The first wave hits like a boxer’s jab, sending shivers down my back and into the farthest reaches of my wetsuit. Late October in British Columbia’s Clayoquot Sound, the Pacific Ocean’s temperature sits just under 54 degrees Fahrenheit — cold enough to knock the body unconscious in as little as an hour. To avoid this fate, I’m decked out in a four-millimetre wetsuit, complete with boots, gloves, and a neoprene hood — more or less like a poor man’s Frozone from The Incredibles. Strapped to my ankle, my surfboard’s tether hangs like a prisoner’s ball and chain.
There’s something masochistic about the act of surfing. Few disciplines require you to confront wave after wave, failure after failure, until you get a chance at success. Even putting on a wetsuit is fraught with the potential for embarrassment: Everything is skin-tight, and each leg pulled through the neoprene feels one slight misstep away from turning you into a Jenga tower.
I didn’t necessarily want to be here. I’d been there, done that already — and found that I wasn’t much good on a surfboard. I’d like to think I occasionally learn from my mistakes. Going on a road trip to Tofino with one of my oldest friends, though, it felt like a foregone conclusion. When in Rome, so they say.
Oft-repeated is the phrase that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result — so why, then, am I here in late October? In surfing, as in life, some things keep calling you back, no matter the consequences.
The first time I became mesmerized by surfing, I was ten years old and watching Saturday morning cartoons. Nickelodeon’s Rocket Power brought the lives of four friends from Ocean Shores, California into my world, where surfing went hand-in-hand with childhood adventure. The gang went skateboarding, rollerblading, snowboarding, and mountain biking when they weren’t on the beach. I tried them all, as kids do, but surfing remained the Holy Grail — the one sport I had no access to. I was landlocked in Southern Ontario, where surfing meant browsing on the web, not dancing with the waves; from my home in Waterloo, the sun-kissed beaches of California seemed a world away.
The rest of the fads — skateboarding, snowboarding, and the like — came and went, but surfing remained: the one curiosity never satisfied. It stayed unchecked on my chicken scratch bucket list for years: Learn how to surf. It was as much a promise to live somewhere that surfing was a possibility as it was to learn the sport itself.
The drive to Tofino is about five hours north and west of Victoria. Beyond the lumber city of Port Alberni, the road meanders through mountain passes where the fall colours turn the trees to rich reds and golden yellows. My friend and I had rented an SUV on a Wednesday, with plans of sticking around until Friday. Caffeine flowing and music blasting, we arrived in Ucluelet by nightfall.
The point of the trip was to visit another friend from home, who had been teaching surfing lessons for the past few weeks on the island. Holed up in a cramped hostel, he was waking up every morning to greet the waves and help new recruits find their feet on the water. We got into town past the time that most restaurants had closed their doors. Instead, we wolfed down greasy pizza and slept in the SUV.
I was 22 and on a whirlwind tour of Europe when I finally had the chance to surf.
Just west of Lisbon, where the coast of Portugal meets the Atlantic Ocean, the town of Cascais draws surfers from around the world to its shores. Tall, rock-strewn cliffs overlook wide, sandy beaches where waves break and the sun shines from April to November. Like most twenty-somethings in Europe, I was ready to find myself through anything and everything I’d never experienced. When surfing was tossed around at the hostel as an idea of something to do, of course I agreed.
On that first day, I booked a private lesson with two Albertans and a Swiss-German. From Lisbon’s Praça dos Restauradores, we piled into our instructor’s hatchback and set off for the coast, knees folded against the back of the driver’s seat. Blond-haired and well-tanned, Diogo told us how he wintered in Brazil and had been teaching in Lisbon for years. In the sheltered cove off the western tip of Portugal, he prompted us with calls of “vai, vai” when the timing was right to push off our chest and ride the wave. I failed at first, but by the afternoon — and after repeated practice — I had found a modicum of success. Gliding around in the whitewash, I was hooked.
From then on, I told myself, I was a surfer — if not in appearance, then at least in spirit. Given the chance, I would get out on the water again and pick up where I left off.
My next opportunity would prove more difficult.
The name Tofino comes from the Spanish. In 1792, navy commanders Dionisio Alcalá Galiano and Cayetano Valdés dubbed the inlet in honour of Captain Vincent Tofiño. The commanders’ names continue to bear a mark on British Columbia to this day: Both Galiano Island and Valdes Island line the Strait of Georgia between Vancouver Island and the mainland; the northernmost tip of Galiano Island — barely a kilometre away from Valdes Island, as it were — is known as Dionisio Point.
The first to live near present-day Tofino were the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations. For thousands of years, the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations have lived on Meares Island, fishing for salmon and halibut, and hunting sea lions and whales. Before the Europeans’ arrival, it’s estimated that Nuu-chah-nulth numbered as many as 100,000 across Vancouver Island. Today, membership is approximately 10,000.
“The sea was angry that day, my friends.
Like an old man trying to send back soup at a deli.”
