Tofino is the self-proclaimed Surf Capital of Canada, but it wasn’t always that way. From handcrafted wooden longboards with surfers learning to hang ten, to the champion short board wave riders of today, there is a deep history to Tofino’s shores. Dive into the history of surfing in Tofino, and discover the how its unique surf culture, a noted feature by tourists and locals alike, came to be.
Although First Nations groups lived in the area thousands of years before Europeans came to its shores, it wasn’t until 1959 that Tofino was opened up to the rest of the world. The first logging road cut through the mountains and forests to the coast of Vancouver Island and was only usable on weekends when the massive logging trucks were parked for the loggers’ days off. It was already clear that Tofino would be a destination-worthy paradise, with unheard of rugged beauty and spectacular natural features like ancient, old-growth forests. When the rules of the road became friendly, the 1960s turned Tofino into a camper’s paradise and the first surfers appeared as the pioneers of Tofino’s surf culture. Legends like Jim Sadler, who ended up in Tofino after crossing from Alberta on horseback, crafted his first ride out of a 13ft plywood board. From there, they kept on coming. Kent Fiddy and Steve Richey set up the Water Safety and Surf Apparatus School in the early seventies, where over 800 people learned how to surf. Jenny Hudnall spearheaded the first female surf school, Surf Sister, in 1999.
Wetsuits are a year-round necessity on the coast. In the beginning, they were comparable to a chafing set of farmer’s overalls, with less insulation than ideal for frigid, Pacific conditions. Then came the technicolored beauties that resided on the shelves at Live to Surf, one of Tofino’s original surf shops, which opened its doors in 1984. For a while, female surfers didn’t have a shot at getting their hands on a suit that fit their natural curves. Today, around one third of surfers out in the break are female and they’re a force to be reckoned with.
While tourism began to grow in Tofino thanks to the establishment of the Pacific Rim National Park in 1970 and for the sheer beauty of the place itself, the surf spots remained secluded. That began to change drastically when, in 2009, a professional surf competition known as the O’Neill Cold Water Classic chose to bring the contest to the shores of Tofino. It was one of five global destinations for the event, which also included surfing hotspots like South Africa, California, Tasmania and Scotland. Some of the best surfers from around the world were suddenly seeking swell on Tofino’s beaches. When local boy, Pete Devries, whomped the world-renowned surfers on his home turf for first place, marking an important notch in the belt of Canadian surfing history, Tofino went wild and the rest of the world noticed. From then on out, surfing tourism grew steadily alongside things like whale watching, hiking and kayaking. More and more surf shops and surf schools popped up, and the locals partially surrendered their summer surf to those who flock to Tofino. Learning to surf is without a doubt one of the top things to do in Tofino today. There are other spots to surf on Vancouver Island, but South Island surfers have a reputation for being defensive over their waves. Tofino locals are a bit better at sharing, especially the summer swell. Come winter, only the serious surfers remain dedicated enough to battle the cold, hit the swell and catch the more powerful waves that pump through. Then, as long as you follow line-up etiquette, you should get by without a scratch… From a local, anyways. Typically, everyone on the west coast is just happy to share the surf stoke.
From a secluded and challenging surf paradise come some of the most dedicated and rugged surfers around. It’s this edge that gives the surf culture of Tofino its raw and enticing underlying feel. Despite the growing tourism and number of “surfers” flocking to the beach with nine foot soft tops in tow, there is a remaining element of the formidable beginning of surf in Tofino; a homage to the pioneers that first came to the shores, saw the break – intimidating swell, wind, and frigid temperatures – and thought, I need to surf that. It knows no bounds, as new competitions take to the beaches. One in particular, Queen of the Peak, is dedicated strictly to the women of the sport, demanding the world take notice of west coast and world female shredders who demonstrate that surfing is so much more than “a man’s sport.”
As Tofino continues to produce world-class surfers and pump out challenging surf, it’s history and mark in the surfing world continues to grow. Who knows where the future will take it. One thing is certain: this quasi-surfer’s paradise, with stunning beaches and consistent break, but a distinct lack of bikinis and board shorts, will continue to grow – Tofino will always be a haven for those that live here year-round, and for those that seek to recharge on its sandy shores.
Contributed by: Laurissa Cebryk