A staple of the Canadian surf scene since his mid-teens, Raph Bruhwiler shoulders much of the responsibility for raising the Canadian professional surfing bar to where it is now. Raph has cemented himself as one of the hardest charging surfers in the cold water scene, gaining international acclaim for his style, his attitude, and interminable passion for surfing off our rugged coast.
In the third chapter of “The Northern Collective,” we talk with Raph about his rise from a small-town surf kid into a justifiable surf legend, his infatuation with big waves and his love for exploring the Canadian coastline. Photo: Jeremy Koreski.
How was it to be the first Canadian to get a major sponsor?
I forget who my first was. Shoot, I don’t want to get it wrong! I think it was O’Neill. It was just getting free gear, not a paycheque. That was…oh man, I don’t know when that was. I must’ve been 17 or 18. When you’re young like that, you’re just stoked to be getting free gear and staying warm. That was my first sponsor. After that, I rode for Rip Curl, then Quiksilver and Arson, and Westbeach too. There were a lot of companies I rode for, but I’ve been riding for Quiksilver for about eight years now. Also Oakley for about four years and Ocean Minded shoes for three years. They’ve been supporting me and my family and I’m grateful for that.
You were kind of the big name in Tofino for a long time. Did anything change when you first got a sponsor?
Nothing changed. I mean, not with me. It might’ve pushed some people to surf a bit harder, the level might’ve risen a bit. But I was just stoked to be getting free gear and surfing. I don’t think anyone really thought of it being that great, it was just when you’re a kid and you’re getting free gear, that’s pretty cool. Everyone else might’ve seen that, and it might’ve pushed them a little bit more. The thing is, back then, the surf industry in Canada was really small. They were just helping me out by giving me free gear. I never thought it was going to be as big as it is, and actually make a living out of it. I mean, I always wanted to make a living out of surfing, because I love surfing so much and that’s all I wanted to do. I was going to try, but you never really know when you’re a kid. You’re just stoked on the gear and being able to surf. And back then, it was a pretty small crew on Chesterman’s Beach where we grew up. There was basically me and my brothers, and also a bunch of our friends we grew up with and few older guys.
Who did you get influenced by? The older guys?
There was Jack Gillie, and Jack Bauer. There were the Buckle brothers and some other guys like John Hailey. Some of those guys don’t surf anymore, but Jack Gillie and Jack Bauer, they’re still surfing. Those guys would take me out once in a while, and I’d look up them. I guess at some point I kind of surpassed their level, but they still rip. Then we started watching more videos, and that pushed us more. After a while, my brothers and some of the other guys, we all kind of caught up to each other. Now there’s a few of us, and we all still try and push each other. For me, it started mostly on videos. The first Taylor Steele one was a big one, Momentum. We’d watch it ten times a day, then go out and surf all day. That was the best surfing we’d seen, and we were amazed by it. We’d just go out and try what they were doing.
I know you used to be pretty into tow surfing, especially on Vancouver Island. Not a lot of guys do that here. Are you still doing that?
No, not really. [Laughs.] It was kind of a fad. Oakley got me a jet ski when I first signed with them, and I did a few contests in Oregon, and I was pretty into it. But then the ski got written off, and I just wasn’t really into it anymore. It was fun, but I get way more of a thrill paddling with my own arms into waves. I mean, towing is great, and there’s lots of waves you can’t paddle into, and there’s lots of waves that you can have a lot more fun towing, but I get way more satisfaction paddling into a wave.
Are there a lot of towable waves on Vancouver Island?
There are a few big wave spots. There a couple that we checked out, but we never really got them that good. We still tow big beachbreaks once in a while. My brother has a ski, so we go tow with our regular boards, just to screw around. You get a lot more waves. But for the big wave stuff, they are there, we just kind of lost interest in it for now i guess. That’s what it comes down to. We’re still looking for good waves, just lately more paddle waves. I would still love to surf and tow some of those bigger waves and one day you’ll see it.
How do you find waves? Do you have a boat that you trek along the coast in?
Yeah, I have a boat, and my brother has a ski. We have our spots, and we try and go back. We try to time it with the weather and surf those waves when we can. I’m sure there’s a lot more to be discovered, it just takes a lot of time and money and risk. You have to know what the weather’s doing, because they’re all further away. Sometimes you hear from fishermen or kayakers, or other surfers or sometimes you see pictures from people that don’t even surf, like hikers. You ask them where it is, and it can end up being a good wave. On the coast here, the access is hard. It’s awesome to find new waves and explore, but you have to put a lot of time and effort into it. Which is good—that’s what surfing is about up here. Just getting to the waves is an adventure. That’s surfing to me—not just the act of wave riding, it’s everything else that’s involved with it as well. That’s the reason I surf.
With Cox Bay and Chesterman’s so close, do you ever have a hard time motivating yourself to go out and search for new waves?
