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Surfing The Cold Water Waves of Vancouver Island’s West Coast

Canadian Surfer

On Vancouver Island’s west coast, when the weather gets bad, the surfing gets good. Out there, it’s just me and the sea lions…

In This Surfing Article You Will Discover:

  • Where to Surf on Vancouver Island, British Columbia
  • What to Expect When You Arrive
  • Where to Rent a Surfboard and/or Hire Lessons
  • How to Deal With the Locals

After a short lull, the seven-footers roll in again. That momentary break between wave-sets is welcome, allowing me to paddle my surfboard out past the break with ease — rather than duck-dive the relentless rollers that all-too-often thrash me around like a rag in a washing machine.

Twenty feet in front of me a shape appears in the water. Driftwood… or is it something more unthinkable; the surfer’s nightmare? A whiskered face breaks the surface — it’s a curious sea lion. But curiosity soon tempts this cat — a moment later, to my dismay, the 500 sea-feline is doing his best human impression by catching a wave, and body surfing his blubbery self right towards me.

In a mad panic, I try to paddle out of the way; however, he’s coming too fast, and I have no choice but to catch the same wave and ride the whitewash into shore with the heebie-jeebie inducing brown silhouette mere metres to my left.

Longboards

Most beginners choose to ride longboards, as they are more forgiving.

Surf’s Up & Coming

It’s often thought that the surfing season, or that of watersports in general, ends at about the same time the kids are back in school. Canada could be the rule rather than the exception, as our beaches, never tropical to begin with, take on a rather frigid chill in the cloudy days of fall. However, on Vancouver Island’s west coast, in the magnificent Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, those in the know head into the deep blue with much anticipation during these colder months; the beginning of winter’s storms mean the biggest waves and the best surfing.

For some, Canadian surfing might be akin to the Jamaican Bobsleigh team — sure, it’s a reality, but can it compete on the world stage? Well, where the world-famous Jamaicans placed a half-decent 14th in the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics, surfing on Van Isle is right up there with the best. How good? Outside magazine recently named Tofino, the closest town to Long Beach in the park, the best surf town in North America. Also, surf company O’Neil held the now-famous O’Neill Cold Water Classic in the area in 2009 (won by local Peter Devries), a surf comp that will return this year. it drew rave reviews from competitors, spectators and media.

These Island environs groomed pros Raph and Sepp Bruhwiler, who have been asked to attend an exclusive big-wave surfing competition in Oregon — two of only 16 people invited worldwide. These brothers are a staple in the surf pulp, and have both starred in many videos; such as a recent production that saw Raph towed in by jet-ski to ride 25-foot waves. Where? Van Isle’s north coast.

Furthermore, in 2005, Canada sent a team of 12 to the exclusive Quicksilver ISA Junior Surfing Championships, where the young stars competed against 250 entrants from 27 countries. Most of these Canadian wave-riders earned their stripes on Van Isle’s wild coast.

Some island locations — Cox Bay, in the north end of the Pacific Rim, and areas around Nootka Sound, about 100 km further as the crow flies — see waves on par with Hawaii’s North Shores, but have none of the name-recognition due to often miserable weather, accessibility issues and the fact that locals just prefer it that way.

Long Beach

Long Beach, near Tofino, is Canada’s number-one surfing destination.

Breaking The Ice

Operations in Tofino and Ucluelet, two towns flanking the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, make it easy for newcomers to learn to surf or perfect their skills. Rentals are available for reasonable prices ($50 or less will get you a board and a wetsuit for 24 hours) and schools — even a women-only camp — abound. Yes, it’s not as hard as you might think to start surfing — but before you head out, there are a few pointers to keep in mind:

    • Wetsuit, wetsuit, wetsuit. No matter what the season — full body, with booties. In fall and winter, add a hood and gloves to that list.While the open Pacific varies only a few degrees Celsius from summer to winter, the air temperature varies a great deal. Have warm clothes and a hot drink waiting for you when you get out.
    • Surf to your ability. Sure, a nine-foot foam-topper doesn’t look too cool, but it looks a lot better than a first timer trying with futility to get up on a 6’2” pro board.
    • Learn etiquette. Surfers can be a pleasant bunch, as long as you don’t drop in on waves or get in their way while paddling out. Not sure? Ask about this when you rent your board.
    • Pay attention to rip tides and other currents. Your rental agency or instructor should go through this. It is serious business — don’t drift off during the lesson or you’ll be drifting off afterwards.
    • Be diligent, and have a sense of humour. Your first weekend out you may not get up once. Try not to lose your temper — you’re there to have fun, remember?

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About the author: David Webb is a Vancouver, BC-based travel writer, photographer and magazine editor.

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