Mathea Olin arcs a turn in the shortboard contest.
© Marcus Paladino

How Tofino became Canada's Surf City

In only a few decades, Tofino shed its industrial beginnings to become the home of Canada's surf scene.
By Andrew Sayer
9 min readPublished on
The early days of Tofino were tough living. It was a town with a lot of dudes in a remote area, logging and fishing under harsh wet conditions. Today the town still thrives off of natural resources in a different way.
In only a few decades Tofino re-invented itself around surfing. Within a population of only 2,000, an astounding 15% or so put on necessary 5mm wetsuits and take to the waters. Put into perspective, if Huntington Beach, aka Surf City, had a similar breakdown every dawn patrol would look like a US Open crowd. Even with its brief history, if Canada is ever represented at the Olympics or on Tour, the town will have played a part. So how did a tiny Vancouver Island town at the end of the road become Canada’s de facto surf city?
Surfers began arriving in the 1960s, but after a 1970s lull, it wasn’t until the mid-80s that the modern era began. Enter Dom Domic, early renegade contest organizer and current President of Surf Canada who recounts his pre-Internet memories from 1986.
“I heard whisperings of surf on Vancouver Island,” Domic recalls. So after studying a map he found it. “For me it was a new discovery. The first thing we saw was a tiny cottage, the now iconic shop Live To Surf. They told us to go surf Long Beach. This was an August long weekend with pumping waves and there was one guy out.”
After a few return trips and noticing that the ISA World Championships took place in England, Dom had a lightbulb moment, “If they could do it in Newquay, which is not as remote, but has similar conditions, then we could do a contest!”
You get the picture.

You get the picture.

© Marcus Paladino

So while working at a snow/skate shop in the city, he started plotting the first modern contest held in the summer of 1988. “We put a tent on the beach and just did it. About thirty surfers were split into four divisions,” says Domic. This included the super OG from Tofino’s first family of surfing: Catherine Bruhwiler.
Competitor numbers only doubled the next year, but there were hundreds watching on the beach with raging parties at night and no permits involved.
After this 1980s explosion the town got wise. “Our events happened when there was almost zero tourism. When the locals saw hoards of teen outsiders they weren’t stoked,” assumes Domic. “If you throw booze and mass unsupervised camping together, especially pre-smart phone, shit happens. So the municipalities shut us down throughout the 1990s.”
Local surfboard shaper Stefan Aftanas remembers these days, “There wasn’t an ‘us and them’ attitude, but there was a separation between surfers and everybody else,” he remembers.
Around the millennium the contests returned, and there was a movement coinciding with the all-female school Surf Sister. Owner Krissy Montgomery also puts on the Queen Of The Peak competition that celebrates the inclusive community of the female scene. “It forced people to notice the quality of women’s surfing. We also highlighted on a global level how Tofino is pretty much the female surf capital,” she explains.
Another original shop, Storm, was finding its stride no longer having to close for the winter. “From November to April I’d have a sign on the door with my phone number, ‘Call me if you need something,’ because it was so slow,” owner Allister Fernie reminisces. “What we had though was a default community hub. People would come in to bullshit about surfing or watch a video.”
This community feel is a common thread throughout Tofino and today Storm shuts just one day per year: Christmas.
As the surf industry grew it was time to bring the world to Canada where the locals had home-field advantage. This refocusing on local events propelled Tofino further.
“That was the catalyst for re-starting the Surf Jam,” Domic says, “Quiksilver would bring up Strider Wasilewski, Peter Mel and others. They realized that it wasn’t a novelty; the waves were good and the locals could surf.”
Pioneers like Raph and Sepp Bruwiler and Pete Devries got more involved with sponsors as they showed visiting surfers the goods. This international rise helped the community in many ways. “My biggest benefit was that there were really good surfers and no shaper,” says Aftanas of Aftanas Surfboards. “I formed a ‘team’ early on. The second board I made Sepp he won his first contest on: the Canadian National title.”
Raph Bruhwiler makes the drop on a coldwater gem.

Raph Bruhwiler makes the drop on a coldwater gem.

