Surf lessons teach women how to tackle Tofino's winter swells

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      Standing on the sandy crescent facing the ocean, I watch six-foot waves crash and churn into white water. Behind me, dark-green foliage hugs the perimeter of the beach, and above, blue sky links the tree line to the sparkling Pacific Ocean. With the Jurassic Park wilderness feel of it all, you can almost imagine this is Hawaii—except that those strolling on the beach are wearing winter jackets, not bikinis.

      I’m clad neck to toe in a neoprene wet suit, which is keeping me surprisingly warm on this brisk October day. How it will fare against the chilly water is another question—one that my fellow first-time surfers have also pondered. Nine of us have spent the last hour with our Surf Sister Surf School instructors at Cox Bay in Tofino. Flat on our bellies with our palms pushed into the ground, we learned how to “pop up” to a surfing stance using the outline of a surfboard traced in the sand. Now, we’ve picked up our boards and are about to head out into the ocean to try this thing for real.

      “Ready?” yells our instructor.

      “Ready!” we boom back in unison, and then immediately break out in nervous laughter. Spread across the shoreline side by side, wearing matching hot-pink rash guards over our wet suits, we clutch our long boards and purposefully wade in. As the frothy white wash knocks several of us off our feet, it feels a bit like we’re going into battle, except that we scramble up, laughing. My first attempt at surfing is already fun—and I haven’t even put foot to board.

      It helps that it’s a gorgeous day in Tofino. Surf Sisters, which is run by a team of female instructors, offers coed lessons rain or shine, year-round except for the month of January. Winter water temperatures can dip to 7 ° C from a 14 ° C summer high, but surfers stay cozy in their wet suits, using neoprene hoods and gloves when necessary. As for the rain, locals repeatedly tell me that Tofino’s weather is infinitely unpredictable. Any given day in any month could yield glorious sunshine or pelting rain—and that doesn’t stop Tofino surfers.

      Perhaps the prevailing attitude is best expressed by the Wickaninnish Inn, which is perfectly poised for storm-watching on Chesterman Beach. “On the true West Coast, there is no such thing as bad weather, just poor clothing choices,” reads a placard inside the closet in my room. It hangs over two bright yellow Helly Hansen rain outfits that the Wickaninnish thoughtfully provides for its guests, along with rubber boots.

      I should have suited up, but on the day I arrived I eagerly headed out for a walk on the beach wearing my own hooded down jacket and running shoes. Sure, it was raining, but I didn’t think anything of it, as my gear does the trick in Vancouver. Yet after an hour of exploring the wide beach at low tide, I returned to my room drenched. Tofino’s windy sheets of rain make Vancouver seem like Phoenix. No wonder some visitors prefer to watch the storms from their ocean-view soaker tubs.

      But anyone who forgoes a beach ramble at low tide misses out on what makes Tofino so special. The fresh wind invigorates as it blows across the expanse of Chesterman Beach. Pounded by the surf, the wet sand glistens like sheet metal. As you amble down the three-kilometre stretch, you feel like this really is the end of the world. In a way, it is: heading west, it’s open ocean until Japan.

      The wide expanse of Chesterman Beach is great for a long stroll, rain or shine.
      Carolyn Ali

      It’s this windswept scenery that draws surfers, along with the appeal of a friendly local surfing community that’s particularly welcoming to women. That’s according to Jenna Balester, a surfer from Huntington Beach, California, I chatted with a day earlier at Cox Bay. Balester had travelled to Tofino to compete in the third annual, all-female Queen of the Peak surf contest.

      “The number of women who are surfing in this small town is amazing,” Balester said, adding that she’s especially impressed by the community’s tight-knit, encouraging nature. In California, she said, female surfers are more geographically spread out so they don’t necessarily know one another, they aren’t as numerous at any given beach, and therefore they don’t benefit as much from the support and competitive spirit as male surfers do. She also pointed out that she’s noticed an unusually large number of girls embracing the sport in Tofino. “The amount of stoke they have here is incredible,” she exclaimed. Down the beach, Krissy Montgomery, the owner of Surf Sister who cofounded the competition, was busy organizing 25 of these girls for an exhibition surf. Ranging in age from six to 12, the girls were raring to get into the water before their Princess of the Peak competition the following day.

      Kids play in the water during the Princess of the Peak exhibition at Cox Bay in Tofino.
      Carolyn Ali

      Despite the fact that Montgomery built her business on female surfers, even she is surprised at how much the scene has evolved in Tofino. “If somebody told me 15 years ago that we’d have a competition with 25 girls surfing, I would have said, ‘You’re crazy,’ ” Montgomery told me. “But now it’s a whole new generation.…The girls here are hardy girls, and they’re willing to jump into a male-dominated sport.”

      Indeed. At the water’s edge, I watched seven-year-old Sofia Bruhwiler rock a wave while her mother, 26-year-old Tamarah Stephens, cheered her on. “She’s been surfing since she was in my belly,” Stephens told me with a smile. A Tofino resident and an avid surfer, Stephens placed fourth in this year’s Queen of the Peak short-board competition. “Our generation grew up surfing, and we’ve passed it down to the next generation,” she said.

      Part of Tofino’s tight-knit surfing community, Tamarah Stephens (right) passed her passion down to her seven-year-old daughter, Sofia Bruhwiler, who rocks the waves at Cox Bay.
      Carolyn Ali

      It was inspiring to watch Bruhwiler and the other girls tackle the waves with such utter confidence. They made it look as if surfing was, well, child’s play. Not easy, mind you—plenty of the girls were wiping out. But they didn’t seem to take it all that seriously. Rather, it looked like they were having fun, and they didn’t seem afraid. It made me realize that surfing is, essentially, just playing in the waves.

      Back at surf class, I try to keep that in mind as I head out into the white water. Like most of my classmates, I really want to stand up on my board at least once. But I try not to put too much adult pressure on myself and focus on having fun.

      That’s not hard to do, I discover when the first wave knocks me over. Shockingly, the water doesn’t feel the least bit cold. Or maybe I just don’t notice as I’m too busy dodging waves, paddling madly, and scrambling back on my board. Everyone in the group is laughing and yelling encouragement.

      I recall what Balester told me about the thrill of the sport. “The first wave you catch, that’s why you’ll be willing to do it in the freezing weather and the rain,” she said. “The feeling is indescribable. It’s like you’re flying.”

      It’s not long before I manage to catch a wave and stand up oh-so-briefly. It is a thrill, and I do it repeatedly, yet I always topple backwards before getting much of a glide. No matter—these fleeting moments are enough to get the feel of surfing. In any case, I’m happy just to splash around in a wet suit.

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