Years ago at Pipeline, a crisp tradewind blowing, Raph Bruhwiler sat shivering in the lineup, the coldest he’d ever felt in the water. It’s a strange way to imagine Canada’s first professional surfer. Every year, hundreds of surfers visit his hometown of Tofino, the quiet Vancouver Island village, and Bruhwiler shares a grit and toughness with the area, earned over a lifetime chasing waves in the inhospitable and maddeningly fickle Pacific Northwest. But he’ll be the first to tell you, the elements that conspire against surfers — whether it’s the North Shore tradewinds or Tofino’s numbing gales — are as inherent to the PNW experience as the waves themselves.
We reached out to Bruhwiler and asked him about the lessons he’s learned from Tofino, the surf culture he helped create, the importance of family, and how the difference between surfing and survival all comes down to preparation. [Interview by Davis Jones]
What’s your earliest memory of survival out in the wilderness as a kid?
There was this one time when I was 16, a bunch of guys from California came up to visit: Brandy Faber and Evan Slater, with a couple other surfers. My friend had a boat that we used to chase this one wave. We actually ran out of food a couple days in and we had about two or three days left of the trip. We had to go up into the bush to collect berries. We cooked up some fish, oysters, and barnacles on the beach. Up here, you won’t starve. There’s so much you can pick straight from the bush and eat. You can even eat the squirrels if you have to [Laughs].
What’s your earliest memory of survival as a surfer?
There were some moments when I was younger where getting to waves on the boat was scary, because the weather was so violent. But actually being in in the water, I’ve been fortunate to not have many bad experiences surfing, I’ve split my head open about two or three hours out from help, where I’ve needed to drive the boat back to get stitches. Stuff like that. But I’ve honestly never felt like I’ve had to survive out there in the water.
Where’d those instincts come from? Your dad? Older surfers?
I learned everything I know from my dad. He taught me and my siblings everything. We were also pretty aware of our environment, and that’s how my kids are. I teach them everything I know. If the world goes to shit and they have to survive on their own, they know what to do. That’s what my dad taught us.
When we grew up, there was a pretty big age gap between us and the older surfers. Some of them weren’t very stoked about showing us around, but others were willing to mentor us a bit. But really, it was more a pack of us kids who lived close to one another on the beach, and we fed off each other as we pushed our surfing.
One of my friend’s dads had a board, and one day, he started pushing us into waves. Soon enough, it was probably about a half-dozen of us out there surfing every day. Back then, weeks would go by where we wouldn’t see another surfer in the lineup. It was just a bunch of us groms.
There were maybe a handful of other local guys who surfed. There weren’t many in-between that age gap, between the young and the old, who surfed. There wasn’t a lineup of hot surfers we could observe, either. We basically had each other.
The other way we learned was by watching videos. We watched Momentum probably ten times a day on VHS. We’d stare at all these progressive maneuvers on tape, then we’d go out and try it, come back in, and watch some more.
Speaking of video, many people outside of the Northwest got their first look at Tofino’s waves when Jeremy Koreski release Numb in 2002. What was your reaction to the world outside of Tofino looking in?
By the time Numb came out, people from the Northwest already knew there was surf in Tofino, but definitely not as many people from down south, like in California or in other parts of the country. Some of us had a few photos here published in SURFER before Numb was released. But a video is such a different viewing experience from looking at a photo, and they were able to understand the potential for good waves here. It definitely brought more people to Tofino, that’s for sure.
Tofino is a beautiful spot, and I think surfing is the best sport in the world, so you can’t blame people for wanting to see this place. The thing about the waves we shoot and film, though, is that they’re super difficult to get to. You have to pick a boat, you have to know the weather conditions, you have to know the tides. If you go out there during a storm on the wrong day, you could die. It’s not that easy. The majority of people say, “I want to surf this wave.” And I tell them, “Go for it. You can, but I’m just telling you: this could happen, this could happen, and this could happen.”
First of all, you have to figure out where the spot is. The coastline here is jagged, so it could be anywhere. Yes, the beachbreaks in town get crowded, but they’re beachbreaks. The better waves are found when you keep pushing further, and that’s what we do. It’s what makes us find the waves you see in magazines and edits. We saw how busy Tofino was getting, as more and more people bought boats, so we decided to go further. There are spots where I still surf completely alone. I never see another person there, and these are perfect waves.
In a SURFER profile piece you did with Kate MacLennan in 2014, she brought up how a lot of people don’t know how expensive it is to search for waves in Tofino. With how fickle the waves are, and between the costs of putting the boat in the harbor and the gasoline you need, there’s a good chance you might not see those waves ever again.
You have to put effort in surfing here. Time, money, even risking your life sometimes. You might predict the weather will be one way, but it turns out completely different, and it’s too late to turn around.
