VANCOUVER - For the fourth straight year, dozens of women will climb into neoprene wetsuits this weekend, pull on their booties and gloves and paddle out into the cold, dark waves off Vancouver Island's west coast for a chance at becoming the country's best female surfer and claiming a top prize of $1,500.
Quietly, behind the scenes, though, organizers of the Queen of the Peak surfing championship in Tofino, B.C., have been talking to the sport's world-governing body, hoping to create a higher-profile, women's-only professional event that would boast a prize purse worth tens of thousands of dollars and attract competitors from around the world.
The new contest would run separately from the Queen of the Peak, which organizers say would likely turn into a local qualifier, and become the first-ever, female-only surfing contest sanctioned by the Association of Surfing Professionals in Canada.
It would also mark the organization's return to B.C.
Tofino surfer Peter Devries won the local leg of the association-sanctioned O'Neill Coldwater Classic in 2009 and gave a solid performance in 2010 before the event shut down.
"We have experience with the venue, which we're super fond of and supportive of the surfing scene in Tofino, and the quality and variety of the waves up there and the consistency of swell," said Brian Robbins, tour manager for ASP North America.
But he noted any sanctioned contest would have to take place at the right time of year: "I mean we wouldn't be so interested in coming up there to surf in the snow."
Since association competitions are independently produced, local organizers would need to take care of the logistics, raising cash for the prize purse and judges' fees, as well as computer scoring, webcasting and media, he said.
Robbins said the prize purse for a six-star qualifying event for the ASP Women's World Championship Tour is $40,000.
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Pulling off an ASP competition isn't impossible, though. Tofino has already hosted one, and competitions take place regularly in places that are even more remote than the west coast of Vancouver Island.
Men and women compete in ASP sanctioned events around the world in places like California, Hawaii and Australia in qualifying events for the chance to make it onto the World Championship Tour. The competition envisioned for Tofino would be one of those qualifying events.
Once on the world tour, competitors like Kelly Slater of the U.S. can earn more than $227,000 in a year and women like Tyler Wright of Australia can make more than $77,000 annually.
Jenna Balester, a 24-year-old Californian who'll compete in the Queen of the Peak this weekend with several friends from the U.S., said she has already competed in several ASP-sanctioned events at home and in Australia, including the US Open of Surfing at Huntington Beach, Calif.
Balester, who placed second in last year's Queen of the Peak, said Tofino's rugged beauty would draw her and many other female athletes to an ASP event.
"I think obviously the cold's going to get to a lot of people, but the raw beauty. . . when you're in the water is just like 'Whoa,'" she said.
"I've never seen anything like this," she said. "I'm from Southern California, so I look in and I see the highway and cars, and then I look here and I'm like 'I think I just saw a bear.' That's amazing."
Balester said Tofino would be attractive because it's a new spot for many women, although many male professionals are already making regular visits.
Krissy Montgomery, co-organizer of the Queen of the Peak, said this year's event has drawn 100 competitors: 48 women in the shortboard competition, 32 in the longboard contest and 20 kids in the new Princess of the Peak.
That's a far cry from five or 10 yeas ago when critics would have thought anybody who tried to organize a competition for 20 young girls would be crazy, said Montgomery.
The contest initially got off the ground, she said, because women were getting a raw deal in local surfing competitions. They were always given the worst times to surf and received far less money in prizes than the men, said Montgomery.
Mike Jacobsen, also a co-organization of the Queen of the Peak who has been in talks with the ASP about a potential Tofino event, said there are many challenges ahead.
Tofino businesses probably couldn't afford the sponsorship costs on their own, so organizers would probably have to go outside the community, he noted.
But a women's contest also has the opportunity to attract a fairly broad audience he added, especially if it included elements like fashion, yoga and even healthy living, he said.