Hanging 10 (clockwise from left): Blond-haired Mike Sandusky shows our reporter how to paddle,
select a beginner-friendly longboard and stand-up paddle (Images: CJ Baek)
A few weeks ago, a friend and I were on the lakeshore near Scarborough Bluffs and engaged in a debate. The topic at hand: why two guys were in the lake on a brisk spring day, clinging to what looked like planks of wood. My first hypothesis (that one of those tourist boat cruises had met a sticky end) had been undermined by the lack of other wreckage, and I’d just about settled on my backup position (that they were just crazy) when my friend said, “I think they might be surfers.”
I grew up by the ocean. I know where you can surf, and you can’t surf in Toronto. Yet, as I was midway through formulating a suitably smartass put-down, one of my shipwrecked crazies started paddling on his plank of wood, hopped up on his feet and caught a wave. An actual wave.
Now, I’m not the kind of guy who takes that sort of challenge to his world view lightly, so I started poking around on the Internet, looking for people who surf on the lake. It seems there aren’t just two guys at it — on a good day, there are up to 100 people out there.
One of these surfers is Gavin Fregona, a friendly South African–Canadian who, at 61, still surfs Lake Ontario regularly (and writes about it on his blog). Fregona, who was a police officer in South Africa until he got shot at, moved to Canada about 30 years ago.
“I thought there was no surfing in Canada,” he says, “so I took up windsurfing. Then one day about five years ago, while I was out windsurfing, I saw a guy surfing on the lake, so I thought, ‘I’m going to do that.’ ”
It seems that surfing began on the lake about a decade ago when people from Australia or Chile came to Toronto and found they could actually catch waves here. Since then, word has been spreading and surfing is growing in popularity.
Fregona is a typical lake surfer in that he learned to ride waves on the ocean — in his case, when he was a child back home in Durban, where he surfed alongside the likes of world champion pro-surfer Shaun Tomson.
But this isn’t a warm-beach, blue-seas, sun-kissed bodies kind of surfing. Five minutes talking to a guy like Fregona sinks that image in a lake of icy grey water. For a start, the best times to go surfing around Toronto are fall through spring, when the winds are highest. Fregona broadcasts a live webcam from his lakeshore home near Scarborough that lets other surfers see the current conditions, and he tells me that he looks out for winter storms because they make waves up to 20 feet in height.
“When they close the Burlington Skyway and there’s 100 kilometre per hour winds, that’s the kind of weather we’re hoping for,” he says. (At this point in our conversation, I begin to think my original assessment of lake surfers as “crazies” wasn’t so wide of the mark.)
But I was still curious to know how one goes about learning to surf on a lake, so I got in touch with Surf Ontario (914 Eastern Ave., 416-906-5793) a surf shop in Leslieville that also offers lessons. It’s run by Mike Sandusky, a 33-year-old from Dorchester, Ont., with straggly blond surfer hair.
Sandusky agrees to give me a few pointers. Though he doesn’t have a wetsuit on hand that will fit me, it being a warm spring day, I decide to go in my swimming shorts — a rash decision that I regret half an hour later when we’re at the beach and I’m paddling on a board in water that’s only a few degrees above freezing.
Sandusky shows me how to paddle and how to jump up onto your feet, but the unpredictable winds aren’t co-operating and the water is too flat for real surfing. He assures me, though, that on a breezy day, the waves can get up to six or seven feet high at surf spots like Ashbridges Bay or Scarborough Bluffs.
“You can do pretty much anything on those waves,” he says. “I know of guys getting barrelled, doing big cut backs, floaters, airs and ollies.”
I’m a bit fuzzy on what those things are, but I’m deeply impressed that they’re possible on our lake. Doubly so when he tells me that there’s an annual competition, the Freshest Wave, where surfers compete for titles like “most rad manoeuvre,” “biggest wave” and “chicks that rip” (which roughly translates to English as “best female surfer”). The most recent competition, last month at Scarborough Bluffs, attracted 40 surfers and a crowd about 200 strong.
Sandusky brings out of his van a contraption that looks like a surfboard on steroids. It’s about nine feet long and half a foot thick. It is, he says, a stand-up paddle board. Though disparaged by some surfing purists, who dislike sharing the waves with these lumbering beasts, the SUP is an essential backup for many lake users on days when the water is too calm to allow proper surfing.
Standing up on one of those babies has the same kind of disorienting effect as walking on a bouncy castle. Your legs aren’t quite sure whether they should be rigid or bent, and any move you make seems to upset a precarious situation even further. The lake’s waves, which seemed tiny moments ago, take on a surprising power as they lap against the side of the board. With each wave, I grip the paddle tighter and pray not to fall into the freezing water. Last year, a group of SUPers paddled the 65 kilometres from Burlington to Toronto in a 14-hour event to raise money for the Multiple Sclerosis Society of Canada. I don’t make it quite so far; about 100 yards is my limit.
Back on dry land, I ask Sandusky if there is a favoured spot for surfer types to hang out in after a day on the waves. “Not really,” he replies. “A lot of the time we are surfing in the cold, so as soon as we’re done, we just want to go home and eat.” That’s a pity, but also, I think, an opportunity.
Coming soon to a beach near you: Dave’s Big Wave Snack Shack.