On the final Saturday in January, Environment Canada issued a gale warning for mariners braving the frigid waters of eastern Lake Ontario: expect flurries and wind gusts of 30 knots, plus four to five metre swells. Closer to shore, along a rock-strewn beach, the air temperature hovered at a cool zero degrees, with a wind chill of minus six.
High swells, low temps, and perfect waves: wax-up the long boards, dudes, it’s surf season in Toronto.
Conditions are perfect this time of year for hanging ten in the Great Lakes. Admittedly, freshwater surfing at Bluffer’s Park doesn’t compare to Teahupoo or Jeffery’s Bay, but that doesn’t stop surf enthusiasts from seeking the perfect wave.
Surfing in Toronto happens between September and March, when autumn and winter storms churn up the largest swells. Surfers stay warm in hypothermia-proof, neoprene wetsuits that fit like a second skin.
Mike Sandusky learned to surf in Hawaii. After surfing hundreds of breaks around the globe, he settled here and founded Surf Ontario.
A surf aficionado, Sandusky is quick to confront a common misconception regarding the chill. “Once the first few splashes of cold water hit [your] face, you don’t notice the cold any longer.” Others apparently concur: Sandusky told us the number of Great Lakes surfers has steadily grown since Surf Ontario’s 2002 founding.
And as crazy as it may sound, it appears true. Today, the only shivering bodies belonged to the handful of curious spectators gathered at the shoreline to observe the surf spectacle.
Surfer Justin Ridgeway is a longboard veteran with experience riding ocean swells. He’s been surfing here since 2009. He likes the vibe of the city’s surf community; the snob factor known to permeate other global surf destinations isn’t present here.
What accounts for Toronto’s friendly surf scene?
Ridgeway shrugs, “Maybe because we’re Canadian.”
Over at Surf Ontario, Sandusky has another theory; “The vibe here is friendly and open because [surfers] are mostly just excited to be able to surf.”
Before we can ask Ridgeway anything more, he excuses himself. Having stood on shore for a while, he’s feeling the winter chill. Picking up his long board and heading to the water, he paddles out to a group of surfers bobbing on the swells like a rookery of harbour seals. As he does, he says, “You only feel the cold when you come out of the water.”
Topographic conditions unique to the area make this shoreline at the base of Scarborough Bluffs appealing to surf-boarders. As the result of a manmade, rocky peninsula tipped by a maritime beacon, waves break about a hundred metres from shore.
It’s more than the land formation, though. Weather conditions play a significant role, too. Here, perfect waves are created when a constant, south-westerly wind blows in off the open water.
Since meteorological conditions dictate Great Lakes surfability, practitioners of the sport are expert in the science of reading weather patterns. Many consult various weather related websites.
Sandusky sums it up this way; “The more in tune you are with the weather, the more waves you’re going to get.”
Bluffers Park isn’t the only spot in the city for shredding waves. Surf’s up at the foot of Royal York Road, in Ashbridges Bay, and other secret locations devotees prefer to keep under wraps.
Surfer Edgar Mendes wouldn’t break rank by revealing other choice locations, but he did share a compelling story about his lifelong desire to shoot the waves. While growing up in Portugal, he longed to surf but was prevented from doing so by cautious parents.
Today, he’s reconnected with this unfulfilled boyhood desire. In the process, he’s introduced the sport to his nine year old daughter, Scarlett Rose-Mendes. Currently, the grommet’s surfing is limited to summer swells—Mendes said Scarlett’s mother has some trepidation about permitting the nine year old to winter surf.
Mom has a point. On account of Scarlett’s size, Mendes hasn’t been able to find a properly fitting wetsuit that would protect the youngster against the extreme cold.
Beaming with pride, Mendes recounts how this past summer, Scarlett became the youngest female surfer in her age class to successfully get on a board and ride the waves.
Why so enthused about his daughter’s interest? Besides the health benefits, Mendes says, “[You are] always learning something about yourself each time you go out.”
For an activity traditionally associated with beach bums and bikinis, the truth is that surfing is, to a large extent, a solitary, introspective, meditative activity.
Surfing’s deeper meaning was on display this wintery afternoon. Resembling aquatic ninjas clad head to toe in black, seemingly unaware of the cold, surfers spent much time alone on their boards gazing out at the horizon. Bobbing patiently in sync with the water’s natural ebb and flow, they await the arrival of the perfect wave. As it breaks, they crouch on their board, riding the wave’s energy while maintaining balance and focus.
After the brief watery ride, they paddle back out to do it all over again.
Considering the courage one has to muster in order to enter water cold enough to kill the unprotected in minutes, the very least the City could do is unlock nearby change rooms. One surfer confessed to slipping into his wetsuit at home before making the drive to Bluffer’s Park. At day’s end, he drives home sopping wet.
While on the subject of inconveniences, would it hurt to allow surfers to park their vehicles in the lot closest to the shore? Access is presently blocked by a temporary steel barrier. The next closest lot is at least a kilometre away. An overland hike while carrying a ten foot board is no easy feat.
On this day, a parking enforcement officer ticketed several vehicles, dinging each with a $250.00 fine.
Sandusky, along with a handful of other surfers, remained in the ice cold water until after dark. By the time they paddled back to shore, the moon had appeared in the sky.
One weekend soon—as soon as the conditions are right—Surf Ontario will be hosting their annual Freshest Wave event. This non-competitive day at the beach includes categories like wave of the day and best wipe-out. You can sign up on their website to receive email alerts.