Ask most people to picture a surfing Mecca and they’ll likely envision sun-drenched beaches, Volkswagen vans with the windows rolled down and surfers wearing the least amount of clothing possible. But a winter-waves hotspot in chilly British Columbia will quickly turn that image upside down.
The modest town of Tofino is located on the western shores of Vancouver Island, a three-plus hour drive from the ferry landing at Nanaimo – which itself is a two-hour ferry ride from Tsawwassen. In order to get there; you have to really want to.
Local lore says draft dodgers looking to avoid Vietnam “discovered” Tofino. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that the area started showing up on people’s radar as a surfing destination. Today, the town boasts more than 10 surf shops and a mere 2,000 full-time residents.
Previously known as “Tough City” (named for the nature of the town’s long-abandoned logging and fishing industries), Tofino has three main beaches perfectly suited for catching winter swells: Chesterman Beach (both North and South), Cox Bay, and Long Beach – which sits inside the boundaries of the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve.
Surfing didn’t organically start in Tofino in the same way it did in Polynesia. Visitors to the area brought their boards with them, introducing locals to the sport. The growth of Tofino as a surfing destination wasn’t initially promoted as a tourism draw; it simply evolved into something people who lived and visited there started doing.
“In its early days, Tofino was a rough, backcountry place where women were basically doing the same things as the men, so it makes sense that when surfing came along, they’d want to do it, too,” explains Tiffany Olsen, general manager of Surf Sister, a woman-owned surf shop. But because there weren’t that many people surfing at the beginning, there were no instructors or rentals available.
In 1984, Liz Zed moved to Tofino with her two young children and decided to build a small shed on their beachfront property where they could rent out surfboards and gear to summer visitors. Almost 40 years later, Live to Surf (which labels itself as Tofino’s “original surf shop”) is run by Zed’s daughter, Pasquale Fremont, and her brother Jean-Paul, in a hefty storefront location on Tofino’s main street.
Another woman entrepreneur, Jenny Hudnall, opened Surf Sister in 1998. Once considered Canada’s top female surfer, her inspiration for opening the shop, and giving lessons, was to help female surfers learn from others, rather than trying to figure it out on their own like she had to when she first started surfing at age 13.
Surf Sister also enjoys the success of a homegrown competition that’s become more prestigious and well attended with every passing year. Its annual Queen of the Peak offers the largest purse in Canada for a women’s surf contest. Held in late September, it boasts three divisions: shortboard, longboard, and Princess of the Peak (for those 16 years of age and younger). The two-day event hosts mainly locals but welcomes entrants from all over the globe. For 2023, the 100 available slots filled up in less than five minutes.
But that wasn’t the only memorable aspect to this year’s lineup.
In late October, Tofino surfer (and former Princess of the Peak winner) Sanoa Dempfle-Olin earned a spot on the Canadian Surf Team to compete at the 2024 Paris Olympics. Stepping onto a board for the first time at age six, the Tofino-born and raised surfer honed her skills as a future Olympic contender competing in Surf Sister’s yearly contests and was the youngest female surfer to win the Tofino Rip Curl Competition.
While you can surf in Tofino any time of year, many choose to go when the air temperature is colder than the 50-degree water – making it an oddly comfortable experience.
“In one day, you can practice in the white-water wash that’s about waist high, getting a feeling for what it’s like to stand up on the board,” Olsen said. From there, students can progress to riding what she calls “unbroken green waves.”
Because there aren’t any lifeguards on Tofino’s beaches, it’s up to everyone to take responsibility for themselves. Waves can go from two to 18-feet in a matter of days, so it’s important to recognize you shouldn’t be out surfing when the waves are too big for you to handle.
Regardless of whether there’s snow on the ground or you’re wearing a neoprene leotard that resembles a full-sized Gumby suit, you’re still looking at a commitment of time and devotion to learn the basics. As surfer Jay Bowers (who runs Pacific Surf School) explains in the October 2023 issue of Tofino Times, there are certain faux pas to avoid on the water.
“Bigger surf means more duck diving, more paddling, increased wave knowledge, and the ability to understand proper etiquette in the water,” Bowers writes. “We’ve seen lots of people paddling right to the peak and catching the first wave (while others) have been waiting for the sets, freezing their butts off, before they paddled out.”
In addition to freezing cold locals, Tofino’s winter waves have also hosted celebrity surfers (actor Chris Hemsworth shared photos of his rides with 57 million Instagram followers), but some surprise surfers, too.
“We did a surf lesson for a group of nuns,” says Olsen. “They were very modest, so each one had to change in private inside the van. And they wore their habits on top of their wetsuits,” she recalls with a smile.
As Olsen and I chat on the grounds of the Pacific Sands Beach Resort (where one of Surf Sisters’ shops is located, making the property the ideal place to stay-and-surf) a young woman walks past us. Wearing a 5/4 wetsuit, a neon-green surfboard tucked under her arm, she doesn’t appear to notice that the wind’s picked up, bringing a sudden chill to the air. The only thing she seems focused on is diving into the forest-green water and paddling out to catch one of Tofino’s incoming waves.
“People end up here because it’s beautiful,” Olsen tells me. “The landscape, the people, the vibe. It’s an amazing place to live. If you look at the lineup on any given day, it’s 50 percent men and 50 percent women. I’ve never surfed anyplace else in the world where it’s like that.”
Perhaps no other sport has its proponents’ waxing poetic about the environment like surfing does. Standing on the sand at Cox Bay watching a cloudless sky meet wave-etched rocky promontories, it’s easy to understand why you become one with nature in a place like Tofino.
Take a lesson. Respect the ocean. Cherish the environment.
That feels like an apt motto for a surfing Mecca that’s as wild as it is welcoming. X