Clad in a black 4/3, gloves, and booties, the Big Island's Casey Brown lumbers up the beach in Tofino, Canada. The color from his once-tanned face has disappeared, his lips have turned an icy shade of blue, and his teeth are chattering incessantly. There is no glide in his gait and his steps look downright painful. He has just won his first heat of the inaugural O'Neill Coldwater Classic Canada and manages to break a quick smile to the beach marshal as he hands in his slushy singlet.
This is the cold hard reality of surfing a heat in Canada. Fifty-one degree water temps, pounding rain, ice cream headaches, and the grim happiness that if you make it through your heat, you're just lucky enough to get to do it all over again tomorrow.
As the fourth stop of the O'Neill Coldwater Classic series, the quiet town of Tofino is playing host to a 6-star prime WQS event. Over the course of the past decade, Tofino has morphed itself into a full-fledged coldwater surf town of sorts, a hybrid between Santa Cruz and an old Canadian fishing village. With dense, green forest crawling from the horizon all the way down to the beach, the landscape truly couldn't be more beautiful. Flooded by winter swells and with a plethora of setups, Tofino sees more than its fair share of epic days.
If only it weren't so damn cold. But then again, that's part of the appeal, and that's why O'Neill and the Coldwater Classic series came here—for the cold.
"I really like it here. We usually go to all the same spots every year, but this is great…just coming somewhere different is really cool," said South African Damien Fahrenfort from the safety of a warm, fire-lit lodge overlooking the beach and the venue.
I ask him about the cold and fellow South African Travis Logie chimes in. "I haven't surfed a heat yet, but I went for a freesurf earlier this morning and it was pretty damn freeeezing."
Just by looking out to sea from the safety of the lodge I know Logie isn't exaggerating: head-high slush floods the perimeter of the horseshoe-shaped bay. Although it's by no means perfect, it looks fun and is plenty rippable. Earlier in the day, local boy Peter Devries proved that he can hang with the best and won his heat, stamping in the fact that local know-how—especially in conditions like this—always goes a long way.
Back at beach crowd of onlookers and fans are huddled together underneath a tent. A cold rain has started to fall, adding another notch in the belt of the elements. Says a visibly elated-and-half-frozen Casey Brown, "I'm not gonna lie. It's pretty tough out there. I didn't wear a hood and I've got a pretty mean headache right now from the water. I'm stoked I made it though. I was in trunks in Hawaii a few days and now I'm freezing over here."
Unfortunately for Casey and the rest of the competitors, the forecast is calling for more cold rain, and lots of it. But this is the Coldwater Classic Series; we've been to Tasmania, Scotland, South Africa, and now Canada. It's supposed to be cold…just keep telling yourself that.