Melissa Morrison sits riveted as towering, aquamarine waves crest to their climax. Fierce women surfers drop in and carve their boards with salty smiles and effortless style.

It’s 2002 and Morrison’s at the movie theatre with her mom. She’s watching Kate Bosworth in the classic surf drama, Blue Crush.

“Ever since then, I was obsessed with the idea of surfing,” she says, a flicker of teenage excitement still present in her voice.

Seeing three young women surfers represented on screen, fulfilling their dreams of riding the notorious Banzai Pipeline competition on Hawaii’s North Shore, Morrison never questioned whether she would belong in the water.

Melissa MorrisonPhoto of Melissa Morrison; Credit: Sarah Bennett

“It wasn’t until I started surfing many years later that I was like ‘oh wow, this is quite male-dominated.’ This wasn’t how I imagined it,” she says.

Yet Morrison was undeterred. If the Blue Crush community she envisioned didn’t exist in her home on southern Vancouver Island, she would create it for herself. Together with her friend Madison Myatt, she planned a women’s surfing trip for a group of friends in the small coastal town of Tofino—British Columbia’s surf hotspot.

Without knowing it, the two were planting a seed on that trip. When Morrison came home, she posted a photo online to commemorate her femme-powered surf adventure, half-jokingly captioning it “Bitches ‘n Barrels.” To Morrison’s surprise, the photo inspired a flood of messages from other women asking to join a future surf trip.

“It just all of a sudden opened my eyes that there was a demand for this community and for a female-specific surf program,” she says.

So the name stuck. And that’s how the two friends co-founded Bitches ‘n Barrels—a non-profit surf club dedicated to getting more women in the waves.

Women in the wavesSarah Bennett

“Our goal is to correct that massive male-domination we see out there, particularly on southern Vancouver Island,” says Morrison.

Since that unintentional inaugural Bitches ‘n Barrels adventure five years ago, the organization has run 29 trips for around 290 women in Tofino.

Surf trips are Bitches ‘n Barrels’ key offering during the May to September summer season. Their weekend classic trips include five surf sessions for women of all levels, with lessons from the all-female surf school, Surf Sister, and in-water photography by Bryanna Bradley.

Trip participants camp together at Surf Grove, bonding over shared meals and campfires at beachfront sites at Cox Bay. Those interested in a slightly longer trip can try the week-long surf camps with a similar itinerary.

New this year, the surf club is also offering an intermediate longboarding trip with coaching by Tofino legend Lydia Ricard, for those with their own gear and some experience riding out back.

Their popular trips sell out quickly, so following Bitches ‘n Barrels registration announcements on Instagram is the best way to lock in a spot.

Past surf trip participants Erin van der Lee and Sarah Bennett saw their surf skills improve immensely during their surf camp.

Erin van der LeePhoto of Erin van der Lee; Credit: Sarah Bennett

Bennett, a newer surfer, advanced to be able to ride small green waves, getting closer to her longboard goals of nose riding, or “hanging ten.” And van der Lee made more progress during a week with Bitches ‘n Barrels than she did in months living and surfing in Puerto Escondido, Mexico.

“A big part of it was just the energy. I think so much of it is not actually not knowing what to do or not having the skills, it’s the confidence,” says van der Lee.

Bennett agrees. “Bitches ‘n Barrels is helping with that confidence, for women to know and realize that they are welcome, that they have the same right to be on the same wave as anyone else,” she says.

But more than skill development, what stood out the most to both women was the sense of camaraderie and community—the start of their own surf girl gang.

Tofino on a Bitches 'n Barrels surf camp in 2021Sarah Bennett

The women at the surf camp became fast friends as they cheered each other on in the waves, whether they ripped or bailed or, most likely, both.

They lamented the moments that they felt excluded in the line-up, but celebrated how much stronger they felt with another woman by their side.

They made lasting connections with new surf partners, extending their community long after the camp was over using Bitches ‘n Barrels’ Facebook Community Board. These relationships made surfing feel much more possible and, more importantly, more fun.

“There’s just something about having other women out there. It helps you feel more fearless,” says van der Lee.

For Bitches n’ Barrels, the community aspect is a crucial part of their mandate because, as Morrison discovered, it’s not a pre-existing condition of surfing for women. It’s not all Blue Crush out there.

TofinoSarah Bennett

“I think the momentum is shifting, but surf culture has always been like, women are pretty and they look great in a skimpy bikini. But men are powerful, they throw spray and tuck into barrels,” says Morrison.

Bitches ‘n Barrels is making major waves, shaking up local surf culture to be more gender inclusive. With a humble sense of pride, Morrison says she’s witnessing how the surf club is making a positive difference.

“I’m seeing more women in the line-up now,” she says. “And not just women in the line-up sitting on their surfboards in the channel feeling uncomfortable, but women ripping, taking up space, showing that they feel like they belong and that there are waves out there for them, too.”

   

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