Tofino profile: Alex McWilliam
by Shirley Langer, Tofino
Some people choose a particular vocation or way of life. Others stumble into it. Sometimes destiny and events determine what becomes of us. Alex's life has been shaped by the sea and time spent on, in, and around it. The first four years of his life were lived on a boat as his parents fished for salmon at the top of the Queen Charlottes. He slept in the top bunk in the bow, bars installed to prevent his being thrown out of bed. Heavy nets installed on the boat's railings were a safeguard against falling overboard. Alex describes his early childhood as "self-contained", meaning he learned how to be self-reliant. He remembers drawing a lot, and playing hours on end with leco, having to rebuild his constructions when things were tossed off the table in rough seas. For schooling, the family moved onto land in Qualicum, but summer holidays were spent working on the boat as lookout and cabin boy, and trying to keep seals and sea lions from eating the catch as it was hauled in. By age 10, Alex had a sin number, and started pulling the gears with his dad.
Alex's love affair with surfing started at age fourteen when he found a beat up surfboard while kayaking around Vargas Island with a school group. He towed it back, scraped off the barnacles, and got his parents to drive him to Cox Bay to try it. A scar on his leg is a memento of that first experience. "I was pulled out to the end of Cox Point, washed up on the rocks and had to be rescued by the Coast Guard." Prior to this time, Alex had been a competitive downhill skier, but he abandoned the ski hills for the waves because "unlike a ski hill, the ocean is different form hour to hour." Alex organizes his life around the call of the waves. Like many youth, he wanted to see other parts of the world, but did so by long road trips along the coast with frequent surfing stops before arriving in Mexico or Costa Rica.
As you talk to Alex, it becomes clear that there is more to this surf bum than living to surf and his collection of surfboards (for different conditions or moods of the ocean). Alex is politically astute, has a definite worldview. Would he have these attributes if he hadn't attended Mount Allison University in Nova Scotia, and majored in human geography, with a minor in International Economics and Business? Who knows? He's sure that traveling taught him as much as his formal education. In fact, Alex ultimately became disenchanted with university life, but says that he's glad he did it because "going through university is proof of your ability to learn... and that gives you self confidence." While studying, Alex still found time to surf the point breaks off the coast north of Halifax.
Alex settled in Tofino in 1998, and has worked a series of jobs, including valet service at The Wickaninnish Inn, fairway maintenance at the golf course, working with baker Tracy at The Common Loaf and working at Storm, where work included washing out used boots with vinegar and water. Currently he's working his fifth season driving boat for Remote Passages, which he describes "a beautiful way to work. I'm on the water, and I love the interpretive aspect, showing people stuff they wouldn't ordinarily see. And I never tire of being around whales!" Alex laments that most people go whale and bear watching because it's something to do, not because they are interested in ecology or the remarkable landscape. "But there are days when someone will ask questions that show a sensitivity and understanding of what they are seeing. Then I feel good."
There's something else in Alex's life that makes him feel good--a woman known as K.K. From the way Alex describes their meeting and courtship, it was love at first sight. They are my neighbours, and their enjoyment of each other's company is a pleasure to see.
Every two months, Alex drops by with a complimentary copy of drop, a surfing magazine he produces with buddy, Mike Stupka. drop, he explains to me, is surfing lexicology--one drops into a wave. Motivation for starting another surfing magazine was annoyance with other journalists' perspectives and errors. 8000 gratis copies of drop are distributed six times yearly, soon disappearing into eager hands. Alex enjoys the creative writing, researching the rich history of surfing, and the interaction with people he meets. I'm pretty sure people enjoy interacting with Alex too. A big tall guy with a head full of unruly hair, and a face full too, he is as simpatico as he is big.
So here we have Alex McWilliam, a university educated guy driving a boat and dreaming of catching waves. "What's the plan, Alex," I ask. He looks puzzled. "Your ambition for the future," I prompt. "That's what my Mom frequently asks," he says. "And?" I ask. "I usually manage to change the subject," he says, laughing, "but whatever it will be, it will have to have be something that keeps me on the water." The guy is dedicated.
Shirley Langer describes herself as a woman about town with a well developed civic consciousness.
Tofino profile of Alex McWilliam. Shirley langer interviews Alex McWilliam, publisher of Tofino's own Drop Magazine, the only surf magazine focusing on surfing on Vancouver Island.