The global cold-water cosmos knows Tofino, British Columbia’s Surf Sister, an all-inclusive school that has stewarded the surf scene for 20 years. Story and photographs by Erin Hogue.
On a deserted beach one early morning in Tofino, British Columbia, a thick layer of cloud hides any remnants of the sun’s rays, and the crisp scent of the ocean hangs in the air. Surfers in thick hooded wetsuits greet each other excitedly with hugs and high fives. Armed with longboards and positive attitudes, they almost dance their way to the frigid waters. Krissy Montgomery leads them. With an energy that brightens even the gloomiest situations, Montgomery is lovingly referred to as “Surf Mama,” but most know her work before they learn this moniker.
As iconic as any other totem of Tofino, the Surf Sister surfing school has been a central part of the scene since 1999, when Jenny Stewart established it with a cell phone, a van, and the desire to create a more inclusive surf community. Montgomery got on board in 2003, when she showed Stewart a surf drawing she had doodled in school. It became Surf Sister’s second logo. Stewart saw promise in Montgomery’s keen business sense and sharp organizational skills. They soon joined forces.
While Hawaii’s warm sunshine and perfect surf stole Stewart away permanently in 2008, Montgomery continues to lead Surf Sister with the original goal of making everyone feel welcome in the water. “It’s our mission to create a safe and inclusive environment for surfers and surf enthusiasts to thrive,” she says. The same desire eventually led to Queen of the Peak, a female-focused surfing competition that has become one of the Pacific Northwest’s more unique surf-culture offerings. Over a hundred surfers congregate in Tofino every October to compete for the title. Surfers travel thousands of kilometres—often from the ease of warm reef breaks—just to participate.
The competition was born in 2009, when Montgomery and restaurateurs Jay Gildenhuys and Mike Jacobsen were contemplating the lack of female presence in Tofino’s surf contests, despite a high calibre of local talent. They decided to establish the first standalone women’s contest to “set a stage for female athletes to shine.” They moved fast; within a month, the first Queen of the Peak was crowned.
Local professional surfers Noah Cohen and Pete Devries volunteer their time to judge the contest, as do longboard champion Robbie Ferguson and Surf Canada national team coach Shannon Brown. “Queen of the Peak is the epitome of what I love about surf culture,” says professional surfer and past winner Leah Dawson, who travelled from Hawaii to compete. “It’s more like a community gathering than a contest.” It’s enough to make a Surf Mama proud.