'cuz a lot of people have been asking... It's fall, and wave kiting season is here! My knee is busted and I can't kite right now, so I figured at least someone better get some waves!
The Tofino KiteSurfing Guide.- Kyle Touhey
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ABOUT: The Tofino-Ucluelet stretch of coastline offers some really great kitesurfing. There is a lot of variety, and conditions can get quite good. It’s mostly beach-break setups, but you’ll find a bit of everything when it comes to wave kiting: Onshore, offshore, side-shore, lefts, rights, rainy, sunny, smooth and steady, gusty and stormy, small and snappy waves, very big and slopey waves, and soft & mushy waves. You’ll even find the occasional barrel in the right conditions, and at its biggest some spots can be downright frightening! There are some secret epic spots if you’re willing to adventure. But the coastline can get quite wild and rugged. The elements provide some unique challenges. Being so exposed as it is, it’s very important to stay well within safe conditions and your own comfort level, because things can very quickly turn life threatening. Tofino is NOT the place for beginners, but if you have your fundamentals solid then there's some great riding.
SEASONS: The Tofino area works best for wave kiting in Fall and Spring. Winter can bring some decent winds and very big waves as well. Summer is pretty much a write-off for both wind and swell, and typically too crowded with surfers anyways. The predominant wind direction in winter time is SE, however Fall and Spring offer plenty of NW days. Prime swell direction is WNW and is the predominant swell direction during the winter months as the BC coast gets battered by Aleutian Swells.
WEATHER & WINDS: NW or W: Best time to make the drive is on a strong NW wind. It will be accompanied by sunny skies. This comes from a clearing front (high pressure), so check the weather – a good NW wind forecast, backed up by weather changing from rainy to sunny is a safe bet. Often happens either a day before or same day as a NW wind in Vancouver... but is a lot more fun. Most spots are right-handers on a NW wind. S or SE: usually rainy and gusty, but if you’re willing to brave the elements you’ll find some really nice lefts. SW or NE: not worth it. It likely won’t be as windy as forecasted. You can also get caught in a dangerous spot because the wind will often quickly drop and/or switch offshore, leaving you stranded.
WAVES: The most common winter swells are W and NW. Its worth going on anything from 4ft to 25ft. Occasionally you’ll get a mix of SW in early fall or Spring time, which can open up some more beach options. Often times the wave-generating storms are quite close to the area, so the wave period will be shorter and waves messier, but they can get VERY large. On large days, look for beaches that aren’t directly hit by the swells, but instead have to wrap a bit, thus allowing them to clean up a bit. On smaller days, head for the beaches that are the most exposed to pick up the most swell. On any given day, you will be able to decide between a few different spots depending on what kind of conditions you feel like riding. See beach guides below for more info. Often there will be two or more swells acting at the same time: perhaps a larger NW, with a smaller SW, or something of the sort. It’s worth taking this in to account when choosing a beach.
FORECASTING: Surfline.com : Best bet all around for forecasting wind & waves. MagicSeaweed.com : quite reliable. Good for swell. View the detailed expanded forecast for winds. Often underestimates wind. BigWaveDave.ca: good for confirming a NW wind forecast, but it’s not the best starting point for forecasting. Not great for swell forecasting. Environment Canada marine forecast: kinda just okay. La Perouse Bank and/or Tofino airport sensors: The closest live sensors to the kiting spots. They can be indicators used to confirm a forecast, but for the most part ignore them. They are almost always uncorrelated to the actual wind on the beach. Buoyweather : good for swell, but pretty similar effect to the EC sensors above for wind. Wetsand.com, windguru, iKitesurf, WOW: junk.
RIGHT OF WAY Surfers have the right of way. Period. Also learn the right of way and etiquette rules for between kiters in waves. Often times if you’re riding at a windy onshore spot, most competent surfers will prefer to go elsewhere, or just wait out the winds. Still, Tofino has a lot of beginner surfers who don’t know any better. They’re also the most likely to get freaked out and go complain to someone with authority (advanced surfers will just slash your tires and break your windows). So give LOTS of room... more than you think you need to. And also be aware of what direction the waves will take your kite if it crashes ...Hopefully not right into a lineup of surfers. Any confrontation risks getting kiting banned – surfers have the power here, and always 100% right of way. Don’t be THAT guy...
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North Chesterman: Best on a W to NW wind = side-shore, side-onshore, onshore. Best on big SW swell, but works on SW to NW swells at most sizes. Expect right-hand waves. Sandy bottom. Offshore, very gusty, and no good on any S winds. It is a bit more protected than Cox bay and holds up to very big swell size. It’s the steepest beach in the area, so the beach break can be a bit heavier. Generally though, this beach is one of the safest for new-to-wave kiters because it serves as a catcher’s mitt just in case. It also gets the NW winds hitting first and stronger on lighter days. On the other hand, it can get very crowded with surfers of all levels. Typically knowledgeable surfers avoid onshore spots, however being a safe bay there are often a lot of beginner surfers and surf schools, especially at the northern end. It is VERY important to give them lots of room, and avoid going out if too crowded.
