A surf teacher at Surf Sisters school in Tofino, B.C., instructs students.
By Judi Zienchuk
Images courtesy of Surf Sister
The world of surf is a land full of sun, sand and waves – void of all worries. It’s a tight-knit community that spans several generations with young surfers (groms) beginning their careers before their seventh birthday and old-timers still catching waves at 93-years-young. It includes writers, photographers and film crews.
With all of this involvement, one area of the industry’s still lagging behind: the world of women surfers. Even in cities like Tofino, British Columbia, which has one of the highest numbers of female surfers per capita on the planet and is the birthplace of surf schools like Surf Sister that promote gender equality, surfing is still “very much a boy’s game.”
“When I first started out, they didn’t even make wetsuits and equipment for girls,” says Surf Sister’s owner, Krissy Montgomery. “I had to borrow hand-me downs from my guy friends.”
These differences care clear in one of surfing’s biggest international competitions: the ASP World Championship. It accepts 34 male surfers to compete in 10 events, but only takes 17 females to compete in seven. The prize money awarded for surfing event also varies significantly between genders. Men and women both compete in the Breaka Burleigh Pro event held in Burleigh Heads, Australia where they are surfing the same waves and being judged on the same criteria. Women, however, are competing for a prize of $40,000 while the men are competing for $95,000.
Striking variances like this are unfortunately common. Only 22 per cent of total industry prize money is awarded to female surfers. While $40,000 is nonetheless still a large sum of money, the average cost of equipment and training required to compete at a professional level is around $50,000. This means that even the top woman surfer in the world will not be able to support her surfing career on prize money alone.
Professional women surfers also have a tougher time finding companies to sponsor them.
“There’s always the issue of finding funding,” says Montgomery. “Companies open their pockets to guys, but are more stringent towards girls.”
This is if the girls can even get into the competition at all. When Tofino was selected to host Coldwater Canada in 2009, Montgomery and her fellow surfer girls were excited to show off their skills. This enthusiasm was short-lived, however, as she soon found out that, once again, the competition was going to be a boys-only event.
“We felt a little slighted that there wouldn’t be a female event,” says Montgomery. “It was just the history of competition in the area – it’s all about the guys.”
Unwilling to face defeat that easily, Montgomery and her team from Surf Sister, as well as members of the local community, banded together to create Queen of the Peak, an annual women’s surf contest in 2009.
“The community has really embraced [Queen of the Peak],” says Montgomery. “It’s a really inclusive event. We have competitions for surf grommets as young as five and six, as well as events for older women. We also have pre-qualifying events for guys, so we don’t exclude anyone. It has been pretty well received.”
Inclusivity is nothing new for the Surf Sister team, as although they mainly target female surfers, their enrolment for men versus women is split about 60/40.
“We’re not looking to exclude men,” Montgomery explains. “We just want to create an environment where men and women are equal in the water. I think people are just happy to see a female instructor because we have a difference approach to the sport. We keep it light, fun and don’t have the same degree of machismo many of the boys do.”
Despite all of the success within the community, Surf Sisters still struggles to get funding for Queen of the Peak. For most surf events, the majority of these sponsors come from surf brands like Quiksilver, Billabong, Rip Curl and O’Neill. For widely followed male events, finding sponsors usually isn’t a problem and the top surfers receive top funding. For female events (which tend to have smaller viewership), these brands look more towards girls’ appearances when choosing who to sponsor and which events to support.
Many girls find that the industry is trying to brand female surfing as a world full of bleach-blonde California girls. Surfer Magazine even featured “Most Photographed Surfer” over “Top Female Surfer” in their article on the Surfer Poll and Video Awards (one of the biggest surf awards nights).
This issue is less prominent in Canada because of the colder weather. Simply put, wetsuits (which are required in water temperatures that range between three to 15 degrees in Tofino) just aren’t sexy. While this has saved a lot of Canadian girls from being pushed to the stereotypical image, the “rugged Canadian girl” image Montgomery finds most of the surfers embody attract a far smaller market, meaning funding is lower, and companies are few and far between.
With all of the work Montgomery puts into Surf Sister and Queen of the peak, day-to-day life can get a bit crazy. She brushes this off as just part of the surfer lifestyle, however.
“Canadian girls are just a rugged bunch. We don’t care that putting on a wet suit is kind of ugly, its just who we are,” she says, noting the on-site coffee bar at the school as been a bit of a lifesaver.
The world of female surfing is still far from perfect, but with surfer girls like Montgomery working to make the industry a more accepting place and encouraging girls to get out onto the waves, men and women will hopefully one day be able to surf the waters on an equal level. M