Surf’s Up – Vancouver Island’s Best Big Wave Surfing

“As for my own surfing, let’s just say that when the waves start pushing 10 feet, I get this tremendous urge to make a sandwich.”

Bruce Jenkins, North Shore Chronicles

Anyone who’s ever sat slack-jawed in front of their computer screen after typing Big Wave Riding on Youtube will appreciate Mr. Jenkins’ sentiments. Indeed, there are some mind-numbingly gigantic waves out there; and for every ten thousand surfers who head for the breadbox, there’s at least one who heads for the beach. These lunatics make names for themselves (sometimes posthumously) by being towed by jet-ski into some of the freakiest breaks on God’s blue earth. Even non-surfers have heard of the places these daredevils go to test their mettle. The deep swells roaring onto Hawaii’s shallow reefs and lava rock formations have turned places like Jaws, Pipeline and Waimea into the stuff of legends; Near Half Moon Bay, Mavericks in Southern California is a frigid 30-foot monster and home to Quicksilver’s annual group suicide attempt known as the Big Wave Competition; the remote Teahupo in Tahiti brags some of the thickest swells on the planet and Australia’s East Coast proudly boasts some amazing places to die on a surfboard. But sometimes places like Mavericks are enjoying moderate 20-footers while the world’s true monster waves are lurking over 100 miles off the coast of San Diego. It’s called the Cortes Banks – an eerie patch of ocean where a subterranean mountain range peaks just 3-6 feet below the surface. Discovered by deranged surfers in the early nineties, this anomaly can produce swells the size of apartment buildings with wave-faces as high as 70 feet.

But we’re betting that you value your life. In fact even seasoned surfers wet themselves a little bit when these locations are uttered; like Mr. Jenkins, most of us would rather make a sandwich than take on a billion tons of angry saltwater with nothing but a piece of fibreglass-coated Styrofoam. This is why places like Vancouver Island’s west coast are so popular. Because here, your kids can splash around on boogie boards while you paddle out to manageably large sets. And while they can be both challenging and thrilling rides, you’re not really flipping the bird at Mother Nature nor will your kids be left orphans on the beach. In fact, come the right time of year, Long Beach, the 20 kilometre stretch between the Vancouver Island towns of Ucluelet and Tofino can produce some fantastic big waves. And you don’t need a jet-ski tow-in or an updated will-and-testament to make it worthwhile.

First, let’s give credit where it’s due: the Gulf of Alaska, venerable birthplace of the storms that generate the waves which eventually find their way to the British Columbia coastline from late September to March. The Alaskan Panhandle also generates a lot of the bigger solid running swells that bang against our beaches as well. It’s not just BC’s northern Yankee neighbours we have to thank, either. Second only to sushi as a favourite Japanese export, the delicious waves generated from storms off the coast of Japan travel across the Pacific with ease before smacking into Western Canada. Even the Southern Hemisphere’s storm waves would join the party if they weren’t apprehended at Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula before they reached the BC coastline. What can you do? American border-control…

The best waves on Long Beach can be found November through March, aka winter. But before you envision parka wetsuits and neoprene mukluks, it bears mentioning that Vancouver Island enjoys one of the most temperate climates in the country. Winter here usually means rain at worst, which can make for quite a surreal experience when combined with the perpetual fog that laces this coastline most of the season. What’s important to remember is that the water fluctuates between 7 and 14 degrees Celsius so a hood, gloves and boots aren’t a suggestion – they’re a pre-requisite. Renting the necessary gear can be difficult when the big sets start rolling in. Local outfitters are naturally reticent to rent you a board that may A) come back in several pieces or B) disappear along with the defiantly cavalier tourist who thinks his puka shell necklace and Bermuda shorts are all he needs to go toe-to-toe with King Neptune. If you’re ready to ride the big stuff, chances are you own your own hardware. And in these waters, that hardware should be Shaquille O’Neil size (6’8″ to 8′) for your best chances.

This is also one of the most picturesque surfing destinations in the world. With jagged coastlines, sandy beaches and lush, mist-shrouded forests, Vancouver Island’s west coast looks more like a scene from a fantasy movie than anything else – if of course, the fantasy movie had wicked big waves. The functional beauty of this place is its accessibility. While Tahiti might boast bigger waves and a better climate, Long Beach is just a short 4-hour drive from the province’s capital city of Victoria, 2 hours from Nanaimo and not much further from Vancouver and the Mainland.

While Long Beach and vicinity is home to the largest waves on Vancouver Island, the Lower Island has several other favourite surfs spots that are worth visiting and definitely deserve mentioning. Jordan River is located in Juan de Fuca Provincial Park and is home to Jordan River Surf Club, a friendly group of locals who are always more than happy to introduce etiquette-abiding visitors to their waves. Caveat: Jordan River’s waves only manifest during one tide and only then with specific winds and swell direction. Although conditions here can be as unpredictable as Lindsay Lohan’s career, when they’re good they’re really good, providing some of the longest rides on the Island. For your best chances, check out The Point, Rock Piles and Sewers. Thirty kilometres further north, you’ll find Sombrio Beach. Like Long Beach, the waves here are small to average unless helped along by a friendly winter storm. But it’s the idyllic surroundings that make Sombrio so appealing. A favourite destination with individuals looking to connect with nature, you’re just as likely to run into an amiable hippy squatter or an outdoor yoga class as you are to run into another surfer.

But for many, size really does matter. And despite the magical little bays, heads, coves and beaches that pepper Vancouver Island’s west coast, Long Beach definitely stands as the number one place to go for sheer magnitude. Rain or shine, winters here can produce waves anywhere between 12 and 16 feet not to mention 2 gorgeous little seaside towns to explore when you’re done hitting the waves for the day. This truly is Canada’s big wave mecca.

Sure, it’s no Waimea Bay; it’s no Mavericks, but let’s get real for a second – you’re on vacation, not on a pro tour. Come conquer British Columbia first.

Cortes Banks isn’t going anywhere.

*Thanks to Jay Bowers of Pacific Surf School for his valuable input