© Kyler Vos

Before long, images of barrels with snow-capped mountains in the background started popping up in surf magazines shot through the lens of iconic photographers like Jeremy Koreski.
After years of steady growth, the Cold Water Classic arrived in 2009 along with the worlds best surfers and the industry's eyeballs. The town shut-down on finals day to watch Devries take an unexpected victory that changed everything. “The municipality started to realize that this is a tourism draw,” says Aftanas. “That contest was the beginning of surfing really being an indispensable part of the community.”
When Domic proudly refers to it as, “The greatest thing that ever happened in Canada,” it’s only a slight exaggeration.
The Cold Water Classic hype led Outside Magazine to grant Tofino the title of North America’s Best Surf Town – a figure shared by media outlets across Canada with pride. With that, Tourism Tofino had new ammo to promote the harsh winter months and make it a beginner mecca.
Thirty years past Domic’s original surf jam-party hybrid, Tofino played host to the Surf Canada Nationals in the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve in May of 2018. The national championship was Surf Canada's first standalone event as the country's national sport federation. From 2013 to 2017, the longstanding and iconic Rip Curl Pro Tofino served as the country's competition grounds for the national title. In 2018, Surf Canada Nationals and Rip Curl Pro Tofino went back-to-back on the first and second weekend in May making for a weeklong celebration of Canadian surfing. New for 2019, the contests joined forces to become the Rip Curl Nationals.
“It’s still a communal gathering, but it is now also the main pathway to represent Team Canada at International contests,” says the Pres on Surf Canada Nationals. Making it to Tokyo in 2020 will be a tough road, yet a couple surfers could be surfing in the next Olympics with a maple leaf on their wetsuit. Imagine that.
Having a couple hundred like-minded board-riders residing in a small town quickly changes the demographics. With the reduced resource industry changing Tofino’s complexion, surf tourism overhauled the whole economy benefitting local businesses benefit, most of which directly support the culture. Shelter is one of the restaurant’s that’s known for their fine meals and involvement. Manager Robbie Ferguson, himself an expat from Byron Bay, reveals, “Culturally, surfing is a part of us and you can see that. The town lives and breaths it. We embrace it.”
Shelter holds Surfing Night in Canada during contest live streams, premieres for local talent, and even co-created Queen Of The Peak. The owner also hires Shannon Brown, National Coach for the Canadian surf team, for weekly staff surf sessions. Shazza, as Brown is known, quickly became indespensable to the scene and is a prime example of the Tofino hospitality, arriving for one season from Australia and never leaving.
With Canada’s sprawling coastline though, why here? “Tofino has a special surf community because it is so isolated and everyone is invested in the ocean whether they surf or not: the businesses, the tourism, the parents. For me getting involved, hiring the groms, and supporting them is natural. I don’t think that my surf shop is better than any other,” states Fernie, “but it’s easier to focus on the positives in a small scene.”
Montgomery brings up another benefit of a small scene, “Being a small community also means that if you’re being a dick in the water, you’re still a dick in the grocery store. It forces people to conduct themselves respectfully.”
Surprisingly, Tofino is really Canada’s only destination for year-round surf within the borders of a municipality. Though the waves are often mediocre at best, this can have its advantages.
I didn’t realize how incredible the female surf scene was until I started traveling to different countries.”
Mathea Olin
It’s these average, yet consistent conditions that bond the scene and makes for better surfers. Talent like Noah Cohen and the younger Mathea Olin are proof. Since the evolution of tiny wetsuits, the groms have been taking over as well. Many of which come from first or second generation surfers thus carrying familiar last names. The talent list is now too long to name including top shelf photographers and filmers.
Perhaps Tofino’s most unique factor is the strength of the female surf population. Canadian surfing culture essentially created its own history that included women from the beginning. Montgomery breaks it down, “There was no male dominated precedence set, so we simply joined and were accepted without a fuss.”
Another reason was the release of Blue Crush. Although mad corny, its mainstream popularity had a lasting effect. “It brought surf dreams into the minds of thousands of girls,” says Tofino surf historian Devorah Reeves. “Overnight, learning was on the ‘to do’ list of people who never considered it before. More women came to Tofino to try surfing and many stayed.”
Mathea Olin

Mathea Olin

© Kyler Vos | Red Bull Content Pool

Olin now understands the significance, “I didn’t realize how incredible the female surf scene was until I started traveling to different countries,” she says. Throw groms and serene surroundings into the mix and the line-up becomes a calm balance that overpowers any machismo.
The all encompassing support is shocking even to lifers. “My kid is going surfing again... with his kindergarten class!” Fernie exclaims. “This may be mainstream in Australia or California. I know they have their surf clubs, but Canada?”
For those who originally moved here to surf themselves the community investment is crucial for the next generation. “That ocean, we want to focus on it,” continues Fernie. “We don’t have an ice rink or a sports rec centre. So the skate park and the waves are the only established venues we have.”
For a Canadian town to not have hockey borders on sacrilegious, but it looks like Tofino is making up for it with surf culture. Now that’s saying a lot.