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South Chesterman: Best on a W to NW wind = side-offshore, offshore. Advanced only! = right-handers. Best on W and SW swells, but sometimes works with some big NW’s that wrap around. Sandy bottom. S winds = onshore, side-onshore and quite gusty = left-handers. Relatively safe direction on S winds, except that they can be quite gusty and not a comfortable ride. This wind, however provides a nice direction on the waves, and doesn’t get as much chance to mess them up as with other beaches, so it can be a good chance to ride some nice lefts, if you`re willing to deal with the gusts. On NW winds this spot is offshore and the waves get quite clean. The offshore winds clean up the sets and hold up the wave faces. Occasionally you`ll actually be able to tuck in to a side-offshore right-hand barrel. But it is rare than the waves have the right direction on a NW wind for a lot of face size. It’s NOT a good spot unless you really have your skills. Frank island causes a wind shadow a short ways out from shore. If you have troubles, you will likely drift towards Rosie bay and to waves pounding on a rocky outcrop with gusty wind. Not ideal! Further out from shore, there are plenty of weird current. Don't be fooled by this spot. From shore it might look all mellow and inviting, but don't go out there unless you are already comfortable and experience in both waves and offshore winds. It ain't for beginners. This beach can provide access to VERY large waves on the outside of Cox bay, but don`t expect to end up back to where you launched... Watch for surfers on NW days – it often gets crowded, as it`s one of the only clean surf spots on these days.
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Cox Bay: Best on a NW wind = side-onshore. Works on a W, but is more straight onshore. Works on anything from NW to SW swells. Sandy bottom. Expect mostly rights on NW days, but on more W days being more onshore you can go both left and right. Cox is a big deep open bay facing west. It picks up the majority of the swell in the area. This makes it one of the better choice spots on a small-swell NW wind. Good sandbars on either side of the bay near either the rocky cliff or the rocky island can lead to longer lines and a bit more pitch in the shape of the waves. On larger days you can expect it to be closed out near shore. If you can manage to make your way out far enough, the bay holds up to very large size with good shape. Be conscious of how far out you go in the bay, as there are a lot of weird currents which, if you breakdown, will actually suck you out the mouth of the bay and around the corner where all you are left with is rocky bluff (and sharks).
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Longbeach / Combers / Wickininnish Beach: These 3 spots are all actually part of the same long beach (hence the name). They are just 3 separate entrances. Longbeach has 2 parking lots – at north end is Incinerator Rock, just south is the Main parking lot (just in front of the small rock island). Then a ways south on the main highway there is the Combers parking lot. This lot is often closed for the winter season. From this lot it is about a 15min walk down to the beach. The final option is Wickininnish Beach (ie. Wick Bay)... not to be confused with Wickininnish Lodge, which is actually on N. Chesterman Beach. This beach is the bay furthest south on this stretch of beach, and you can basically park just up from the beach in 2 side-by-side lots. W - NW wind = side-offshore at the north end (and very gusty) near Incinerator Rock, but as you go further south it becomes more sideshore, or even side-onshore at Wick beach. This gives right-handers. SE wind = side-shore, side-onshore. Lefts. Sandy bottom. This beach picks up all swell directions, but can be slightly protected from more NW swells. This stretch can be a very good choice for small days, but it is an exposed and very shallow sloping beach so it’s not going to hold up with too much size in the swell. Avoid the north end of Longbeach on any sort of NW wind. The furthest north point you would want to ride is at the rock island out from the main parking lot. At the same token, this small stretch can be one of the best choices for kiting SE winds, as it provides the least obstructed stretch and likely the cleanest wind. Be aware to keep close to shore though as SE winds can be slightly erratic and are often accompanied by rainy skies. Help will be further away if you need it. Combers can sometimes get a slight bit more wind than other spots because of the way the wind wraps around the small point. But the downside is the long walk. Also be aware that there can be very strong shoreline currents here that can make staying upwind challenging, or cause issues if you have a breakdown. The sandbars here can form up nicely for all sorts of fun little waves though. Wickininnish Beach offers a good option on NW days as well, although it can be quite messy, and again doesn’t always hold a lot of size. A good choice if there is not enough wind further north at Cox or Chesterman.
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Florencia Bay: Only works on a SE wind, where it is straight onshore. Not usually a good pick for kitesurfing, but it has its day. Picks up W to SW swells. Sandy/rocky bottom – which gives a nice peaky shape to the wave, but on lower tides and onshore winds can lead to a lot of broken fins.
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DANGERS: Ocean currents, riptides, fog, cold weather and water, shifting or potentially erratic winds, storms, sharks, locals, & wearing a drysuit in waves (no no). Make sure you don’t kite alone. Make sure you have the appropriate gear, knowledge, fitness, and skill sets... all in good working order. Help can be far away, so plan ahead.
GLOSSARY: No glossary. If you don’t know the words I’m using, you’re probably not ready to step out of your flat-water comfort zone. Don’t hesitate to ask or google though.
Thanks for posting this Kyle, hope your knee gets better soon. Anyways if i would have known this before hand, i wouldnt have gone to Tofino 2 long weekends ago. There was no wind like you said. Anyways it was 3 days of no wind. oh well
yeah thanks kyle..great write up. im heading out there this weekend, could be busy with the surf comp going on but will have the kite gear along anyhow. fingers crossed! hoping to get some kiting in courtney/comox before hand too. could be a good island kite week!
cool photo of the coast guard in Cox bay, eh? (it's not my shot).
Could be a chance of wind mon/tues if you're over there, but probably not worth the drive just to chase wind. looks like some macking swells for the start of the O'neill comp this coming week. sick! I'll be there cruising around next weekend for the finals.
the key to tofino - bring kites, surfboards, SUPs, cameras... everything! You'll be busy all day.
re: cheap motels. Unfortunately "cheap" doesn't always fit with tofino motel. If you have more than a couple of people then you can get some great deals on cottage rentals though. that's the best bang for the buck if you have a crew.