by Nila Do Simon | September 10, 2021

Sisters in Life and in Surfing

The 23rd-annual Sisters of the Sea Surf Classic and Beaches Go Green Pro-Am Presented by Eidon elevates racial diversity along with female empowerment with its all-female surf contest

Sisters of the Sea, a nonprofit based out of Ponte Vedra Beach, is dedicated to expanding the reach of female surfers in and out of the water.

For generations, the waves off the coast of Jacksonville Beach have sculpted the area into an East Coast surfer’s dream. The reliable breaks to the north and south of the city’s iconic pier offer plenty of peaks for both experienced and novice surfers. And when a fall swell rolls through, crowds of surfers (mostly men and boys with a few exceptions) take to the water to experience some of the best action the Sunshine State has to offer. But on one fall day every year for the past 22 years, a growing group of women and girls has looked to take over the lineup and create a thriving sisterhood around surfing.

One could say that it started a year earlier, in 1997, when a handful of ladies came together to paddle out a few miles north of the Jacksonville Beach pier, at Hanna Park’s Dolphin Plaza. North Florida, with its unassuming surf history and impact on the sport, became an under-the-radar spot for both men and women who enjoyed the authenticity of its surfing rather than the over-the-top marketing seen in other regions. Back then, when the sport still had a pervasive amount of male athletes, this collective of women was a sight to behold. Up to eight females in their early 20s would take to the waves in the early morning hours. For surfer Samantha “Sam” Ryan, the reason was simple: “We just yearn to surf with our girlfriends.”

Today the group, known as Sisters of the Sea, has evolved into a 350-member nonprofit organization based in neighboring Ponte Vedra Beach dedicated to expanding the reach that female surfers have both in and out of the water. Its annual contest, the Sisters of the Sea Surf Classic & The Beaches Go Green Women’s PRO presented by Eidon, is considered the longest-running all-female professional and amateur surf competition in the nation. On September 18, women and girls of all ages and skill levels will compete in their respective divisions to show just how fierce they are in the water. 

A Contest with a Conscience

The one-day contest sells out nearly every year, with the organization capping entries at 150 competitors. Surfers from as far as New York show up to compete. Cash prizes of up to $1,000 are rewarded in the professional division, and every participant takes home a swag bag filled with valuable goods. Throughout the day, Beaches Go Green will keep competitors hydrated with constant water refills, and the top 64 finishers will go home with a reusable water courtesy of the Jacksonville beach nonprofit. Locally shaped surfboards, beachwear and other products are raffled off and donations are raised in support of nonprofits helping cancer patients and survivors, and new this year, the SurfearNEGRA’s 100 girl program, which places inner-city girls and girls of color into quality surf camps, teaches water safety and creates accessibility to the ocean for those who otherwise would not have access.

My expectation is that having this contingency of BIPOC surfers will be uneventful because it feels natural and normal. Not having diversity is not normal. We should feel uncomfortable when it’s not diverse.

—Gigi Lucas

2021 marks Ryan’s third year as the organization’s president, and as a founding member of the group, the Jacksonville Beach native says the Sisters of the Sea Surf Classic symbolizes a bond and a community she couldn’t have imagined growing up. Oftentimes the only girl out in the water, Ryan began surfing at age 12 on a single-fin Strickland board that she rode until it sank. From there, she began competing on the national level, including in the East Coast Championships in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, before moving to Maui. Now back in North Florida, Ryan says she couldn’t be more thrilled at the sight of Jacksonville becoming a safe surfing haven for girls and women and the home of the iconic all-female contest. 

Sisters of the Sea provides a safe space for girls to shred the waves. Photography by Joey Wilson.

“The energy is real at the Classic,” Ryan says. “I truly feel in my heart, after being involved for basically 23 years, because it’s all women, there’s a different vibe on the water. Sure, there are men—dads, brothers, husbands—around us, but when it’s a competition with just women, I can’t explain it. It’s just different. It’s magic, really. It’s competitive but supportive.”

Ryan says that as riders compete in their heats, they can hear cheers from the shoreline and see massive posters decorated with supporting messages from their family and friends, as well as fellow competitors. If a competitor has a bad heat, almost immediately she receives high-fives and hugs from her friends and competitors once she comes to the shore.

Diversifying the Lineup

Gigi Lucas founded SurfearNEGRA, an organization that makes the ocean more accessible for girls of color. Photography by Stefanie Keeler.

This year’s competition also aims to be a more inclusive event. Thanks to Sisters of the Sea member GiGi Lucas, who is a Black woman and president of her own surf organization, SurfearNEGRA, the Classic has become even more accessible, with nearly a dozen girls of color from various parts of the country taking part in this year’s pro-am. Founded by Lucas, the nonprofit SurfearNEGRA has looked to, in its company words, diversify the lineup and introduce the sport to more Black and brown girls and women. It’s a topic that both Ryan and Lucas felt that the Sisters of the Sea Classic could not only touch upon, but really make a societal and systemic difference.

When social movements like Black Lives Matter swept the nation last year, Ryan was rocked by how deep the roots of systemic racism stretched. Upset by her naivete and inaction, Ryan called up Lucas to make a game plan.

“What I appreciated about Sam was that she moved to action instead of just talking about it,” Lucas says. “She immediately thought, ‘How can I use my platform to shift the narrative?’”

Along with SurfearNEGRA, Ryan and the rest of Sisters of the Sea spread the word about the Classic to the BIPOC surfing community. For the 23rd event, they expect the largest contingency of girls and women of color competing in a pro-am to date. In a sport that’s inherently challenging and physical, Lucas calls these BIPOC young surfers some of the bravest she’s ever seen. Most are novices, and they’re sure stand out on September 18 for their ebony-colored skin. Though they could easily be intimidated, stepping foot in the ocean will be one of the most powerful statements they’ll make in their lifetimes.

SurfearNEGRA founder Gigi Lucas says that the surfers of color today are some of the bravest she’s ever seen.

“It’s a beginning,” says Lucas. “By talking about this point, it will put the rest of the industry on notice. I’m looking forward to experiencing it and watching our girls compete. My expectation is that having this contingency of BIPOC surfers will be uneventful because it feels natural and normal. Not having diversity is not normal. We should feel uncomfortable when it’s not diverse.”

With all the new faces and many returning ones, Ryan says there’s one constant when riding with other females. “It’s natural, it’s easy, it’s everlasting,” she says. “I’ve known these women for years. When I paddle out, and I see them, I smile. It’s this connection. It’s like, ‘I got you.’”

This post is sponsored by Sisters of the Sea. Photography courtesy of Sisters of the Sea.