Also, we get a lot of firing waves, and you can’t get there, because it’s too big. You can’t even get out of the harbor - it’s too dangerous. If you had a helicopter, that would change things [Laughs]. But if you’re going with a boat, you have to survive first, then you get to surf. You don’t just walk down the beach and paddle out. You have to survive the boat ride, make it to the break, set up camp. If you get good waves, it’s a bonus.
Most of the talk about Tofino surf is how punishing it can be. What about Tofino do you find redemptive or rewarding?
There’s so much space up here. You can get away from seeing other people for weeks and weeks on end. If I go to a city like Los Angeles, that’s when I feel claustrophobic. I want to get out of there.
[Tofino’s] just a place that feels like freedom to me. Even in the summertime, when there are hundreds of tourists in town, you can jump on a boat and go five minutes away to a beach where you won’t see another soul. There are so many smaller islands, so many nooks and crannies, places to escape the hustle and bustle of the island.
What are misconceptions people have when they come here to surf?
The way I see it, it’s not the weather that causes problems. It’s that you’re not prepared for the weather. If you’re prepared and you have a good wetsuit, good gloves, good boots, you’ll be warm. If it’s pouring down rain, people will comment on how wet and uncomfortable they are. I tend to disagree; you’re just not prepared for it. The people who come up from California, I tell them as soon as I see them that they need to buy boots and gloves right away. You’re going to be wet and and freezing the whole time. If you just show up with a light rain jacket, you’re going to be cold and miserable the whole trip.
That carries over to general survival, too. It’s not the weather or the elements that do you in. It’s whether or not you’re prepared for the weather and the elements.
Exactly. When my friends and I were younger, we were much more reckless. But the older you get, the more you check equipment off your list and make sure you have everything you need.
We used to sleep under tarps in place of sleeping bags when we were kids. Our warmth was the fireside. But the older you get, the smarter you get, bringing what you need to be comfortable. Nowadays, if you’re uncomfortable in crappy weather, it’s because you screwed up and weren’t prepared.
The same with weather forecasts and swell predictions. All we had back then was someone talking on the radio. Today, you have countless websites, countless apps. Back then, we’d go somewhere, sit on the beach, and hope for waves. We didn’t know when a swell was coming. It’s a piece of cake nowadays.
Is that hard for you, to think about the tools at our fingertips compared to when you grew up?
It’s a mixed reaction. I like to rough it a bit more. But if the tools are there, I’ll use them. All these tools attract more people, as well, because the surf experience becomes easier for everyone. It’s easier for me, too, but then I think I have quite a bit of knowledge with the older tools, too, with the senses. It’s not that I keep from using any tools out of principle. To not use any forecasting sites? None of that? I’d be stupid. Why not? You’ll get better waves. I probably do catch better waves nowadays because I know exactly where it’s going to be firing and I can plan ahead.
How do you think being a parent has affected how far you’re willing to go into the wild to search for good waves?
It’s definitely harder. First of all, kids cost a lot of money, and take a lot of your time, so I don’t have as much of either [Laughs]. Maybe not right now, but in a couple years, I think chasing those waves is going to get better and I’ll do it more because I’ll take my kids with me. My kids come with me on some trips now. They all surf and we go camping together in the summer.
I’m actually really excited for what’s ahead. For me, I try to do everything I can with my kids, as much as I can. I have lots of fun with them, whether that’s surfing, hunting, whatever. They’re basically my best friends.
I’m not finding waves as much right now, but when my kids get older, once they can go after heavier waves, there are definitely spots along the coast that I still haven’t explored as much yet where I’d like to take them. It’s important to me that they have the same experience when I was a kid of riding a new wave around here for the first time, and maybe even naming some of them [Laughs].
What’s left out there for you to explore? How will you push yourself and challenge yourself next?
In terms of pushing myself, there are a few big waves I’ve been looking at that are pretty close to town, but that I know no one has ever surfed. I'd like to be one of the first ones to go surf those waves. I think for those smaller, rippable waves, the island’s probably been scoured clean. There are definitely more slabs to be found. There are big waves spots that I know are good, but ones that we haven’t challenged yet. I think that’s the next step: the more dangerous waves.
I’d also like to circumnavigate the whole island one day. Take my kids, take a boat that’s just big enough, take a month or two, and travel. Anything to keep surfing. It’s definitely harder to do, the older you get. Now that I work full time for the Canadian Coast Guard as a rescue specialist, it’s different having a full time job. I get decent time off, but it’s definitely a change for me to not just surf non-stop like I have for the last 20 years of my life. Now, it’s little different. But I’m still out in the ocean, and I get to bring my kids into it now. I get to raise a few surf partners.