Tofino, Canada, and its seemingly limitless potential for excellent cold-water surf is no secret. But years before pictures of local pros Sepp and Raph Bruhwiler hit the pages of SURFER Magazine, another local was thoughtfully starting her business. Jenny Stewart taught her first surf lesson in 1992 but didn’t officially create Surf Sister Surf School until 1999, operating the business out of her Toyota pickup truck. “I would have 10 soft-top boards stacked on the roof and this rusty hand-crank VISA machine that snapped people’s cards in half because of all the sand in it!” says Stewart.
Stewart knew Tofino had the right combination of consistent waves as well as local female talent to create a surfing instruction business, one created by women, for women. At that time in Canada, there were no standards for instructor training, safety, gear, or even guidelines for teaching people how to surf in cold water. Plus, would people come all the way to tiny, hard-to-reach Tofino to learn to surf? The answer was yes. But Stewart had to build it all from the ground up.
And it wasn’t easy. Many Tofino locals didn’t think she’d be successful. Some openly discouraged her—wanting to keep their plentiful waves and pristine beaches to themselves, and others (some who have since created surf schools of their own), sabotaged her business by removing advertisements or stealing promotional materials. But Stewart prevailed with her unique business model, and Surf Sister doubled their sales in the first three years (and with increases every year since), which landed her a Billabong sponsorship, paving the way for sponsorships of other surf schools in years to come.
Stewart’s successes extend beyond business: her safety standards were so professional, nearby Pacific Rim National Park adopted them as their own, requiring all other surf schools operating within their boundaries to adhere to them as well. Stewart used these standards, which detail proper equipment such as soft tops with rubber fins for beginners, instructor experience, and training levels (completion of Canada’s Bronze Medallion lifesaving courses which includes first aid and water rescue) to create the British Columbia Association of Surfing Instructors (or BCASI), an organization dedicated to the training of surf instructors for the Canadian surf industry.
In 2002 Surf Sister opened a tiny shop just outside of Tofino, the walls lined three-deep with soft tops intermixed with instructors’ boards. She began offering surf lessons for guys, “I never meant to keep men out, I just wanted to make sure women felt very included and received the precise instruction they needed to succeed at surfing,” says Stewart. Surf Sister’s payroll grew from 3 instructors to 6, to 12 to today’s 25. And in 2005 they moved again, to a 1500 square-foot shop on Campbell Street. “With all the girls, the boards and wetsuits, plus the expansion of our Surf Sister clothing line, we were busting at the seams,” says Stewart. “Plus there was no bathroom. Try that with a bunch of girls!”
So what’s next for Tofino’s Queen of Surf? When we spoke for this interview, she was readying for one last cold-water session in Tofino before heading to Kauai, where she lives most of the year. She’s thinking of moving on from the surf school business in order to devote more time to her two passions: being a mom to four-year-old son, Mason, and—of course—surfing. “They say that after 10 years you are done and ready to move on. I say bring it on!”
Amy Waeschle is the author of the recent book: Chasing Waves, a Surfer’s Tale of Obsessive Wandering. Contact her at www.amywaeschle.com