The True North Shore – Surfing in British Columbia

“Surfing expresses a pure yearning for visceral, physical contact with the natural world.”

Matt Warshaw, Surfer

And if you asked Matt Warshaw, I bet he’d agree… the natural world doesn’t get much more beautiful than Vancouver Island.  

Many visitors to the province don’t realize that beyond the big-city lights of Vancouver, past the quaintness of Victoria’s Old Towne, far from the desert hills and placid lakes of the Okanagan… a whole different British Columbia awaits – a rugged stretch of coastline edged by forests and shrouded in mists.  A remote, sparsely-inhabited sanctuary where the mighty Pacific Ocean sends wave after wave roaring along miles of sandy beaches – Welcome to Vancouver Island’s West Coast.

But before we talk about the locations, let’s talk about the waves themselves.  Any serious surfer will attest to the fact that Canada’s West Coast is blessed by geography.  Storms are usually birthed in the Gulf of Alaska, generating waves that lash the BC coast from late September to March.  But other swells make longer journeys before finding our green shores.  Amazingly, storms off the coast of Japan can create swells that traverse the Pacific just as easily as localized weather systems.  Even the extremely distant swells from the Southern Hemisphere would be capable of reaching our shores if it wasn’t for the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, which vetos these before they get anywhere near Vancouver Island.  But truthfully, we’re not complaining.  Not when we have places like Tofino and Ucluelet.  By we’re getting ahead of ourselves.  Let’s imagine we’ve found one of the several reasonably-priced ocean outfitters in Victoria, rented our wetsuits, boots and boards and are revving our engines for a Vancouver Island surf-safari…     

From Victoria, several locations are a daytrip’s distance away.  Nearest and most accessible is Jordan River.  Located in Juan de Fuca Provincial Park, this surf spot is home to the Jordan River Surf Club – a band of locals who, providing you show consideration and proper beach etiquette, will accept visitors with welcome arms.  But here’s the catch:  The waves at Jordan River only exist on one tide with specific winds and swell direction. (on average, 3 times per winter)  When it’s good here, it’s really good.  Just know that a 2 or 3 day trip could leave you disappointed.  However, if you time it right, you’ll encounter some of the longest rides on the island.  Be sure to rent a longer, wider board for optimum satisfaction in these conditions.  Three particular spots at Jordan River are worth exploring: Sewers (nothing to do with anything septic), The Point, and Rock Piles.

Just 30 kilometres northwest of Jordan River lies Sombrio Beach, distinguishable by the massive rock that sits at the base of the tide break (which occasionally pose a hazard to directionally-challenged surfers).  The eternal mists that envelope this part of the island give Sombrio a surreal, magical feel – as do the hippie squatters and occasional Hare Krishnas who sporadically inhabit the forested shoreline.  Sombrio has similar, although more consistent conditions than Jordan River but the true beauty of these two locations has to be there proximity to both Victoria and Sooke.

However, if you’re looking for the quintessential Vancouver Island surf experience, you need to venture a little further afield.  Meet Long Beach – the heavenly 20 kilometre stretch of sand between the West Coast towns of Tofino and Ucluelet, in the middle of Pacific Rim National Park.  This is home to a hard-core group of serious surfers but again, don’t be intimidated.  Respecting your space in the line as you’re waiting for the right set to roll in is key to being accepted.  And with such a huge expanse of beach to choose from, there’s room for everyone, from complete beginners to seasoned old sea-dawgs.  Bottom line, this is Canada’s favourite place to surf, both coasts considered.  The beach is extremely accessible with wicked waves available all year long, although winter still provides the best peeling surf.  It’s well worth the rain and/or fog to experience the gorgeous 12-footers that pound the coastline at this time of year.  But dress appropriately.  Several surf shops in and around Tofino and Ucluelet provide all the rentals you’ll need – which will include boots and a hoody if you’re after winter waves.  The ocean temperature sits at about 10 degrees Celsius this time of year.  Even in the summer, it only rises about 5 degrees so never make the mistake of hitting the waves in your board shorts (despite their suggestive name).  The waves might be righteous, but this ain’t Maui!  In fact, most of the ocean rescues in the area are due to newbies paddling out to the break with nothing more than a pair of Bermuda shorts and a death-wish for hypothermia.

Has the roughest water you’ve experienced been in the Jacuzzi?  No fear!  Beginner surfers can take advantage of the fantastic instruction available through several companies.  There are 3 surf schools in Tofino and 1 in Ucluelet, teaching everything from beach etiquette to board technique to basic wave science.  And if you haven’t got the room to stow that rented gear for the drive here, rentals are available in the vicinity.  Try Storm – The Tofino Surf Shop, your local home for all the gear and accessories you’ll need.  It’s important to note that they’re located a few kilometres from the beach access so unless you don’t mind cutting your day on the water short to get your rentals back before close, it’s in your best interest to rent for several consecutive days.  

Surf Sisters, a popular women-only camp is the only one of its kind in Western Canada that is sponsored by Billabong.  Classes cater to ages and experience, teaching everything from the basics to specialized skills in a safe, fun environment.  Packages include the Billabong Girls Surf Camp and the Billabong Teen Girls Camp as well as specialized packages such as the Yoga/Surf Camp and the Mother/Daughter Surf Camp.    

The highlight of the Long Beach surf season is the annual contest hosted by the British Columbia Surfing Association (BCSA) held in June at nearby Cox Bay – an event that attracts dozens of serious surfers from all over.

Visit Vancouver Island’s West Coast this vacation and catch the ride of your life.  Like we said, this ain’t Maui… and it ain’t California either.  And we’re proud of that!

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