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Coming up with a second act after a pro surfing career can be a tough one to pull off. Mastery in wave riding after all, doesn’t necessarily transfer to the wider job market. But the skill set Raph Bruhwiler developed as Canada’s first professional surfer entailed a lot more than honing the perfect cutback.
Uncovering the surf potential of Vancouver Island meant becoming an expert in coastal navigation, wilderness survival, and maritime operations—the exact requirements for the work he now does in the Canadian Coast Guard as a rescue specialist based in his hometown of Tofino, which also happens to be the surf capital of British Columbia.
Mountainous terrain and the sea prevail outside of town, and if a person wants to surf—that is, really surf—beyond the pocket beaches with parking lots and sports-crazed masses, then a good boat is the key. Narrow channels run between uninhabited islets and out to rock shoals that catch the full brunt of Pacific swells. The tides rise and fall twenty feet, setting-in powerful currents that churn beneath the deadfall, moss, and towering limbs. Winter gales, endless bands of rain, the ancient trees shaggy in the mist. There are wolves on the beach. And between fronts, in distant coves on remote stretches of coast, there can be perfect, world-class waves.
“I got my first boat in my early teens,” Bruhwiler explains, “and the freedom that gave me was amazing.” Having grown up with his mother and father, two brothers and sister on a secluded beach south of town gave him an early start in the surf, but the West Coast of Vancouver Island in the 1980s on was a place apart—scattered homesteads on the far edge of the continent. Becoming a surfer was a self-taught prospect. A few of the older men surfed, but working on a logging crew or crab boat didn’t leave a lot of time for passing on the stoke to the next generation. And it’s cold up there. So until wetsuits started to improve, the Bruhwiler kids toughed it out in ill-fitting neoprene, trudging the forest path home so numb their hands and feet were like useless nubs.
But the wetsuits did improve and a local man named Tony Heald started a surf/skate shop out of a garage, where Bruhwiler and his crew of beach dwelling friends would hang around. Between getting better equipment, exposure to contemporary surf videos, and a trip or two to Southern California where he saw other youth surfing at an advanced level, Bruhwiler not only learned about high performance wave riding, he began working at it himself. At 13 he won a contest in Westport, Washington that Heald the shop owner had entered him in and not long after companies were providing clothes, boards, and wetsuits. As pro surfing evolved in the late 80s and into the early 90s with “new school” maneuvers—the airs and tail slides that put the old guard on their heels competitively and gave rise to Kelly Slater’s brand of wave riding wizardry—Raph Bruhwiler evolved right along with it. The twist in his program of course, was that the airs and tail slides he did happened not on the glistening blue waters of the North Shore, but were set against the shifting grays and greens of the far Northwest.
There is a beautiful resonance, however, between the remote coastline of Vancouver Island and the original Polynesian ocean arts of surfing, fishing, and small boat handling—the West Coast of Canada is part of the Pacific Rim after all. And short videos began to emerge, along with articles in places like Surfer Magazine, and eventually, The Surfer’s Journal, that depicted Raph and his brother Sepp, and later, their friend Peter DeVries, in a veritable cold water paradise free diving for uni, reeling in salmon, taking deer, and camping deep in the wild lands. All of this underpinned by stunning tube rides and blistering top turns—the kind of remote travel adventure that magazine readers and fellow surfers devour, so ironically, the boys were alone at home before a global audience. But high level surfing is a dance, and what dancer doesn’t want to perform, doesn’t want to share the joy they feel in the act?
If you’re going to hit the water, you can use this cooler as a casting platform or seat while fishing.
Another resonance, or Pan-Pacific connection, lies between the life Raph Bruhwiler is living and that of the great Hawaiian waterman, Eddie Aikau. Aikau lived for surfing Waimea Bay, the intimidating big wave wave break on Oahu’s North Shore, and from his teens onward helped define what was possible there until maturing into the role of County Lifeguard, assigned to watch over what had long since been his home break. So it is with Bruhwiler—well over twenty years of running those channels, darting between those rocky shoals on the wildest of days, all that experience laying the foundation for the rescue work he now performs in those same waters. Yes, there is a paycheck to consider. He is married and raising his three children with his wife. Sponsorship dollars and the profits from a seasonal, home-spun surf school only go so far. But there is also an aspect of being the perfect man for the job, an aspect of serving one’s community: the seafarers, fishermen, and visitors who run the waters of Tofino.
So when the call came last summer, just before sunset, of a whale-watching boat capsized with 26-passengers on board, Bruhwiler and the Coast Guard crew he is part of scrambled to their hard-bottomed inflatable with dual 175-horsepower outboards, and tore through the harbor. Edging-in too close to view sea lions on a rock shelf, the tour boat had gotten flipped by a rogue wave. Bruhwiler and others pulled survivors from the sea. Six people did not make it. Their bodies on deck, CPR and defibrillators all the way back in to no avail. “That was the worst one,” he relates, “scenes like that stay with you.” But he helped save the others, and stands ready to go again whenever he gets the call. “No one’s going to save us,” he’s said of himself and his crew, of the reality of having to go out on rescues regardless of the conditions. “It’s definitely exciting,” he says of the work, “it’s always different.” And with a two-weeks-on/two-weeks-off schedule, there is still time to surf, time to run those channels he knows so well and ply his decades of experience on a surfboard.
Not a bad second act at all.
Written by Christian Beamish