Sarah Yani Vann-Sander: The Motivational Mermaid

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Interview by Sally Mac

Have you ever read about someone who just blows you away? We come by so many each day but some stick with us, they can hold their own in a room, in the line up and for the environment. Sarah Yani Vann-Sander is an extraordinary woman of the sea. She’s a mermaid with a life packed full of achievements and she’s only a quarter of a century old.

Growing up in Perth she was blessed to have saltwater running through her veins and the ocean at her doorstep until her family moved inland to the Northern Territory when she was 12. But this desire to be in the sea became a special treat and something much more special for her being so far away. Whilst most teenagers are battling for the front of the canteen line in year ten, the accelerated and multi-talented Sarah headed off to university in Canberra at 16, a little close to the ocean this time she was able to make trips to the east coast for a dive into the big blue.

So here’s where she’s at. Graduating from school at 15 as Citizen of the year; Graduated top of her class at the Australian National University with First Class Honours; Scholarships from all the top Grad Schools around the world INCLUDING OXFORD. But c’mon there’s more to life than the books right!? The girl is more cultured than anyone you’ll ever meet after a list of opportunities have taken her to Vietnam, Brazil, the US and Europe.

Sarah Says “I’ve had incredible professional opportunities, started many projects and programs, run huge events and campaigns. I achieved my First Class Masters degree whilst working full time and running a non-profit on the side.”

…So these achievements are making my brain exhausted and feeling useless at the same time… 

Sarah Yani Vann-Sander

Above all the thing that makes Sarah special is this oversight to her academia and top notch resume…  She’s got her feet solidly planted on the ground/seabed… “Achievements…” she says “have come from pursuing my heart and dedicating myself to things I’m most passionate about – for me that’s the biggest achievement. Making change. Seeing children’s faces when they learn how incredible the ocean is. Surfing a really amazing wave. Overcoming personal obstacles and finding balance and happiness in every day life. As I get older, I feel a greater appreciation for the small achievements in my daily personal life than my professional pursuits.”

These days you’ll find her working as the Senior Community Organiser at The Wilderness Society, a Director of Surfrider Foundation Australia and starting up my own surf-conscious social enterprise/ business.

Right here, right now…Where in the world is Sarah? I’m based out of a little beachside cottage in Trigg, Western Australia, with my boyfriend and a few friends. We get to enjoy the most stunning turquoise ocean and decadent sunsets every day, so even though Perth’s not renowned for its surf – it can still be pretty rad for an ocean lover. I moved back here from California nearly two years ago, after about 10 years away, to be closer to my family and enjoy the simple life.

What has drawn you back to Western Australia after seeing and living the extreme cultural dream? Western Australia is basically it’s own country! The people, the attitudes, the way of life – everything is different to the rest of Australia and indeed the rest of the World! But the most special part for me is the incredibly rich landscape of our coastline. The entire coastline is so completely different and unique, from the huge swells of the South West to the coral reefs of Ningaloo and the Kimberley. It is one of the most pristine, untouched parts of our planet with such incredible biodiversity. It’s a real treasure and I feel really blessed everything I think about where I am!

Sarah Yani Vann-Sander

You’ve done so much with your life, when did surfing jump into the mix? I always wanted to surf growing up! You couldn’t get me out of the ocean, the pool the bath – wherever there was water I was in it! But I didn’t have the opportunity to learn growing up, especially after we moved to the Northern Territory, and it wasn’t until I was 18 that one uni break I decided I was going to finally become a surfer. It was difficult to become any good because I could only surf in intervals between university and travels; my career definitely came first, but I always kept at it. Since I’ve been living in one place I’ve finally been able to commit the time to progress and now I surf as much as I can. My travels are less about work and more about surfing these days, that’s for sure! Becoming an adult surfer has been the ultimate challenge and reward. I’m so grateful I am finally pursuing it the way I’ve always wanted to.

Describe your relationship with the ocean? It’s innate to my existence. Living away from the ocean and my journey back to it made me realise how incomplete I feel without it. It is the life-force of our planet. I have such a deep respect for it’s vital role in all life of earth. I am passionate about ensuring we have healthy oceans for the future of our planet and the future of humanity.

“I believe surfing is extremely empowering for women, both physically and mentally!”

