First Session: Canada's Surf Capital Tofino

Matt Rode

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Updated 23d ago

Our First Session series peels back the legend on the first surfers at various famous spots from across the globe. We've already covered Teahupoo, Waimea, Anchor Point, Cloudbreak, Bali, J-Bay, Puerto Escondido, Mundaka, Hossegor, Jaws, Byron Bay, Huntington Beach and Germany. Let us know in the comments if there is anywhere else you'd like us to shine a spotlight on.

The early history of surf exploration is peppered with locations that are warm, if not downright tropical. This makes sense, of course, as wetsuits didn’t even exist until 1952, when Jack O’Neill invented them—and the earliest suits were crude at best. As neoprene improved and wetsuits became warmer, lighter, and more flexible, it made sense that surfers would begin to pioneer the coldest coastlines on the planet, which explains why locales like Norway and Iceland have only come into vogue as surf destinations over the past 10-to-15 years. But for the most part, we were limited to surfing in temperate climates up until a few decades ago.

You’d be forgiven, then, for thinking that this is why Tofino was such as late bloomer in the surf world. After all, the average water temp on Vancouver Island is around 50 Fahrenheit, with winters dropping down to the mid-40s. With inhospitable conditions such as these, it’s easy to see why surfing didn’t blow up in British Columbia until around 2010, when quantum leaps were made in the design and construction of cold water wetsuits—or so it would seem.

Frozen? Sure. Wonderland? That too. Pete Devries.

Frozen? Sure. Wonderland? That too. Pete Devries.

© 2021 - Marcus Paladino

In reality, the waves in Tofino was pioneered as early as the early 1960s! A logging road was cut to Tofino in 1959, and a few years later local legend Jim Sadler arrived in town. Sadler had ridden his horse to Vancouver Island from Alberta in the 1940s, and was already established as a hardy west coast legend, having pioneered the surf in nearby Pachena Bay. He found the waves in Tofino in the early 1960s, built a board out of a 13-foot length of plywood, and started testing himself in the local waters.

Tofino is a wonderfully rich tapestry.

Tofino is a wonderfully rich tapestry.

© 2021 - Marcus Paladino

Soon, more people followed suit, braving the elements in the roughest of early wetsuits. Kent Fiddy and Steve Richey started the Water Safety and Surf Apparatus School in the 1970s, and in a short time had “trained” over 800 people in surfing. Tofino was already an established destination for backpackers and outdoor enthusiasts, and now surfing had added an extra element to the town’s appeal. A surf shop called Live to Surf opened in 1984, and the first surf contest was hosted in 1988.

The cosier side of frigid surf watching.

The cosier side of frigid surf watching.

© 2021 - Marcus Paladino

Of course, surfing brought a bunch of “unsavoury” young people to town, as it does everywhere it gains roots, and soon Tofino’s leaders put the kibosh on surf competitions. There was a lull through the 1990s, but then Krissy Montgomery opened Surf Sister, a women-only surf school, and got permission to run the Queen of the Peak contest, and soon it was back to business as usual. More contests started popping up, Quiksilver brought Strider Wasilewski and Pete Mel to BC for their “Surf Jam” events, and local talent like Pete Devries started to show exactly what Canadian surfers were capable of—not to mention how good the waves got in their backyard.

Drone's eye view of some constructive interference.

Drone's eye view of some constructive interference.

© 2021 - Marcus Paladino

It was the 2009 O’Neill Cold Water Classic that really blew the doors open on surf tourism in Tofino. In an attempt to drum up hype around their newer, warmer, better wetsuits, O’Neill had started hosting a series of events in frigid locations—South Africa, Santa Cruz, Tasmania, and Scotland—and adding Tofino to the circuit was an easy decision, considering the quality of the waves, the beautiful setting, and the freezing cold water. What wasn’t so easy to predict was that Pete Devries would take down a talented international field to win the event in his local waves, and immediately put the world on notice that Vancouver Island was holding. This win in 2009 was quickly followed up by edits from Devries and the Bruhwiler brothers featuring a juicy little right-hand slab breaking in front of picturesque, snow-capped mountains, and suddenly the waves in and around Tofino was the hottest thing in cold-water surfing.

© 2021 - Marcus Paladino

Today, Tofino is the undisputed capital of Canadian surfing. The town has less than 2000 residents, but hosted more than 600,000 tourists in 2018. It is estimated that nearly 15 percent of visitors come primarily to surf, and nearly 50 percent paddle out on a surfboard or SUP at least once during their stay.

Pete Devries finds slabs? They're there too!

Pete Devries finds slabs? They're there too!

© 2021 - Marcus Paladino

Of course, COVID-related border closures limited tourism around the world over the past year, and the crowds in the Tofino lineups have been more akin to what Jim Sadler would have found in the 1960s than the post-Cold Water Classic numbers we’ve come to expect. But Canada reopened its borders yesterday and the Tofino surf season is just around the corner. Don’t be surprised if the country’s cold-water surf capital is firing again sometime soon.

What is scoring if not with a couple pals?

What is scoring if not with a couple pals?

© 2021 - Marcus Paladino

All images by Tonfio's premier lensperson, Marcus Paladino.