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Long Read: ‘Tuff City’ Personified How Sepp Bruhwiler’s Dark Past Shaped Who He Is Today

03.16.20 – TAGS: , ,
Photo: Chris Peel

Our interaction with Sepp Bruhwiler began with a rather cryptic DM on the What Youth Insta a while back. It was literally, “fuck you pussies, I’m going to come down there and kick your asses,” or something to that effect. None of us had ever met the man but there was something very troubling about that first interaction. We blindly responded and kinda hit it off, regardless of the fact that Sepp was still very much struggling with some issues at that time. It was obvious this guy needed some help and he seemed to be reaching out in the only way he knew how. As time went on he continued to have his ups and downs but also seemed to slowly be realizing that the whole world was right in front of him in the form of his four beautiful young children. With the support of friends and family, the good days started to outnumber the bad ones and he began having some clarity about life that made him realize he simply had to share his story. If for no other reason than to possibly help someone else who may be struggling. He asked us if I knew anyone who could help him write something because he really wanted to do whatever he could to save even one young kid from falling into the world he had sunken into. By chance, local writer Jeremy Allen picked up the ball and penned the below words of which tell this very real, yet cautionary tale. Substance abuse and mental illness are very much real in all walks of life, including surfing, yet the stigma of such often keeps it buried. Sepp did a very admirable thing by opening up in his effort to help himself, as well as others. Super proud of the guy.

Editors note: This story first ran in Mountain Life who gave What Youth permission to re-run it here. All words and photos by Jeremy Allen.

If you’re a Canadian surfer, you get used to being numb—but not the kind that Sepp Bruhwiler is talking about. Born and raised by the cold and wet temperate rainforest of Tofino, B.C., Bruhwiler is no stranger to the tests the cold shoulder of the Northern Pacific will present to even the heartiest folks. 

Yet no matter how tough you are, there are always some unforecasted bumps and bruises that can come with living at the end of the road surf town known to locals as “Tuff City”. While the nickname has been taken up by visitors and used and abused as a marketing slogan, the roots of the term come from a much darker place. For Bruhwiler, the very term is an opportunity to help others avoid going down the same path he did. 

I spent 90 days dying alone in my bedroom. On day 91, I went to the beach and felt the sun on my face this time I felt it I was finally not numb from substance”

Typically, tourists come to visit Tofino during the summer. With only 2,000 local residents, Tofino & Pacific Rim National Park attracts 750,000+ visitors annually. During the colder months of the year, the town is plagued with unrelenting rain. No matter how thick your skin, the relentless rain can take a toll on one’s wellbeing—something not often understood by those who only see the brighter side of Tofino.

At the age of 18, when the small town of Tofino was off the map and under the radar, Bruhwiler, won his first surf competition. The beer company that sponsored the event quickly offered him sponsorship for his surfing. How would you handle free alcohol at such a young age? With no support system in place, Bruhwiler took matters into his own hand.

The problem? Twenty plus years ago in the small town of Tofino, the same help didn’t exist for those dealing with problems—so Bruhwiler went within, and his reliance on substances began to grow.

“The more open you are the more it will help people, I think. Hide nothing !” 

When Sepp was 26 years old he grew addicted to painkillers. For 8 years he was under the influence, numb to life. 

“I have some crazy stories “,  Sepp recalls from his blurry days when painkillers were the norm. “I was on oxy for 8 years. I wanted to quit so bad, but I couldn’t cause it’s close to impossible. One day I woke up and decided it’s either death or quit, that morning I cut my doses in half, and by the end of the week I was cold turkey.”

After that, Sepp went into a perhaps even darker place—but somewhere he needed to go. “I spent 90 days dying alone in my bedroom”, Sepp remembers.  “On day 91, I went to the beach and felt the sun on my face this time I felt it I was finally not numb from substance”.

It was 5 years ago that he quit, but that’s not the end of the story. After he ended his reliance on painkillers, his drinking addiction became worse. Sepp went to rehab, saw doctors, and got prescriptions, but he soon learned that wasn’t what needed to change—“It’s you who has to change, it was me who needed to fix my problems.”, Bruhwiler explains.

Today, Sepp’s sponsors have shifted from alcohol brands to health-oriented companies, such as CBD supplier For The People.  Surfing is tough on your body— after breaking his nose a week ago, Bruhwiler went to Victoria to get it fixed. Now, FTP products are helping balance his pain and relieving the need for prescription pills that have grown into an addiction in the past. 

As for his surfing, one of Sepp’s longtime sponsors, Billabong, continues to support him after 15 years of sponsorship. Billabong offered varied support, including rugged wetsuits which allow him to stay in the water for hours on end.

On a dark Tofino fall day, we were hoping for 18-foot faces with perfect peeling waves, but once again, there was some inconsistency in the forecast. We watched as surfers got closed out time after time in absolute carnage as the Pacific tossed everything it had at the neoprene-clad warriors. All we could do was watch helplessly from the sidelines. Picking Sepp out of the lineup was tough—occasionally we’d see a head pop out, but the water was filled with eager surfers that all looked the same, black hoods duck diving under every single wave. 

But when Sepp dropped into a wave, you could tell it was him. His style on his board is unparalleled, it’s as if you were watching snowboarder Travis Rice drop into an Alaskan Spine. Right at his home playground, Sepp is a driving force in the water.

But it’s not just Sepp who stands out. As a whole, the Bruhwiler family is straight-up badass. Having grown up with his mother, father, 2 brothers and a sister in a little cabin on South Chesterman Beach, they all got to surfing at an early age. In the family, names continue to be passed along with kind regards to mother nature. Kalum, Oceane, Aqua, and Soleil are a few of the names running down the family tree. 

A large portion of the surfers out there were related in some way to Sepp. He’d come out of the water and be laughing at how they set a new record for the most amount of turns at Mackenzie Beach. Wave after wave, they made it look easy. Sessions like the one that afternoon serve as a stark reminder for the hearty residents of Tofino, B.C., surfing is much more than a sport—it’s a lifestyle, a way to escape the dark winter months, and a community builder that is quickly becoming the identity of the end of the road town. 

If you are interested in more of his story, you can reach out to Sepp Bruhwiler directly.

If you are in need of some immediate help, please use these resources.

Call 9-1-1 if you are having a medical emergency. Available 24 hours a day.

In the US: National Suicide Prevention Hotline 800-273-8255

British Columbia

Mental Health: Call 310-6789 (no area code needed) toll-free anywhere in B.C. to access emotional support, information, and resources specific to mental health and substance use issues. Available 24 hours a day.

1-800-SUICIDE: Call 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433) toll-free anywhere in B.C. if you or someone you know is in crisis. The Crisis Centre provides mental health or substance use support. Available 24 hours a day.

Kids Help Phone: Call 1-800-668-6868 to speak to a professional counselor. Available 24 hours a day.

Jeremy Allen is a photographer, videographer, writer and outdoor enthusiast based out of Squamish, BC.

Jeremy’s Website



Edited by Ben Osborne

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