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Surfing is Surfing:
an essay on Grant Shilling

by Clayton Webb

We Don't Care What You Say

Growth Rings

Babes in the Woods

Exile off Main Street

Kids & Play & Adults

Squeegee People, Vulture Culture & Cars

Survival of the Fittest

True Crimes

Copper Ann

Bodysurfing, Travel & the Dead

Haunted Houses

Rock & Roll Road Kill, Kill, Kill!

Storage Locker


Surfing is Surfing
An Essay on Grant Shilling
by Clayton Webb
Grade 11 Stellys Secondary, Central Saanich

We have all seen the blonde beach bums in oversized shorts riding planks along a wave until they crash into the beach, and when these “surfers” get on shore they throw around stereotypical words like “Dude” and “Gnarly”. Some people think they have seen it on a holiday to Hawaii or California, others just on the television or in the movies (such as 1991's “Point Break” with Keanu Reeves).And this is surfing right? And it doesn’t matter who you are or where you are, surfing is still surfing. Wrong according to author Grant Shilling. Shilling’s writing portrays his belief that surfing in British Columbia is its own unique culture.

What makes any good sub-culture great? The pioneers of course; and surfing around the world goes back and it is most recognized as being an ancient Hawaiian tradition. “There is ample evidence of surfboard riding throughout the South Pacific before contact with the Europeans, but nowhere was it so significant to the culture as in Hawaii.” (Kampion, 2003, Pg. 34). Surfing in B.C. however was not pioneered by the ancient Hawaiians or Polynesians; we in fact had our own pioneers and this is part of what separates us from some other surf cultures. Shilling investigates the idea that the boom men (men who guided logs down rivers to the mills; which they did by using large poles while they walked on other floating logs.) of British Columbia may have been the first surfers. “I fancy that these boom men were British Columbia’s first surfers” (Shilling, 2003, pg.9) He also notes the significance of the Nuu-chah-nulth riding waves. “And while the Nuu-chah-nulth didn’t ‘surf’ per se - perhaps the water was too cold - but they practiced a form of ‘canoe-surfing,’ both for pleasure and out of necessity.” (Shilling, 2003, pg.12) Despite these early pioneers there were a few eclectic people who may have had a little more influence in where surfing in B.C. has come today. One of these colorful characters in which Shilling describes is Jim Sadler:

“ James Sadler is a man of energy, spunk and faith. The stepping stones for his faith were laid out when he came west on a horse he rode from Olds, Alberta to Victoria in 1948. ‘It took me two months and three days,” says Jim, 68, outside the home he built in Tofino........At the age of 18 he started out with $1.10 in his pocket and not enough feed for his horse. Thirty miles into the journey Sadler’s horse started to canter adrift. ‘He was telling me something.’ The horse had stumbled across a field of oats. ‘Food for the horse was there at our feet,’ he recalls....Just outside Banff, Sadler noticed a fellow who seemed to be blocking the road. ‘So I dug in and the horse sped up,’ Jim says. But the man still decided to reach out and grab the reins./ ‘Hey,’ he said. ‘Do you want a job?’/ ‘The man’s name was Brewster and he owned half of Banff. He wanted me to look after thirteen horses for him for a week. He’d pay me $25.I said ‘Could you make it thirty?’ Cuz that’s what I figured I needed, eh? Brewster laughed. He said I’d get the extra money from the tourists.’/Jim left Banff with $65.”(Shilling, 2003,pg.25)

Sadler eventually made it to Victoria and from there went to Pachena Bay, were he began to surf. Sadler now resides in Tofino, the mecca of surfing in B.C. Shilling wonders how people like this even knew surfing existed, let alone translate it to the frigid waters of British Columbia. It’s the stories of people like Sadler that Shilling uses to show just how dedicated the pioneers of surfing in B.C. where and how it rubbed off on the entire culture.

