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

words & photos :: 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.

“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

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 slogans, 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. 

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Sepp Bruhwiler, 40 years young.

Typically, tourists come to visit Tofino during the summer. With only 2,000 local residents, Tofino & Pacific Rim National Park attract 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 with—something not often understood by those who only see the brighter side of Tofino.

The Tofino Volunteer Fire Dept. is on board.

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 who 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 !” 

Morning rituals.

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 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, CBD FTP is 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.

Pushing through an air section at North Chesterman.
Sepp lays out a turn at North Chesterman Beach during Sunset.

In the end, it’s been a perfect balance of surfing & family that have helped cure Sepp. When he thought about what is important in his life, these were the two main priorities. He would spend days surfing as a form of therapy. Being in the ocean is a special medicine. Some say staring at the ocean actually changes our brain waves’ frequency and puts us into a mild meditative state. His kids keep him sane and safe. “There’s no judgement with children, you can just hang out with them and it’s the best time ever.”, Sepp proudly explains.

Baby lies on surfboard and daughter helps father in garage in a room full of surfboards.
Born to surf.

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. 

Wave breaks in the sunset with a board flying in the air.
Carnage at North Chesterman Beach.

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 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. 

Sepp getting barrelled at North Chesterman.
Sepp, Shea (9) & Kalum (18) surfing together on Mackenzie Beach.

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. 

Yes, this is an 18-year-old Bruhwiler getting barreled.
Sepp poppin’ off a wave 15 feet into the air during an air section at N. Chesterman.

We’ve compiled a few places you can reach out for help with drug addiction, depression, or any other issues. I encourage all to talk to someone, spread the word, let’s break the stigma behind mental health. It’s a subject we should be open to and willing to help others when they’re struggling. And if you feel like you can’t reach out to any of those lines, feel free to email me. I’d love to chat 🙂 – [email protected].

You can also reach out to Sepp Bruhwiler directly.

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

310-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 counsellor. Available 24 hours a day.

Sepp looking at images of himself after a session.

Jeremy Allen is a photographer, videographer, writer and outdoor enthusiast based out of Squamish, BC. No job too big or too small.

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