Winter in Toronto has its proponents and its detractors—and then there are the surfers, whose relationship with the season falls into a category all its own.
“You gotta be careful. I mean, you can get hypothermia pretty quick,” said Gavin Fregona, a long-time boarder, originally from South Africa, who discovered three years ago what area wave riders have known for decades: Lake Ontario is surfable, year-round.
Yes, the water gets extremely chilly over the course of the winter months, but as long as its phase of matter is still essentially liquid, surfers can be found enjoying swells kicked up by the high winds associated with cold weather.
“Sometimes they get up to seven, eight feet—probably closer to January, when the storms come through,” Fregona told us. We were speaking with him over the phone, from the relative comfort of a downtown apartment. It’s generally acknowledged that the lake’s surf is higher in winter than in summer, but even so it seemed possible that he was exaggerating.
Last Thursday, we drove to a spot along the Scarborough lakeshore whose exact location we promised not to reveal. Our contacts were concerned that wide publicity would cause the area to become crowded with inexperienced surfers. Cold-weather surfing on Lake Ontario can be dangerous, and so it makes a certain amount of sense to create obstacles for first-timers, though how many people would be enticed by the prospect of submerging themselves in water for several hours on a freezing-cold day remains anyone’s guess.
The waves looked to be about four or five feet tall, on average. Suddenly, it seemed unlikely that Fregonia was kidding about those January eight-footers. Mike Sandusky, a local surf instructor who runs SurfOntario.ca, said such sizable swells result from strong wind blowing in towards the shore. The best surfing conditions happen when the wind dies down shortly before boards hit the water. “The swell sticks around, but there’s less chop on the waves,” said Sandusky. The good surf spots are away from the Toronto Islands, which act as a giant breakwater.
On this particular day, the shoreward wind was still blowing, making the surface of the lake slightly choppier than surfers prefer. “These aren’t ideal conditions,” said one, walking by on his way to the water, with a board under his arm. The breeze was stiff enough to rip pages out of our notepad and frigid enough to numb toes. Bobbing in the water, a good stone’s throw away from the shoreline, was a cluster of about ten bodies clad in slick, black, form-fitting suits, with tight hoods that left only faces exposed. They resembled nothing so much as a kind of species of freshwater ninja. Next to each body was a surfboard, tethered to an arm or a leg with a length of durable cord, to keep it from floating away.
The black-suited bodies bobbed up and down on the green-gray swells for a few minutes, until finally one of them saw an opportunity. He lay chest-down on his board and paddled into the crook of a wave, then stood up and rode it for a solid ten seconds before falling into the lake and swimming back to where he’d started from, to wait for more.
Fregona and Sandusky were there, and they emerged from the water. The black suits, on closer inspection, were wetsuits, specially designed for cold-weather use, complete with protective footwear and mittens. Surfers who ride Lake Ontario during the winter buy wetsuits made of thicker material than would be used in similar warm-weather gear. “We’re warm,” said Sandusky. “My skin is hot.” Fregona—who turned out to be over sixty years old, with a face that might be ruddy, or might just have been pink from the wind—rolled up a sleeve and let us touch the bare skin of his arm. It was clammy, but not cold. The suits owe their warming capacity in part to the fact that they’re made of neoprene, a synthetic material that provides both buoyancy and cold-water insulation. As long as a surfer is moving and generating body heat, he or she stays reasonably comfortable, though this doesn’t change the fact that the air temperature on cold days is often sub-zero.
“In the winter, the ice builds up on your face,” said Fregona. This doesn’t stop anyone.
Even though the waves on Thursday were small in comparison to those sometimes found on the ocean (or even, apparently, on the lake), there was still some risk of mishap, because the particular section of Scarborough lakeshore the surfers were using is littered with boulders, concrete, and bits of rusty rebar. Fregona stood on the shore after finishing riding for the day and watched as one of the black bodies began to drift ever closer to a particularly jagged section of beach. “He’s going to get into trouble,” he said.
Fregona clambered down on some boulders and extended a hand, and the surfer grabbed it and pulled himself up onto solid ground, dragging his board after him, and creating a few nasty looking dings and nicks in its surface in the process. “Is it fixable?” he asked as soon as he’d caught his breath.
“Everything’s fixable,” said Fregona. Photos by Miles Storey and Christopher Drost/Torontoist.