On the morning of Sunday, March 10, four women sat on surfboards a mile offshore of Lincoln City, Oregon, as the swell built at the state's premier big wave.

Nelscott Reef outside Lincoln City, Oregon. Photo: Richard Hallman

Twenty eight competitors were in the small coastal town for the 2019 Kaizen Institute Nelscott Reef Pro, an iteration of a contest that has been held there for years. But in 2019, contest director Gabe Smith decided that things would be different.

First of all, it would be a no-judges, no-jerseys affair, with the men and women competing against each other in expressions sessions and then voting among themselves who should win based on video footage. Second, the $10,000 prize purse would be split evenly between the men and the women.

Emi Erickson took first place in the women’s division and received a cash prize equal to the one given to the men’s winner. Photo: Richard Hallman

“I've never understood why the women get paid less,” Smith said. “They have just as much, if not more, influence than many of the guys, thanks to Instagram. If it was up to me, I'd pay them more.”

There were no complaints from the men in the pre-event meeting the night before. Big-wave legend Jamie Sterling echoed Smith’s sentiment and it was settled: a gender-equal prize purse and the women would surf first, the men after them.

In 2010, women were invited to Nelscott Reef for the first time, but the contest could only be called an “exhibition” because there was no prize money for the women.

The 2014 event was where the female big-wave surfers who have led the charge for pay equity – Keala Kennelly, Paige Alms, Andrea Moller and Bianca Valenti – first all surfed together. While the men received a $50,000 prize purse, there was again no prize purse for the women. “Competing in frigid cold water for no prize money,” Kennelly said after the event, “that’s 100 percent to grow the sport.” At the end of the contest day, the organizer found a local surf shop to donate $5,000 to be split among the eight women who competed.

Five years later, the day dawned sunny, crisp and offshore. The air was 33 degrees, the water 48 – cold even by Pacific Northwest standards – but a welcome break in the storms that have ravaged the region this winter.

As Nicole Pacelli, Emi Erickson, Raquel Heckert and Bianca Valenti took the lineup, rainbows appeared in the spray sent off the back of the waves by the wind, and a gray whale hung out right outside the lineup.

According to big-wave standout Bianca Valenti, the waves were 10-12 foot Hawaiian, maybe 20 feet on the face.

Valenti has been at the forefront of the fight for equal pay in women’s surfing. Photo: Richard Hallman

"It wasn't gigantic, but those waves were big enough to have long hold downs, and it's such a big playing field out there," Valenti said. "It was still gnarly. You get held down in water that cold and it feels like forever."

Valenti said that while the waves weren't as big as she might have hoped, it was still special to be out there with other women who are hungry to push the sport.

A champion of positivity, Valenti says every big-wave event the women have is an opportunity to strengthen their sport. Photo: Gabriela Aoun

"Nicole, Raquel and Emi had never surfed there before," Valenti said. "Every event [that the women] have grows the community, expands the possibilities and strengthens everyone."

Emi Erickson, known for her partiality toward single-fin guns, also took third in this season’s Jaws Challenge. Photo: Richard Hallman

She thinks that although there were only four women at the event – because of scheduling conflicts or questions about the new format – that it will be twice as big next year. And that the female crop of big-wave riders continues to grow both because of passion and equal opportunity for prize money.

"It seems like there's a new crop [of women] coming up," she said. "They're really psyched, motivated and have big goals. I like seeing the fire in everybody. I absolutely see this as progress."

Erickson took the win, with Valenti in second, Heckert in third and Pacelli in fourth.

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