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The Surf Town Where Women Rule: Women Surfers Bring the Heat to the Coldest Surf Scene in North America

By:  Zac Unger Mar 18, 2013
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Hanna Scott surfing

2011 Champ & Tofino local, Hanna Scott, wraps one of her signature carves on her way to another Final appearance.

Think about the phrase “Surf Paradise.” Paint a picture in your mind. What do you see? Palm trees, probably. Blue water, clear skies, hot sun. A lot of board-shorts and bikinis, macho dudes riding massive waves.

Now think of another phrase. “The Surf Capital of Canada.” No, that’s not a joke, or a contradiction in terms. It’s the tiny town of Tofino, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, off the coast of British Columbia. It’s different than your tropical paradise archetype in a lot of ways. For example, when it’s not raining, that’s probably because it’s snowing. There’s not an umbrella-drink in sight, but you can find fresh salmon and wild mushrooms on just about every menu. And nobody in town really knows how to handle a skimpy swimsuit but people will talk your ear off about the relative merits of different neoprene hoods and wetsuit booties.

Equal Opportunity Wipeouts

Hanna Scott, manager of Pacific Surf School

Hanna Scott, manager of Pacific Surf School

Tofino is different in another way too. According to the people who know, it’s the best place on earth for women surfers.

“Sometimes when you're out on the water, half the other riders will be women,” says local surfer Krissy Montgomery. “That never happens anywhere else.” And Montgomery is part of the reason. The owner of a renowned local shop called Surf Sister, Montgomery is responsible for getting more than 5,000 people out on the water every year. The shop employs an all-women staff and although men can take lessons too, the dominant focus is on teaching women how to shred.

Hanna Scott leads a lesson at the Pacific Surf School

Hanna Scott leads a lesson at the Pacific Surf School

Nobody knows exactly why this surf scene is so friendly towards women, but theories abound. Some people say it’s because surf culture in Tofino is relatively new; it’s only been a hot (cold) surf destination for a decade or so. Some gnarly breaks in Hawaii or Australia have been male-dominated for 50 years; and even in the supposedly laid back world of wave riding, tough-guy habits die hard. In Tofino, everyone started out on a level playing field. Incidentally, that goes for the young and the old as well — it’s not uncommon to see three generations of riders all headed for the same beach.

Another possibility for the friendly, welcoming attitude is that, in Tofino, the waves themselves are gentle and endless. There’s no fighting for the one perfect ride, no ugly territoriality over some secret spot. In a way, the brutal weather helps too. People share thermoses of coffee, share dry spots under tree branches, and share the wealth when they’re out on the waves.

In the end, though, the reasons why don’t really matter. The results speak for themselves. “The vibe here is just really mellow and supportive,” says Hanna Scott, the manager of Pacific Surf School, which is Surf Sister’s friendly rival. “Women are just different. It’s not like we’re going to go to the bar and tell our glory stories about all the big barrels we rode. A lot of girls surf for fun, just to move their bodies. We’ll never complain that the surf is too small, because it’s still fun to get out there. I mean, it’s still surfing.”

Hanna Scott, Tofino, BC local, 2011 Shortboard & Longboard Champ

Hanna Scott, Tofino, BC local, 2011 Shortboard & Longboard Champ

Queen of the Peak

But it would be a mistake to think that Tofino’s female surfers are totally lacking in competitive spirit. In fact, just four years ago the locals organized a just-for-women surfing contest called the Queen Of The Peak. And while the rivalries on the water can be fierce, the prevailing spirit is one of camaraderie. 

Alongside the main event, age division competitions have been added for surfers under 16 and over 40. In addition to cash prizes for the winners, all competitors win complimentary babysitting and massages courtesy of the Wickaninnish Inn, an upscale local lodge. In the end, all proceeds are donated to Keep A Breast, a charity working to eradicate breast cancer. According to Pacific Surf School’s Hanna Scott, the competition shows that “it’s OK to be a woman who’s motivated to win, but we’re also all friends and having a good time.”

Montgomery — who drives a pink Volvo with gold bumpers and a stack of surfboards on the roof — couldn’t be happier with the surf scene in Tofino. And although she travels with her entire staff to some exotic ocean destination every January, the water and attitude of tiny Tofino keep drawing her back. 

And yet she has identified ONE drawback with a surfing town where women rule. In a male-dominated scene, a lone female surfer can sometimes prevail upon a chivalrous man to carry her board down from the road, or even let her cut the line out at the surf break. "It used to be that guys would say 'Oh sure, you can have that wave.' But there's so many of us out here now that we can't play that girly card anymore." 

It’s a small price to pay for surfing in the coldwater paradise of the north.