– George Costanza, Seinfeld
Far across the Atlantic from Portugal, on the cloudy shores of Nova Scotia, the pebbled beaches of Lawrencetown dare surfers and swimmers to venture into the chilly waters a half-hour’s drive outside of Halifax. I was 24 and visiting another longtime friend when I made my return to surfing. He already owned a wetsuit and had been a half-dozen times since moving to the East Coast; I arrived feeling like an expert after my three-hour lesson in Portugal some 15 months prior. I was in for a rude awakening.
Atlantic Canada is a graveyard for shipwrecks. Some estimates suggest as many as 25,000 are found off the shores of Nova Scotia alone. Eight can be found near Lawrencetown, each one of them dreams dashed against the rocks, vessels vanquished by the power of the sea. When a full-blown ship couldn’t handle the swells, what chance did I stand with a surfboard?
We rented boards in the morning, three of us — another friend coming along for the ride — suiting up for the Atlantic cold and venturing into the murk. My feet, bootless and exposed, went numb within seconds; my hands and face were soon to follow. The waves were gentle at first, then came at a feverish pace, the intervals of calm too brief to recover from one wave and ready yourself for the next.
I thought this way, that is, until I spotted my friend riding beside me.
Few things are as infuriating to the fragile ego as seeing a friend succeed at something while you flounder helplessly. I watched as my friend rode wave after wave, while my greatest success involved limiting the amount of seawater I swallowed. On the surfboard, I was Pete Best, and I was watching Ringo hamming it up with the Beatles. It all made me sick.
“Sick!” My friend grinned as we pulled up to the sheltered parking lot of Cox Bay Beach, a beautiful stretch of shoreline just south of Tofino, on the northern border of Pacific Rim National Park. We had woken early that morning, tossing sleeping bags into the backseat and scarfing down cinnamon rolls for breakfast before renting boards in town. The rental agent had told us the swells would be good here. Already, the parking lot had filled with camper vans, and a half-dozen surfers were either donning wetsuits or returning from early morning sessions.
The stoke, as they say, was high.
We took turns changing in the backseat of the SUV, cramming feet into pant legs and wrestling with the neoprene until we’d emerged, suited up, already tired from the ordeal. An October chill hung in the air, carrying the faint noise of waves through the forest that separated the beach from the lot. A path led through the woods, gravel-bottomed and bordered by rocks covered in moss. We picked up our boards and followed the crashing of the waves.
It says something of my stubbornness — or perhaps of my Halifax friend’s grating charm — that the next time I went surfing, it was with him once again. This time, we had traded the shores of Nova Scotia for the warmth of Australia’s Byron Bay. On the eastern tip of the continent, about 100 kilometres south of the Gold Coast, we rented boards and wetsuits and lugged them to the water’s edge. In Byron Bay, as in much of coastal Australia, surfing is something of a cultural identity, and to my friend, the thought of visiting without taking part in the experience was inconceivable. I suppose I was ready for it, too — albeit keenly aware of the potential for another embarrassing outing.
For beginning surfers, there’s a sweet spot known as the whitewash: the area closer to shore where the waves break, and it’s possible to ride them all the way back to the shallows. The goal here isn’t to carve from left to right, merely to stay upright and enjoy the pull of the ocean. It’s the whitewash I had been used to in Portugal. Here in Australia, my friend was on the lookout for something bigger.
We paddled out past the shallows, into the realm where unbroken waves surged from the distant horizon of the Pacific. The music from the beach faded to the background, replaced by the din of the ocean. When we’d rented our boards, we had been warned of riptides that would pull surfers out and away from the shore, dumping them in the middle of the sea. The rental agent told us never to fight the current — the ones who did were the ones who ended up in trouble, exhausted and stranded.
“Man, these waves are huge! This is awesome!” My friend smiled from ear to ear.
I gripped my board’s edges and held on as the swells carried us up and down. More worrisome than the riptide, another spectre lurked: Between 2014 and 2016, when we visited, the stretch of coastline between Byron Bay and Evans Head had seen 11 shark attacks, two of them fatal. I did double-takes at anything resembling a shadow in the water.
The first steps into the water at Cox Bay Beach come with a bit of trepidation. Just how cold will this be? The wetsuit does its job, holding out against the frozen fingers of the tide. My only weakness is a zipper that continues to come undone, exposing my back to the ocean’s full force.
We make our way past the shallows, into the waters where the waves start to break. It’s been nearly two years since the last time I donned a wetsuit, and the motions return slowly. Chest down. Paddle. Pop.
My friend catches the first few waves, and I watch with envy, wondering if I’ll be in for another day of failure. Soon, though, I catch a break — an easy, gentle wave that carries me a good twenty feet. Another wave follows, and I catch that one, too. Before long, we’re trading runs and cheering each other on, laughing at each other’s wipeouts. The water is ice-cold, but the wetsuits are warm, and the last thing on my mind is leaving.
We spend hours in the ocean, soaking in the moment — Thursday morning, and we’re surfing in the Pacific. Sometime during the day, I realize my face is frozen — I haven’t stopped smiling all morning.
I guess I’m a masochist, too.