If you have the need to broaden your horizons while on holiday—if feeling small and vulnerable and getting jostled out of your comfort zone is on your downtime to-do list—sailing up the southwestern flank of Vancouver Island in late September is a pretty good start. Especially if you have never set foot on a sailboat before. But if the boat you’re on is a 64-foot, steel-hulled cutter that has circumnavigated the Americas, and if the captain is an intrepid waterman capable of stand-up paddleboarding this stretch of coastline, then the voyage itself, rolling swells notwithstanding, is unlikely to elicit the required humility. Which is why I find myself climbing down the side of said boat, the S/V Ocean Watch, to balance on a paddleboard and manoeuvre closer to land so I can attempt to surf some Pacific waves. Which is something else I’ve never done before.

SUP paddleboarding western living magazineLiv Von Oelreich

We’ve dropped anchor half a kilometre off Sombrio Beach, about 100 kilometres west of Victoria, near the mouth of Juan de Fuca Strait. A river flows through a slot canyon to the shore, producing breaking waves that you can catch on a stand-up paddleboard (SUP), even when the seas are small. If you know what you’re doing, that is. Captain Karl Kruger, who runs a sailing charter business from his base on Orcas Island, Washington, knows how to read and ride waves. Like many paddleboarders, he discovered the sport through surfing, and when Kruger is not in the midst of a long-distance SUP adventure (say, through the Northwest Passage, his next expedition), he takes clients on sail and surf trips along the coast. But because I’m an experienced paddleboarder, albeit an experienced flatwater paddler who lives in Ontario, Kruger figures I don’t need any coaching.

SUP paddleboardLiv Von Oelreich

Wearing a too-thin and too-tight wetsuit borrowed from my brother, with a handful of surf sessions on the Great Lakes and in Newfoundland stoking a long-slumbering primal part of my brain, I approach the impact zone and wait for a set. For greenhorns, SUP surfing is easier than traditional surfing: you’re already standing, and the paddle provides more propulsion than your arms. There’s a risk of overconfidence (though that’s generally vanquished the first time you get head-over-heels washing machined in a shallow, rocky bay in Newfoundland). At Sombrio, a trio of glum surf bros bob in the water beside me. Today’s swell isn’t big enough for them. But when a three-foot wave rises behind me, I pivot, take a few quick power strokes and catch it just below the crest, riding the whitewater all the way to shore.

“Surfing is about learning to communicate with waves,” Kruger tells me a couple of hours later when, exhilarated and exhausted, I haul myself back onto the boat like an evolutionarily challenged seal.

A replenishing spread of hummus, cheeses, olives and crackers awaits in the wheelhouse. “Surfing is pure joy,” continues Kruger, “until it’s not. But even then, you’re probably not going to die.”

paddleboarders in the shallow water tofinoLiv Von Oelreich

Pure joy is a frequent feeling on a trip with Kruger. Within an hour of meeting at the ferry terminal on Orcas Island, we’ve driven to the marina, untied the Ocean Watch and motored to a sheltered cove just off San Juan Island National Historical Park, our first anchorage on a five-day trip to Tofino. “I like to hit the ground running,” Kruger shrugs, handing me a beer and dropping grass-fed steaks from a local non-profit farm onto the rail-side grill as wispy clouds turn crimson to the west. Despite his own boundless energy, he also likes guests to settle into the natural rhythms of sailing. To forget about clocks
and computers and cubicles and the confines of our landlocked, rectilinear lives.

“We’re a therapy business, really,” says Kruger, who calls paddleboarding an unfiltered experience on the water. It’s just you, a paddle and your board. To him, the sight and sounds of waves breaking over the bow feels elemental, like looking at fire. “People come to us,” he says, “because they need what we have.”

surfer catching a wave on a paddleboard western living magazineLiv Von Oelreich

In the morning, while waiting for the fog to lift so we can get back to paddleboarding, we take the skiff ashore for a dose of forest therapy, hiking through tracts of old-growth cedar and hemlock to a grassy ridge overlooking the patch of Salish Sea that Kruger paddled across on the first day of the 2017 Race to Alaska, a 1,200-kilometre route from Port Townsend, Washington, to Ketchikan that competitors must complete without support. He’s the only person to ever finish the race on a paddleboard, an accomplishment that supplies some perspective on our way to Victoria, when my biggest challenges are deciding whether to read or nap and remembering to reapply sunscreen as I lounge on the foredeck. We spend a night docked in the Inner Harbour, picking up provisions (more steaks, more beer) and crew (recovering chocolatier Don Rowe) and dining in a downtown bistro. At dawn, another unexpectedly bright and warm autumn day, we leave the city and pass a few humpbacks and porpoises en route to Sombrio.

We continue up the coast after the surf session—which, despite my initial success, features a painful percentage of wipeouts—and pull into the protected waters of Port San Juan. Kruger snugs the boat close to the shore at Thrasher Cove, where tents and driftwood campfires line the beach. I hop onto a SUP for a paddle, meandering through a kelp bed and realizing that some of the bulbs are actually the heads of seals keeping a watchful distance. And that the seal undulating in the water in front of me is actually a sea lion, from which I maintain sufficient personal space.

paddleboard western livingLiv Von Oelreich

Pausing on the shore for a chat with our human neighbours, I learn that the campground is a stop on the West Coast Trail. Hiking was my passion before paddleboarding took over, but I’m so out of touch with the terrestrial that I had no idea we were anywhere near the iconic route. For a few minutes, I’m jealous of the simplicity of their sleeping bags and single-pot meals. But then I get back to the Ocean Watch, where Johnny Cash is blasting from the speakers and Rowe is roasting romanesco and squash topped with thyme, coconut oil and aged cheddar in the cozy teak-lined saloon. “This is why I love cruising,” says Kruger. “You get to experience places like this. But at the end of the day, there’s a modicum of comfort.” I open the hatch above my bunk that night for a better view of the stars, knowing that if it starts to rain, I can simply reach up for the latch and then sink back into my dreams.

The rest of our trip is just as idyllic. Minimum risk, maximum reward. When we attempt another surf stop south of Ucluelet, the waves are too small even for SUPs, but it’s hard to be disappointed when you’re watching eagles catching thermals while paddling along an empty, rainforest-fringed beach. The swells produce a bit of nausea back on the boat, augmented perhaps by last night’s tequila. But that abates when we pull into the glassy-smooth waters of the Broken Group of islets and moor for the night on the lee side of Clarke Island. With golden-hour pinks and oranges framing the peaks of Pacific Rim National Park Preserve to the east, I embark on my new favourite tradition: the pre-dinner paddle.

SUP western livingLiv Von Oelreich

For most paddleboarders—like Kruger and, now, me—much of the sport’s thrill comes from dynamic conditions. From the interplay between wind and tides, between big global weather patterns and small localized systems. The waves we’ve been riding originated as storms somewhere off the coast of Japan, and tomorrow we’ll reach Tofino for a weekend of adrenalin in Canada’s surf capital. But as I drift through a narrow and shallow passage between a pair of islands, where crabs scuttle amongst softball-sized starfish and clams on the sea floor, my fin clips a couple of rocks and then digs into the sand. I stand motionless, marooned in a few inches of clear water, and can’t conceive of a better place to get stuck.