You wade into the chilly Pacific waters, your not-as-thick-as-you-thought wet suit filling up slowly – and painfully. Facing the rolling surf, a look of uncertainty on your face, you push your three-metre surfboard – which is ever so conveniently attached to your foot- out into the breaking waves.
Every two steps forward through the angry surf pushes you another three steps backward as another salty wave splashes persistently in your face. With a mouthful of seawater and squinting eyes, you battle the ocean’s wrath until you’re just far enough past the breakers to sit and wait for a wave.
Once it comes, you turn around, face the beach and paddle away until it catches you. At this point, with a board that’s reaching speeds of 30 kilometres per hour or more, you either manage to stand up on your board and ride it to shore, or you do a ‘white pearl.’ This surfing term comes from pearl diving and refers to when the nose of your board gets submerged in a breaking wave and drags you under, tossing you around like a sock in a washing machine; surf board flying, legs and arms flailing as your disappear behind a sea of surging white foam.
You never realize how powerful and relentless the ocean is until you try to invade its territory. The crashing surf stops for no one.
But, for every 10 waves that throttle the life out of you, there’s one you manage to beat – and it’s the most delicious feeling of freedom to have conquered nature, even if it’s just for a few seconds.
Surfing is odd, to say the least, but determined surfers have been catching waves and ‘Hangin’ 10’ since the 19th century, when the sport was first invented in Hawaii.
B.C. has its very own surf haven, dubbed the best surf spot on Vancouver Island, and possibly in the country, as Nova Scotia is our eastern surfing counterpart.
The village of Tofino, nestled on the west coast of Vancouver Island in what is called the Esowista Peninsula, harbours 40 kilometres of sand and pebble beaches. Long Beach, the most famous of them all, has become a main tourist destination where hundreds of daredevils attempt to brave the frigid water – some without wet suits, though they don’t stay in the water for long.
Tofino is home to barely 1,500 permanent residents, but RCMP statistics estimate that the population can swell to 20,000 in a single day during the summer months of July and ‘August (dubbed ‘Fogust’ by locals for the random periods of fog that can roll in at any time).
Kayaking, whale watching, scuba diving and hiking are some of the outdoor activities that attract tourists, but surfing is by far one of the most popular sports. With six surfing schools and various rental shops, it is common to see cars of all shapes and sizes carrying a stack of surfboards on their way to the beach.
The village also has Canada’s only all-women’s surf school, sponsored by some of the most prominent women’s surfing companies, Roxy, Billabong Girls and Softops. The Surf Sister Surf School provides lessons and hosts women’s surfing competitions on the coast.
Jenny Stewart, Surf Sister’s owner and head instructor, has surfed internationally for the Canadian national team and often ranks high in local surfing competitions as well.
Tofino’s surf camps offer a variety of learning options, from one-day lesson, which range from two to four hours, to two- to three-day clinics. Lessons include all equipment: the board, a neoprene wet suit and booties, plus gloves and a hood in the winter.
First-time surfers start off on a long-board, which has a rounded nose and a single fin to provide a stable cruising surface for basic learning.
Surfing takes time to pick up and, though many first-timers manage to catch waves and stand up, it takes years to master the sport.
Most advanced surfers eventually move on to what is called a short board, which has a more pointy nose and streamlined design to allow for carving the waves. Some stay on long boards but do tricks as they cruise down the wave.
Tofino’s local surfers have their own secret surf spots, but sometimes, when the waves are just right – usually in the early morning or around dinner time – one can go to the smaller beaches and see them all bobbing in the water like ducks, waiting for the best waves.
The swells roll toward shore in sets of five or so and, when they arrive, the surfers are ready, paddling madly, standing, and then effortlessly cutting the waves like glass.
Watching them navigate the surf with such ease can be an inspiration to any beginner.
And so, when you drag your battered body out of the surf after a long day of catching waves – or at least attempting to – your body aches, your mouth and eyes are burning from the salt water and you can still feel the dizzying sensation of getting thrown about like a rag doll. But the very next day, you’re out there again, searching for that awesome sensation of riding on top of the water.
PUBLICATION: Burnaby NOW newspaper