Surfing in Tofino can feel truly magical, no matter your skill level. Gentle waves roll evenly and consistently to the sandy shore, splashing beginners with a salty good luck potion. The mighty Pacific feels warm thanks to wetsuits and booties, lending the illusion that you could catch waves all day. And from the water, the green-robed mountains that curve around the quiet shores are ringed in mist to form a wispy crown — and a stunning backdrop.
Indeed, it was Tofino’s low-key reputation as a surfer’s paradise — not to mention its other natural allures — that first inspired Krissy Montgomery to drive across Vancouver Island, from Nanaimo, with a car full of girlfriends when she turned 19. A sports lover and athlete, Montgomery had started dabbling in surfing in high school and wanted to ride the waves for real.
Krissy Montgomery in action. Photo by Bryanna Bradley.
“We came out to the West Coast in 1998 with the Blue Crush dream,” Montgomery says with a laugh, referencing the cult movie about a hard-core surfer girl in Hawaii.
But in Montgomery’s early days of learning the sport, surfing wasn’t quite as easy as she thought it would be.
“I did everything wrong. I had the wrong equipment, I didn’t know my ocean safety,” Montgomery recalls. “And I was also too shy to ask for help. I was too intimidated.”
Little did Montgomery know the solution to her problem was about to launch in Tofino. A year later, in 1999, Jenny Stewart opened Surf Sister Surf School — an all-female-instructor surf school targeting women who wanted to learn the sport.
“Jenny saw how there were people like myself who wanted to come up and surf but who didn’t have any resources,” says Montgomery. “She also saw there was a lack of women in the water and she wanted to help increase those numbers.”
Four years later, Montgomery joined the Surf Sister team as the manager and an instructor, and then went on to purchase the company in 2009.
— Krissy Montgomery
Teaching came naturally to Montgomery, and she loves sharing her passion with newbies of any gender, watching as surfing empowers, thrills and then humbles them (after a wipeout) in the space of five seconds. She also loves Surf Sister’s philosophy. The team believes that adopting a supportive, encouraging approach to surfing helps students focus on learning without the pressure to perform. What’s important to Surf Sister is that you have fun — whether or not you stand up on your board.
A lesson with Surf Sister. Photo by Bryanna Bradley.
But most first-timers do get vertical because Tofino has some of the best learning beaches in the world. The area’s gradual sand bottom creates waves that are gentle and rolling, with lots of whitewash that’s perfect for beginners. Plus, no rocks or dangers lurk beneath the water, making it very safe. Beyond the beach, Tofino delivers with natural beauty, activities such as hiking and aquatic adventures for nature-minded travellers, and a burgeoning dining scene.
“Of all the places I’ve travelled before, it would be very hard to top Tofino,” says Montgomery.
In the past 20 years, Surf Sister has grown from a single woman operating out of her truck, to a summer team of almost 30 women teaching multiple classes from a downtown office and a satellite surf shack located on the grounds of the Pacific Sands Beach Resort at Cox Bay. That growth has translated to a lot more women surfing in Tofino.
“This is the female surf capital of the world and Surf Sister definitely played a part in that. We feel really proud,” says Montgomery, who turns 40 this year.
The company has certainly helped put Tofino on the map as a legitimate — and friendly — surfing destination. In a sport that can sometimes feel like you’re drowning in a sea of men, the beaches in Tofino are remarkable for the number of women suited up in neoprene waiting for the next set.
“That’s mellowed out the lineup and made it a lot more approachable,” says Montgomery, who also co-founded Queen of the Peak, the first female surf contest in the area. Competitions like it have helped bring gender equality to the sport. This year, for the first time in the World Surfing League (WSL), women’s prize money is equivalent to men’s.
Tofino’s latest group of up-and-coming female surfers, all under 16 years old. Photo by Bryanna Bradley.
“There’s a global awakening in our sport. Finally, women are getting the respect they deserve and are given equal opportunity in the surf world,” says Montgomery.
All of these changes have inspired even younger women to take to the waves. In Tofino alone, the surfing community has only grown stronger — Montgomery has noticed a posse of about eight promising female surfers who are under the age of 16.
“The excitement in the younger generation is just so cool. These kids are just charging, getting out there when it’s gnarly,” says Montgomery. “They’re my heroes now.”