By Sally Lundburg and Elizabeth Pepin
A review of this excellent film on the journey of big-wave surfer Sarah Gerhardt is long overdue, so … apologies for that. Gerhardt’s an extraordinary woman who braved years of rips and currents to become the first woman to surf macking Mavericks, back in 1999. As this excellent documentary by filmmakers Lundburg and Pepin notes, Sarah’s approach to Mavs was “a deliberate flirtation with death in exchange for a firsthand taste of the stars.”
In a way, Sarah’s ascent to Mavericks was the logical extension of a life history of overcoming challenges. Born Sarah Livermore in 1974, she grew up on California’s Central Coast; when she was a little girl, her mom developed muscular dystrophy, and her dad soon left home to work at sea. Not too long after, her older sister took off, and Sarah was left to care for her mother. Sarah was big and tall for her age and was bullied for it, but she excelled in basketball. She loved the ocean, too, and found relief from her asthma in the water. After a while, her dad bought her a wetsuit and a surfboard, and then … everything changed.
It was the pure freedom of surfing that swept her away, eventually to the North Shore, where she attracted the attention of big-wave surfer, Ken Bradshaw. Their relationship developed as he mentored her, and eventually she was towed into a big wave at Outside Alligators. Rather than freaking her out, the experience lit a fire. “I really latched on to surfing bigger waves,” she says.
When she reached the end of the line with Bradshaw, her flight home coincided precisely with the death of her mother. “I lost it,” she says. “I lost it for a long time.” Overwhelmed with guilt, she determined to get her spiritual priorities straight. She began hiking the coastal range, her mind considering the Psalms of David. She went back to school, then moved north to attend the University of California at Santa Cruz (she eventually earned a Ph.D in Physical Chemistry). There she reencountered Mike Gehrhardt, a local big-wave surfer she’d met in Hawaii, and began a new chapter in her life – a chapter that would lead her out to face the unruly cold-water bombs off Pillar Point, where she would make surfing history and undergo the ultimate personal transformation.
“I live as though I don’t have any limitations,” Sarah says without hubris. “Surfing at Mavericks makes me forget about them. I just let go.”
Let yourself go and catch this rich hour of documentary, which has won a bunch of awards over the past two years. – DK