. For two years, she lived in Mexico, working in a resort and spending her vacation time surfing big-wave spots like Pascuales and Puerto Escondido. She found that her longboarding background was beneficial because she could handle the big boards that are best for attacking the monster waves.
"After two years, it started clicking," Valenti said. "The guys would say, 'Whoa, you're really getting good.'"
She was the lone woman in the lineup most of the time. Eventually she met Santa Cruz's Savannah Shaughnessey, and the two became good friends. Shaughnessey and Sarah Gerhardt -- who, in 1999, became the first woman to surf Mavericks -- are the only women to be included in an early heat for the Titans of Mavericks, the annual surf event.
No women have surfed in the final competition.
But it was Valenti who won the first organized women's big-wave competition, which took place in March at Nelscott Reef, a half-mile off of Lincoln City, Ore.
"Now women big-wave surfers are starting to come out of the woodwork," Valenti said. "When I interact with them, I think, 'Hey, these are my people.'"
Big-wave surfing is a tight-knit community. Sitting and chatting near the Mavericks parking lot last week, Valenti greeted virtually every surfer heading down the path toward the break by name.
"It's very much a family," she said. "Everyone is watching out for everyone. Safety is really big because it's life-or-death. You've got to stick together."
Valenti's natural friendliness is an asset to breaking down barriers in a very male sport.
"When you're the only woman in the pack, I realized you're going to be accepted a lot more quickly if you're friendly," she said. "I make an effort to know everybody. But when you're in the lineup, you can't just be polite and let them catch their waves. You've got to decide, 'OK, I'm going for it now.'"
Valenti trains hard for her sport. How do you train for big-wave surfing? In addition to normal strength and conditioning, you basically train to survive. She's been taking breath-holding classes, conditioning her body to stretch her lungs and hold more oxygen. In a pool, she has held her breath up to four minutes. Diving in Monterey, she did a free dive to 70 feet where her chest felt compressed.
"It replicates what we could face in a really bad wipeout," Valenti said.
"You get comfortable with the feeling of being uncomfortable."
And that's what makes her different.