On the subject of dedication rubbing off on the culture today look at a typical B.C. surfers surf session. I personally will begin the day before a planned surf mission with of a quick glance at the surf report and the buoy report. Actually it begins long before that as I portion out my paychecks, to make sure I will be able to afford gas for the one and a half to two hour drive on the winding highway. It usually is best to head out in the early morning, depending on the tides. The early morning missions usually go hand in hand with scraping the frost off the car windows. After that you got to strap the boards on the roof and put the wetsuit in the trunk, usually doing all this while struggling to devour a piece of fruit for breakfast. All of this and the car isn’t even on the road yet. When you finally reach Jordan River you are either blessed with surf or you got to decide where your going to go from there. It will take around a half hour more if your going somewhere else and that’s just road time, a lot of the places involve a long hike down to the beach, a hike in which you got to keep your eyes peeled for black bears. If you are lucky enough to find good waves then you probably surf for 3-4 hours then its another two hours back home. Then you got to wash out the wetsuits and take the boards off the roof. All in all that’s a really long day and keep in mind many surfers will do this a few times a week the whole time juggling school or work. That is a lot more dedication to go surf than most other places in the world and Shilling believes this dedication is a major factor in why the surf culture in B.C. is so different from anywhere else.

Shilling isn’t the only person to see surfing in British Columbia as unique. There is in fact a group of surfers who, “...saw what surfing in Canada was. Isolated, undiscovered and they were determined to keep it that way.”(49degrees documentary) Shilling talks about this group in his book. They are referred to as the “Jordan River Clubbies,” although they call themselves “The West Coast Surfing Associates.” As Shilling explains, these clubbies went to great lengths to keep surfing in B.C. isolated from outsiders as they knew they had a good thing. “Jordan River still has a well-earned reputation for a locals only attitude.” (Shilling, 2003, pg.37) In surfing a locals only attitude is when a group of surfers feel they have the rights to a specific surf spot and attempt to prevent outsiders from surfing there. They do this by numerous means; vandalism (including the infamous car waxing in which locals smear surf wax on the windows of the outsider surfer’s car), verbal harassment, and in some instances they will even resort to violence. Shilling points out the irony of the Jordan River locals, the fact that they aren’t really locals at all. “Most of the clubbies live in Victoria and Sidney, some in nearby Sooke.” (Shilling, 2003,pg.37) This little change up in localism from the rest of the surfing world is what Shilling uses to show us that surfing in B.C. is unique and there are people dedicated to keeping it so.

Surfing is a male dominated sport, despite the fact that women are making their mark in it. For the male surfer, at a warm water surf break, he can get all the determination he needs from looking on to the beach at that cute girl in the bikini. On British Columbia’s west coast where the weather is most often grey and wet and the water is frigid, the girl in the bikini would be replaced by one in a parka if replaced at all. So what keeps the British Columbian surfer out in the frigid water for so long? Shilling discusses this in his book, and though it may be entirely different from the girl in the bikini the physical effects maybe quite similar.

“You can freeze your butt off out there.(Please note: Dr. Peter Amschel has proven conclusively that straddling a surfboard in very cold water causes the gonadal tissue to shrivel [duh!], thereby stimulating and increasing testosterone levels. This actual scientific research may explain better than anything why male surfers continue to surf in the cold-for the testosterone dammit!)”(Shilling, 2003, pg.17)

Shilling uses this scientific research to explain why surfing in British Columbia is different from surfing in warm water. In warm water the male ego is boosted by things outside of the actual surfing, whereas in British Columbia it is boosted from the actual water, This is perhaps why B.C. surfers are seen to have more of a connection with the water, and in turn nature, than their warm water counter parts.

Starting from the very beginning with the pioneers, to latest research on surfing in cold water and more in between, we should be able to see the way Shilling’s work portrays that surfing in British Columbia is its own unique culture. Shilling touches on many aspects actively involved in creating a culture, as well as on aspects allowing it to grow outside of the box. Combining many mediums including storytelling, scientific studies and his own personal research and opinions, Shilling is able to break past the stereotypes placed around surfing and share with the world the story of a unique culture, the British Columbian surf culture.