“Know Your Rights” is a semi-regular column featuring profiles of and conversations with local surfers whose love for the ocean fuels their passion, in turn inspiring a deeper connection to the Northeast Florida community and making the RIGHT coast the BEST coast on which to live.

In mid-September, one of the most hotly anticipated local surf events of the year, The Sisters Sea Surf Classic, went down at the Jacksonville Beach Pier. More than 12 dozen girls and women participated in this year’s Sisters of the Sea Surf Classic, and many more came down to the beach for what has grown to be one of the region’s most fun, and most important contests.

Going on two decades now SOS (a 501(c)3 nonprofit) has been giving back to the community and promoting women in the water, with proceeds from their various initiatives supporting the Bosom Buddies Program at the Women’s Center of Jax.

And as the 20th annual contest, this year’s SOS held special significance, coming at a unique time in the history of women’s surfing. In early August the U.S. Open played host to the first-ever all women’s Duct Tape Invitational—a contest that’s become the premier event in classic longboarding. Just weeks later, the World Surf league announced that starting with the 2019 season, men and women will be offered equal prize purses at each contest, making the WSL the first American-based global sports league to offer gender pay equality.

In addition, this year’s event marked longtime SOS veteran Samantha Ryan’s first contest as the organization’s president. The 48-year-old Ryan will be familiar to local surfers in Jax Beach, as she came of age during the Hixon’s Surf Shop era—hanging swimsuits in the shop beginning at age 12—and surfed her first Eastern Surfing Association contest in 1982.

We recently caught up with Ryan to talk about taking the reins of this distinctive local organization, the state of women’s surfing and continuing the good work of SOS.

Congrats on being named president of SOS. How’d you come to be involved with Sisters of the Sea and was there an experience in your life that helped you connect with the mission of SOS?  
Thank you, I am thrilled to serve in this role. I was walking on the beach 22 years ago with my friend Eva Duran and she talked of starting an all women’s surf group and had already painted a beautiful logo for it. Immediately, I was all for it and supported her in the idea. Then several of our surf sisters came together for a surf at Dolphin Plaza and the idea was realized. We were already living our mission statement of friendship, wave knowledge, and beach improvement because of the bond we had, our love for surfing and taking care of our beach.

There is one experience that stands out as far as connecting with the mission statement. I moved to Maui shortly after SOS began. I was surfing Ho’Okipa and a crazy swell started coming in—it looked like huge buildings on the horizon. The wind kicked up and the conditions became dangerous fast. Well, I learned how to free fall, hold my breath a long time, get dragged across the reef, and lay on the beach appreciating land and air when the coolest Hawaiian woman came up to me to make sure I was OK. She hung out with me, we laughed about it and I gained another friend that day. Although a bit more of “wave knowledge” would have been good on my part, I made a good friend. Women naturally connect with each other and the water creates a stronger bond. It is a simple mission statement, but it sums it up beautifully.

This year’s contest marked 20 years of SOS. How has the organization and contest changed/evolved over the course of two decades?
I feel because of the past 20 years we are certainly solid in knowing how to run a surf contest, have fun, empower women/gals and raise money for our charity. It is absolutely a group effort. As far as evolving, the sky’s the limit. I’d like to add a Pro Division next year, we have done it in the past, but I feel for SOS 2019 we will be primed more than ever to do so.

The contest looked all-time this year. What were some highlights or new things that went down? Did you raise a substantial amount of money this year?
The highlights were many, from the 150 contestants ranging in age from 3 to 65 killing it and having fun to the brave guys that dressed as chicks for the “revived” Twisted Sister heat. Throughout the day the stoke was real and the Sister “vibe” was strong, all to celebrate women and raise $4,500 for our Bosom Buddies charity.

Can you talk about Bosom Buddies and the Jax Women’s Center? How did you all come to partner with them?  
Twenty years ago we aligned with the breast cancer cause because of the passing of Rell Sunn, who was an extraordinary Hawaiian woman who stood for all things good and was taken all too soon because of it. The gals running the SOS Surf Classic at the time created a solid relationship with the Bosom Buddies Breast Cancer Support program at the Women’s Center of Jacksonville, which is dedicated to improving the lives of women affected by breast cancer. Compassionately and respectfully, they educate, support and advocate so that women are empowered to make informed decisions concerning their health. They provide a variety of information and resources to women affected by breast cancer including free educational materials, mastectomy bras, wigs and prostheses at no charge. Additionally, Bosom Buddies provides information and referrals to uninsured or under-insured women needing breast health care in the Jacksonville area. We LOVE them and LOVE that all money raised is returned to our community.

Aside from the contest, what other initiatives does SOS undertake throughout the year?
Our second-largest event is our Sisters & Survivors “A Day of Fun in the Sun” event held in June of each year. This is a day that makes me proud to be a Sister of the Sea. We partner with Saltwater Cowgirls Surf Camp to provide FREE surf lessons to our sister cancer survivors. This is a day to celebrate women and to have fun in a sister-friendly environment. We provide two volunteers for every participant where there is a pusher and a catcher for love, support and safety. These ladies get out there and rock it!  It is an absolutely an inspiring day of fun in the sun with these amazing women!

We also do beach clean ups followed by a surf session about every three months. Our beach and ocean is our heart and soul and getting out there and doing the little things with a group of many can make a big difference. It’s really about coming together with like-minded people doing what we can to make this world and our community a  better place. The Sisters of the Sea are not stopping anytime soon.

There was an all-female Duct Tape Invitational at the U.S. Open this year. And then the WSL’s announcement this week that they’ll offer equal prize money for men and women was a splashy headline for sure! What did you think of that announcement and what does it say about how far the recognition of women’s surfing has come since, say, Rell Sunn’s time?
First of all, yes! I am super happy about it! It speaks volumes for how the surf industry has evolved and how the women on the WSL tour have evolved because they weren’t going to settle for less. What excites me most, as someone who has a personal goal to get as many girls in the water, is what this decision will do for all the girls out there with the dream of surfing—talk about elevating the sport! It certainly adds more validity and will have a ripple effect throughout all professional sports for women. It’s such a cool time to be living!