Playing in the Surf in Tofino

I’d been home for five weeks, buried in my novel long neglected while I travelled, when the urge to get away became a distraction too great to ignore any longer.  It’s February – storm season in Tofino on the west coast of Vancouver Island.  A favourite destination for it’s verdant old-growth forests, miles of sandy beaches and bohemian vibe, I hadn’t been since August and was feeling the pull of the wild, west coast.

“I’m heading to Tofino to try some winter surfing,” I said to a friend who’s usually up for a road trip.  “Want to come?”

The quaint village of Tofino lies in the heart of the Clayquot Sound UNESCO Biosphere Reserve,  just minutes north of the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve.  A resort town of approximately 2000 full-time residents, the numbers swell to 22,000 in the summer as tourists flock to the region for the native influenced art, miles of sandy beaches, fresh local seafood and whale watching.

Surfing is the main draw though, with the first recorded surfer testing the waves in the 1940’s.  It wasn’t until the logging road from Port Alberni to the west coast was cut through the rugged wilderness in 1959 that surfing began to take hold, driven by the hippie counter culture that had taken up residence on the local beaches.  The first school opened on Long Beach in 1968 and, with the establishment of the Pacific Rim National Park in 1971 and subsequent paving of Highway 4, access to the town and the beaches brought an economic boon to the simple forestry and fishing village and traditional first nations territory.  The town is now host to more than a dozen surf schools and shops, drawing surfers of all levels from all over the world.

Surf Shop in Tofino

We’d surfed the previous summer on a weekend camping trip with his teenaged kids.  His daughter was going to teach us, having taken lessons as part of her school program.  Set up and geared up, we headed to Chesterman Beach, Tofino’s surf mecca and recently named one of the Top 50 Beaches in the World.

“Are you goofy,” she asked me as we lay out our boards.

Balsy kid!  Well . . . yes, sometimes.  Usually after a couple of glasses of wine.  I don’t see what that has to do with surfing.

Turns out it has to do with which foot you place forward on the board.  Right foot forward is goofy; left foot forward is regular.  Seems I’m not goofy after all.

After a little practice popping up on the beach, we were ready to hit the surf, paddling out to where others sat astride their boards, bobbing and rolling with the rise and fall of the ocean tide.  I watched for awhile, studying their technique, hoping to gain some insight.

You only learn by doing, so when I saw what looked to my neophyte eyes like a good wave coming in, I turned towards shore and began to paddle.

My first attempt ended with a not-so-graceful swan dive into the surf and a lungful of Pacific Ocean.  A brief moment of panic  washed over me along with the wave, until I realized I was only chest deep and could . . . Just . . . Stand . . . Up!  Coughing and sputtering, I shook off the fear, turned the board around and paddled back out beyond the surf, watching the horizon for the next good wave.

It was on my third try that I finally managed to get up onto my feet, coasting with the wave towards shore and grinning like a cheshire cat, until my celebratory fist pump threw me off balance and back into the surf.  The grin remained, though, as I pulled myself up and turned back towards open ocean.

Surf at Chesterman Beach, February 20

This particular weekend, we left the kids at home with the dog and booked ourselves into the hostel.  Stopping at the beach on the way into town, we studied the roiling sea before us.  The tide was high, the waves kissing at the giant cedar logs bordering the forest edge, tossed there in a fit of fury by the latest winter storm.  “What do you think,” he asked as he stared out at the white water cresting every few feet.  No guts, no glory, I thought, sensing his hesitation.  “Let’s give it a shot,” I answered with a shrug.

The weather was on our side with sunshine and air temperature about the same 10 degrees celsius as the water.  While the water temperature along the west coast remains fairly constant year round, a full wetsuit is a must any time of year when cold-water surfing, with the addition of hoods, gloves and boots when the outside temperature drops.

An hour later, covered head to toe in slimming black neoprene, we were back on the beach along with a dozen other hardy souls, some of whom were surfing for the first time.  With barely a moment to breathe between breakers, we battled our way through the surf taking one step forward for every two the waves pushed us back.  It was near impossible to get outside the impact zone and find the sweet spot that would allow a novice like myself the opportunity to just sit, relax and wait for the right moment.  Barely able to paddle a few feet without getting hit by another wave, the three seconds between breakers meant quick decisions and even quicker action.  Dive, fight through or turn and ride.

At 5’4″ and 115 lbs., including the sea soaked wetsuit, I was struggling just to maintain my footing as wave after wave slammed into my tiny frame.  My friend, twice my size, fared no better.  Nor did anyone else, it seemed.  After 10 minutes of trying to force my way deeper with the ebbing tide, I finally gave up and decided just go with the flow.  In a brief window between waves, I climbed on the board and began paddling towards shore.  The moment I felt the push, I raised myself up and actually made it to my feet on the first try.  No fist bump this time; my entire focus was staying on as long as possible.  My friend was not so lucky.  He disappeared into a swell and I lost sight of him for longer than was comfortable, only to see the board pop up again a split second before his head.

An hour and a half of battling the outgoing tide and incoming surf, struggling to get up on the board without a repeat of my initial success, I headed back to the beach, body sore and starving.  “Not the best day for surfing,” a girl who surfs Chesterman regularly told me in the change room, beaming with a smile that reflected what I felt myself.

Maybe not, but any day in the water is a good day as far as I’m concerned and I left the beach tired, but happy.

As we sat that night, sated from a hearty meal and watching the sun set over the inner harbour, a cold beer in hand, my friend looked over at me.  “That was brutal.  I don’t think I want to surf tomorrow.  You?”

I smiled.  “Let’s see what the weather’s like in the morning.”

Sunset in Tofino


By Plane:

Orca Air and KD Air both operate flights from Vancouver International Airport South Terminal.

Orca Air and Island Express both operate flights from Victoria International Airport.

By Car:

  • From Vancouver – take Highway 1 north towards Whistler and follow the ferry signs to Horseshoe Bay Ferry Terminal.  Leaving Nanaimo, follow Highway 19 north towards Parksville/Campbell River, exiting onto Highway 4 towards Port Alberni.  Follow Highway 4, also known as the Pacific Rim Highway according to some GPS, to the end then turn right towards Tofino.  If you can, wait until you get to Nanaimo to fill up; gas is always cheaper on the Island.
  • From Victoria – take  Highway 1 and follow to Nanaimo.  Take the Highway 19 ramp to Parksville/Campell River.  Follow 19 to the exit to Highway 4 towards Port Alberni.  Follow Highway 4, also know n as the Pacific Rim Highway, to the end then turn right towards Tofino.

By Bus:

  • From Vancouver – The Tofino Bus Island Express runs daily at 7:15 from the main bus Terminal on Main Street.  Alternatively, you can catch the Horseshoe Bay Express bus #257 from Georgia Street in downtown Vancouver and board the Nanaimo ferry as a walk-on passenger.  The Tofino Bus Island Express picks up at the ferry terminal in Nanaimo at 10:05, departing at 10:30.
  • From Victoria:  The Tofino Bus Island Express picks up at the main bus terminal in downtown Victoria at 8:00 am, as well as a number of locations along the route.
  • Check the site for updated schedules and routes.

If you don’t have a car once you get to Tofino and want to head to the beach, a free shuttle is available that will accommodate your boards or you can rent a bike designed specifically to carry your gear.


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