Cold Water Blues in Canada

My Imperial Beach Patch Southwest Surf Column for April 13, 2010:

The water temperature and the weather weren’t that bad. Really. The ocean temp was in the high 40s and the air was in the mid-to-high 40s. Springtime conditions.

Even with the warmer weather, I wasn’t sure what to expect as I hit the water at Chesterman Beach, one of the most popular surfing beaches on Vancouver Island.

But as I waded through the whitewater, I realized that it wasn’t going to be that bad.

Of course I was covered from head to toe in rubber—hood, gloves, booties and my 4-3-2 Matuse Tumo suit. So I was toasty.

As I paddled through the whitewater to catch some of the fun 3- to 4-foot sideshore peaks, I realized that the lineup was virtually empty with the exception of a tight group of five local surfers, who were all shredding.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. It was Pete Devries, Canada’s hottest surfer (who appears on the cover of the latest issue of Surfer magazine, and who happens to ride boards shaped by Jay Novak), and his band of local shredders.

Devries, who is sponsored by Hurley, pulled big snaps, airs and slashing roundhouse cutbacks in the small but rippable waves.

I joined the crew, who were at the northern end of Chesterman, and was greeted with smiles and friendly waves. I was even given a wave or two.

After about an hour, I returned to the beach to find Emily, my wife, who had gone for a walk while I was in the water. The long beach was filled with beginner surfers who didn’t seem to mind the cold conditions.

Emily and I had traveled to Vancouver Island to attend the 25th Annual Pacific Rim Whale Festival so I could give a couple of talks on coastal conservation in Baja and promote my new book, Wild Sea.

Between my surf sessions, we took walks among the desolate dunes and forests of Pacific Rim National Park and wandered the streets of Tofino, a former fishing and logging town that was named “the best surf town in North America,” according to Outside magazine.

I couldn’t imagine a more perfect place to spend quality time with Emily, who in the past suffered through surf safaris that involved spending more time hunkering down out of the wind in Baja (we lived there for three years) than enjoying the beach.

At the Wildside Grill, hands down the world’s best and coolest surf eatery, Emily and I scarfed down amazing fish tacos, fresh seafood chowder, and the best salmon burgers I have ever eaten. Wildside is owned by commercial fisherman Jeff Mikus and longtime surfer and chef Jesse Blake. While waiting for my order, I traded mainland Mexico stories with Jesse, who is familiar with the rivermouth waves of Guerrero and Michoacan.

Wildside chef and surfer Jesse Blake.

The following day, after I surfed empty offshore 3- to 5-foot right reforms at Wickaninnish Beach in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, Emily and I ate fresh salmon at the more rustic and surf-themed Shelter in Tofino. The food and views of snowy peaks from the restaurant behind the island-studded Tofino Inlet were priceless.

That afternoon after giving a talk, the surf came up. I paddled out at Wickaninnish expecting mellow overhead waves. Instead I realized that I had underestimated the size and power of the new swell. The sets were 6- to 8-foot and were breaking with a lot of power. Pete and his merry men were ripping the well overhead peaks.

I was trying to figure out the lineup that reminded me of being caught in the middle of the Sloughs. While I caught a few peaks, the cold water found an entryway between the sleeves of my wetsuit and my gloves. By my third wave, I was really cold and my body was shutting down. I caught a set wave in and was humbled by the ability of local surfers and their dedication to surfing in a region where surfing isn’t that easy.

The next day, Emily and I headed back over the snowy mountain pass to take the ferry to Vancouver. We agreed that Tofino and Vancouver Island were definitely worth returning to.

Thanks to the beautiful Water’s Edge Resort for their hospitality and the Pacific Rim Whale Festival for their invitation to speak at the festival. Another excellent local restaurant that is fisherman owned and supplied is the Offshore Seafood Restaurant in Ucluelet. A big mahalo to the local surfers who keep the true spirit of surfing alive in the cold waters of the North Pacific. We flew Alaska Airlines to Vancouver from San Diego and I was charged $60 roundtrip for board fees—not too bad.

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