Gerhardt balances life as mother, professor, scientist, big-wave surfer

Sarah Gerhardt will be speaking at Monday's Women in Sports Luncheon at Earl Warren Showgrounds. (Courtesy Photo)

Imagine having a teacher who, when she’s not lecturing or grading papers, enjoys flying down the face of a 25-foot wave at Mavericks.

Meet Sarah Gerhardt.

A chemistry professor at Cabrillo College by day and a mother of two, Gerhardt also is a big-wave surfer. She holds the distinction of being the first woman to surf the monstrous break known as Mavericks, near Half Moon Bay.

In 1999, she made surfing history. And she continues to challenge herself at the world renown surf spot.

“I still surf at Mavericks, although not as often as I would like,” she said in an email interview. “God and family are top priorities, then work, and last surf.”

Gerhardt will talk about her big-wave surfing experiences and balancing her busy life on Monday at the Santa Barbara Athletic Round Table’s annual Women In Sports Luncheon at noon at the Earl Warren Showgrounds.

Gerhardt will be introduced at the luncheon by filmmaker Elizabeth Pepin, who co-produced an award-winning documentary about the surfer-professor-mom called, “One Winter Story.”

Asked about the chemistry of the brain of someone who surfs monster waves, Gerhardt laughed and said her expertise is in physical chemistry.

“Although I am in a post-doctorate position researching in molecular biology, I don’t know the chemistry of the brain. I do have quite a bit of experience using my mind and breath to control the central nervous system’s response to big waves, however.”

Gerhardt, 36, doesn’t consider herself a thrill seeker. Her pursuit of big-wave surfing is about “carpe diem,” she says.

She is married to renown big-wave surfer Mike Gerhardt. Together they have traveled the world to ride giant waves.

These days, though, the surf trips are closer to home.

“I surf frequently close to home in Santa Cruz, and my husband and I are taking our kids out with us. It’s so fun to be in the ocean with them and see it from their perspective,” she said.

Surfing has played a key part in Gerhardt’s life.

“I was already into sports and was planning on trying out for the volleyball and basketball team in high school as a freshman, but after I started surfing it was the only sport I wanted to do,” she said. “I spent as much free-time that I had on surfing. It kept me focused and away from partying, because I wanted to be able to surf before school and after school and there wasn’t any time for a hangover.

“Also, I met some great mentors who had a Christian Surfer’s Alliance Bible Study at their house, and they encouraged me to keep a focused and purposed life. If it wasn’t for surfing, I may not have met such encouraging people.”

Just as they are physically strong to paddle out in rough Mavericks surf, the Gerhardts are strong in their faith.

“I don’t talk about this much,” Sarah said in an interview with CoastViews Magazine, “but I was raised a Christian and it is the core of my strength; it’s true north for me. … That’s definitely what acts as a foundation for my life, and teaches me, and sees me through surfing, parenting … everything.”

Gebhardt combines her faith, knowledge, experience, courage and her tremendous skill on a surfboard to ride down the steep face of a giant wave. She said the largest wave she’s surfed for paddle-in surfing is “in the 40-foot face range.”

She said surfing a big day at Mavericks really starts a week ahead of the actual session. There’s studying the global weather forecast and various surf forecasts on the Internet. In addition, there’s the issue of who’s going to watch the kids.

“There is a lot of planning, with my husband, on how to coordinate work and children since we both surf out there,” she said. “Then when the day arrives, adrenalin starts pumping the minute we are in the truck on the way up the coast. I usually try to remain tranquil and absorb all of the beauty of the coast and remember all the time spent with my mom in Pescadero, which is on the way up the coast to Mavericks.

Growing up, Gerhardt cared for her mother, a quadriplegic from muscular dystrophy.

“After suiting up and paddling for 20 to 45 minutes to make it out to the line-up, I catch my breath and marvel at the waves and their riders, trying to psych myself up to catch some for myself,” she continued. “It takes patience and persistence to remain in the perfect location for catching a wave and, after all of that, sometimes the adrenalin is too much and I look down 30 or more feet and stop paddling. When I can override my survivor instinct and huck myself over the ledge of a wave, then it’s just the sheer thrill of speed.

“The elation of successfully riding a wave is indescribable. I can only relate it to the feeling we all have experienced of accomplishing a task that was deemed impossible.”

When her students discover that she’s surfed Mavericks, “they are always stoked,” Gerhardt said. “I think they see me in a different light and it encourages them in their lives to go after their passions.”


  1. wow. what an amazing woman. inspiring!