No, that’s what made me want to go out and look for different waves. Basically, the waves we have here in town are pretty bad. I always want to go out and find more waves. Even just surf the ones we’ve already surfed for years. I’m a couple hundred feet away from the dock where my boat is, so it’s not hard. The thing is, we’ve done streches of the coastline, and we’ve surfed quite a few waves. And we’ve done it long enough so we know when they’re going to work. I mean, we could venture a lot further and find a lot more, but like I said, then you’re dealing with going further away from civillization and the risk factor is bigger. But I love doing that. I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing.
In the last few years, everyone has noticed Canada in terms of wave quality. What’s your take on crowds at home? Would you rather people didn’t notice it, or are you happy that people are realizing how good it gets here?
Well, I can’t complain too much, because I make a living off of it. If it wasn’t for the crowds, then we wouldn’t be able to do what we love. But it does get a bit frustrating. The thing is, you always hear people complaining about crowds, but if I want, I can still find a wave and surf it alone every day if I wanted to. We basically live on a peninsula that controls the crowds. The road ends here, you know? You know how people are, they surf where everyone else is surfing. We noticed it getting more crowded here about ten years ago, and before that there was basically no one around. And surfing has gone so mainstream that all of a sudden we have crowds. Wetsuit technology has gotten so good, that you don’t even have to worry about the cold. And it’s just a way of life for Canadians—we’re not too scared of the cold. You know, in the summer, it’s really good for learning here. I’ve counted 100 people learning to surf in the water, and it blows me away.
When I think of your name as a surfer in Canada, I think of you as Canada’s big wave guy. When you go travel, do you specifically go to surf big waves?
No, not really. What I really like are hollow waves, but when I go travel or at home, I’ll surf any type of wave. I still have fun on waist-high waves. I did a couple of those big wave contests in Oregon, at Nelscott Reef. There were a couple 25- or 30-foot waves, and I loved it. I love big waves. But compared to those guys that are surfing 50-foot waves, I don’t consider myself a big wave guy next to those guys. I’m just happy to be surfing, I don’t care if the waves are small or big. But I do feel like for how much of a thrill I get from surfing big waves, I don’t do it enough.
You’ve been called the “Godfather of Canadian surfing.” What’s that like?
Yeah, it’s good. [Laughs.] I mean, whatever. I’m stoked. I guess I definitely pushed it. I was kind of one of the first guys to really do a lot of the things, and then everyone else saw it was possible. I’m sure I influenced a lot of people. I hope I helped pushed the level of surfing to where it is now. You’ve got Sepp [Bruhwiler], you’ve got Pete [Devries], Nico Manos and Noah [Cohen], those guys are doing really well. We’re all pushing each other right now. Hopefully I pushed their level when they were growing up and now they’re pushing my level up. I’m a bit older than them, so I’m sure they looked to me a bit, but now I’m still trying to keep up with them. But every generation should get better than the next. There’d be something wrong if they didn’t. If you’re surfing with good guys, you’re going to progress a lot faster. The older guys pushed me and so on.
How much do you think about promoting yourself? Do you push for coverage?
I don’t think that much about it. I surf, I keep the sponsors happy. If someone wants to do a trip, I’ll do it, but I’m not calling the magazines every week being like “are you going to run this, are you going to run that?” It’s not that I don’t try, I wait for the calls to come to me or if I think of a cool trip i’ll call around and try to get a solid crew together for a magazine or video. I try and keep in contact. I’m doing what I can. I think a lot of the sponsors are pretty stoked on the lifestyle thing as well. That image is unique to Canada. A lot of it isn’t all about only your surfing, it’s also your image. I mean, there are a few guys on the ‘CT that are some of the best surfers in the world, and they don’t have any sponsors.
Every time I read something about Canadian surfing, it’s spun as super hardcore. There’s always mention of bears and the cold. Do you buy into that?
Well, if you’re sitting in an office in southern California, to those guys, that’s how they think of it up here. It’s definitely played out a bit more than it actually is. You get some southerners that come up here to surf, and they see a bear on the beach, and it’s the best thing ever. They think it’s so gnarly, and for us, it happens every day. They want to think that we wrestle bears and surf with icebergs, they can think that. It’s cool.
You’ve got two kids, right?
Yep, and one on more on the way. Pretty soon, a couple of weeks!
Do you plan on getting them into surfing?
Well, my daughter is five, and my son is two, so it’s mostly boogie boards and stuff. But we’ve got wetsuits for them, and they go out and play around. When they’re that small, it’s a little harder. I’m sure if we lived somewhere tropical, it’d be a different story. I’m sure they’ll be regulars in the lineup one day.
Do you ever think about moving, or is Tofino the place for you?
I’m happy here. I’ve thought of it, but I like it here. We have a pretty good lifestyle. But it would be nice to be in trunks, too. Every time I go somewhere warm, it’s just way too easy. I’d like to eventually, maybe half the year live in the tropics. But not right now. I don’t mind the cold too much, and Tofino is a great place to raise a family.
To see more of Raph, check out raphsurfscanada.com.
Thanks to Malcolm Johnson at SBC Surf for his cooperation in reproducing these stories.