What does Surfrider Foundation do in Australia and why a its crucial part of our beach lifestyle…
Surfrider Foundation Australia is a not for profit sea-roots organisation dedicated to the protection of Australia’s waves and beaches through Conservation, Activism, Research and Education (CARE). We are a branch-based organisation with 25 volunteer branches and beach representatives Australia-wide, and the head office based in Sydney. We are also part of a global Surfrider family, with international affiliates worldwide. Most surfers and ocean-users have a real connection to and appreciation for the ocean, and it’s really important for them to have the opportunity to give something back. Surfrider is a crucial part of our beach lifestyle because it’s the community and the glue that gives surfers a way to make a real different in protecting the ocean that all gives us so much joy!

Sarah Yani Vann-Sander Surfrider Foundation

What is your part in Surfrider? I started up the Perth Chapter of Surfrider with another amazing soul & Californian, Steve Andrews, when I got back to Perth a few years ago because I felt there were so many ocean-lovers and users but no real community for them to come together and make a difference. After over a year of getting that off the ground I handed over Presidency and took on a role as a Director nationally. All official titles aside, I am mostly just a local surfrider helping to make change with my local chapter!

What is Surfrider Australia’s main focus at the moment? At the moment we’re focusing on building out capacity as an organisation to really get out there and start making some bigger waves for the protection of our waves & beaches nationally. There are some really exciting new initiatives happening around our Endangered Waves campaigns and our Rise Above Plastics campaign – particularly at the local level.

My biggest focus personally, is working on the Rise Above Plastics campaign. The Rise Above Plastics campaign is a call to all surfers, beach goers and coastal communities to think about how they can make a difference, and prevent their ocean from turning into a ‘plastic soup’. Every piece of plastic that has ever been made still exists in some shape or form today, including as litter on our streets and beaches, which ultimately ends up our oceans. Surfrider Foundation aims to reduce the impacts of plastics in the marine environment by raising awareness about the dangers of plastic pollution and by encouraging community members and local businesses to reduce single use plastic products.

If you had massive sponsor come on board what is one dream project you’d put together and what would it’s impact be for the future of our waves and beaches? I would love to see local chapters all around the country filled with tonnes of surfers and beach lovers who are all part of a collective community giving back to the ocean. It would be my dream if surfers and ocean-users became real stewards of the big blue, and understood just how important the ocean really is to all life on earth (and why it’s so important to protect it!).

If we had a major sponsor come on board, the dream would be to employ staff all around the country that are trained in community organising and education to work on building community capacity! Change starts with the individual, but occurs when those indivuals come together and act. It would be incredible if we had more resources to empower communities with the skills, knowledge and inspiration to help build a movement of surfers and ocean-lovers each passionate about protecting their patch.

Sarah Yani Vann-Sander

You’ve seen so much, and no doubt many beaches – Do you have a fave?  Aside from my local beaches (which I love because they’re my home), my favourite beach recently became a secret little spot on the south shore of Kauai (I think the locals would prefer it if I kept it secret though haha!). P.S. It’s called Pakala. I love the trek in up the river. I love it that it’s protected from the trade winds all year round. I love it that you can go there and meet Hawaiian locals to Hollywood movie directors to ASP judges and everyone is equal, friendly and a community. I love it that there are coconuts and mangoes and all kinds of fruit to pick and eat after your surf. I love doing yoga on the grass after a surf whilst watching the sunset. It’s just a perfect mellow (although sometimes absolutely raging) extremely long left-hander that always provides joy – no matter what the conditions. I’m not even goofy and it’s still my favourite wave/ beach – it’s just that nice!

How can people help if they’d like to? We’re always looking for more help at all levels – be it our high level governance, to funding and sponsorship assistance, or even just coming along and helping out your local chapter. Becoming a monthly supporter is also one of the best ways you can help. All the contact details and sign-up info is on our website Get in touch!

Finally… we want to know… what’s in your quiver these days?  I just sold most of my quiver with the hope of shaping some new (eco friendly) boards, but I definitely held on to BFF – my 9”4 pin tail log with sleek 50/50 rails from NSW. I love to dance on the sea and a good longboard is so fun for that. Especially in Perth where the waves are fairly small and inconsistent.



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