Meet Tobias, a Toronto resident, Great Lakes surfer, and cold water enthusiast. We sat down with him to explore what it's like to surf the Great Lakes and hear more about the vibrant surf community that's growing along its shores. In a place where waves are few and the cold is fierce, Tobias highlights that a little patience and an affinity for cold are helpful elements to scoring waves in the lakes.
Q. What got you into surfing and where’s your favorite spot to go?
Tobias - I always loved being in the water but grew up far away from the ocean in Germany, so I only got the chance to play in waves during summer holidays in Romania (where my mom's from)--surfing didn't come into my life until I was 26 years old, when I finally decided to take my first ever surf lesson in Portugal. I was hooked right away and decided to dedicate as much time as I could to surfing. During COVID-19, when gyms and swimming pools were closed and the winters in Canada were set to be very difficult, I decided to fully commit to surfing the Great Lakes in the winter and bought a foamie and wetsuit, so I could be in the water. That's how it began for me. All in all, I loved surfing so much that I decided to learn everything I could and went on to get certified as a surf instructor and spread the stoke further :) My favourite spot would probably be Bluffer's Park in Toronto's east, but there are many spots around the Great Lakes that are amazing, many of which I have yet to surf.
Q. Tell us a little about the surf culture in Toronto, Canada.
Tobias - Toronto's surf culture has got to be one of the most unique and friendly ones out there--our surf season is almost exclusively fall/winter, so we get a short period from August-October when you can actually surf without all the winter gear, sometimes even the occasional boardshort/bikini session :) As we enjoy the warmer temperatures at the start of our season, the weather gradually changes and we begin to bundle up until it becomes nearly impossible to stand outside before/after a surf session and most people suit-up at home or in their cars (the most challenging part is always if you have to take off your wetsuit outside of your car in -10 degrees (Celsius) + windchill. You definitely get your fair share of cold exposure as a Great Lake surfer! You can imagine that there is virtually no localism and everyone who braves our wicked conditions can expect the warmest welcome in the coldest lineup! During our flat summers, which get really hot and humid in Toronto, we usually surfskate and reminisce on the epic winter sessions :)
Q. What does community mean to you and how has surfing shaped your community?
Tobias - It's been truly amazing to see how surfing brings people from various walks of life together. To me, community means a shared sense of belonging, responsibility, and lasting bonds. I've met some of the most amazing people through surfing, whether they were beginners like myself, or advanced pros, the shared experience of surfing in cold water especially has the power to create a sense of solidarity and mutual support that I've rarely witnessed in other sports. With more surf shops popping up all over the Great Lakes and more folks getting into freshwater surfing, we've seen a tremendous growth in our community over the years, leading to everlasting friendships and the creation of community initiatives, ranging from taking responsibility for our environment via beach cleanups and advocacy, to fostering the representation of marginalized communities (via e.g. Surf the Greats, where I work as an instructor), and helping our neighbours in need (such as Larry Cavero's "Waves for Warmth" initiative, who is one of our local legends).
Q. What’s different about surfing in a lake rather than an ocean? Do you prefer one over the other?
Tobias - Surfing in a lake is quite different from surfing in an ocean. Firstly, we're dealing with less buoyancy given the fact that we surf freshwater. Secondly, the lakes are infinitesimally smaller than an ocean, so we rely on local storms to generate our waves. Add to that short period wave intervals, ranging from 4-6 seconds at best. We can sometimes get groundswell and sets, too, and every spot works differently--the ideal scenario is a well-protected point break where the wind is slightly offshore and the swell has moved from relentless 5 second intervals to more drawn-out "clean-up sets". I think it's difficult to say whether I prefer surfing in a lake over an ocean or vice versa, as we are sometimes also spoiled with completely empty lineups and virtually no crowds here, which is something that many places seem to struggle with these days as surfing continues to become more popular. So, I think every place has its benefits and tradeoffs. Whether it's a lake or an ocean, I love them both!
Q. How does going for a surf affect your mood and mindset for the rest of the day?
Tobias - I don't think any other activity has the ability to put me into such a deep flow state as surfing--and I think many people would agree. Connecting with the water via surfing has got to be one of the best ways to meditate. As soon as I begin paddling out into the waves, I immediately feel any stress dissolve, and once I catch my first wave, I sense a great feeling of euphoria that stays with me for the rest of the day, sometimes even the rest of the week! After surfing, I am always able to think better, my mindset becomes super positive, and I just get stoked on sharing this experience with as many people as possible!
Q. How do you prepare yourself mentally and physically for surfing the cold winter waters of Canada?
Tobias - Ha! That is probably one of the most frequently asked questions that we get as cold water surfers. Most people don't associate surfing with carrying your board through 1-2ft of snow or paddling in the water during a snowstorm--but let me tell you: it is one of the most magical experiences. When I first saw photos of winter surfing, the snowy beaches and the frozen hair and beards, I thought I'd never do that myself. But as I got more into hydrotherapy and cold exposure for mental and physical health, I decided to give winter surfing a go. I bought a good 5/4 wetsuit, 5mm gloves and booties (later upgrading to 7mm), and dipped my toes into the lake for the first time in December 2020. To my surprise, I didn't feel very cold at all! The gear kept me quite toasty and I was able to paddle around for a while before I started to feel my toes get cold.
I think that it helps to have some affinity to the cold already, such as cold dipping, but we also have various ways of dealing with the cold when we're out for a 2-3+hour session--I always keep a thermos with hot water close to the water so I can pour a little over my toes once I've been in the water for a while, or using earplugs to keep cold water out. These strategies paired with the proper gear can make the difference between a 1 or 2-3+ hour session. Doing some breathing exercises helps to calm yourself in the face of what seems a counter-evolutionary act, going into freezing cold water when it's snowing. Other than that, I always like to tune up my favourite music to get stoked on my way to the break, especially when the weather is frightful!
Q. What advice do you have for someone who wants to go lake surfing?
Tobias - Be patient. While our conditions can oftentimes be less than ideal, we do get magical sessions with clean shoulder-to-head-high waves and even the occasional barrel! Patience is truly a virtue when it comes to lake surfing especially, and the reward is worth the wait. Focusing on that will make your surfing journey that much more enjoyable, as the anticipation grows exponentially, and a successful strike mission here feels like winning the lottery.
Even though we don't get waves every day here, lake surfing is incredibly rewarding. It can sometimes be difficult to deal with flat spells (especially in the summer), but there are always ways of staying active, continuing to work on your strength and endurance for surfing, as well as doing gym work for balance and stability. Aside from being a surf instructor, I also coach triathlon, with a passion for teaching my students and athletes (especially novices) to find joy in the process of getting fit for surfing the lakes--as the saying goes: "the journey is the destination".
Follow along Tobias' journey here.