Icy shores, winter surfing on the Great Lakes in Ontario

Surf the Greats: catching winter waves

Late October and early November often signal the start of Canadian winter (the solstice is a bit behind), and for the Greater Toronto Area surf community, this time of year boasts the biggest and best waves.

“I always tell people that surfing on the lakes makes you a better surfer,” says Antonio Lennert, founder of Surf the Greats, an MEC Outdoor Nation collaborator organization. “Most of the time our waves are messy and hard to catch, but they do clean up nicely and stack up just like the ocean when the conditions are right.”

The local surf season starts in the fall and goes all the way to the spring. Fall through winter generates the biggest, most consistent waves. “The best time to surf in Toronto is during the winter when the big snowstorms come. When Ashbridges Bay works it gets really good – it’s pretty cool to be able to see the CN Tower while you’re riding a wave,” he beams. “Scarborough Bluffs has a few different breaks suitable for surfers ranging from beginner to advanced. Come fall and winter, some of those spots hold pretty big waves that look and feel just like the ocean, plus you get the natural beauty of the bluffs in the background.”

Ice dangling from wetsuit

So if you’re ready to come out of Lake Ontario with icicles dripping from your wetsuit… how do you know when to head out in the first place?

“As most people have seen, the lakes are usually flat,” he explains. “Our swells are often short-lived since they only last as long as the storm system moving through the area.” Antonio credits strong winds as a result of low pressure systems blowing for at least 5 hours for generating 2–3-ft waves. “When [the winds] are blowing consistently from the same direction, they push water, which creates small waves that grow larger the further they travel.”

Other wave-making factors include the depth and size of the lake, as well as air and water temperature. As Antonio explains, the colder the air and water, the least amount of wind is needed to generate waves. “That’s one of the reasons why Lake Ontario goes flat during the summer months,” he clarifies. “However, Lake Erie is the shallowest lake, which is why we can surf there during the summer.”

As hurricanes roll through the Atlantic Ocean in the fall, weather systems move through the Great Lakes, and with water and air temperatures cooling, waves start rolling in to Toronto’s shoreline on nearly a weekly basis. “As winter approaches and air temperatures go below freezing, the water temperature stays just over zero … allowing us to surf sizable waves with very little wind.”

A winter surf sunset

Antonio runs Surf the Greats’ wave forecasting workshops (sometimes held at MEC stores), which give newbies and experienced surfers a wealth of information and tools to surf the Great Lakes. They include further science behind wave formation, how to understand weather maps and charts, apps to use, and even an intro to established local surf spots.

For Antonio, safety and self-rescue go foot-in-leash with chasing waves. “Having the proper equipment is rule number one. If you are a beginner, we recommend a soft top board and a warm wetsuit (think 6mm thick). And understanding the conditions is key. We have different types of currents on the Great Lakes and knowing how to avoid and get out of them is very important.” Some of the area’s best surf breaks have tricky entry points and rocky bottoms, so choosing a spot you’re comfortable with is paramount to staying safe. “Never surf alone,” he says, adding that the beaches aren’t supervised in the colder months. “Go with a friend and paddle out where there are other surfers.”

The changing nature of the Great Lakes is something Antonio has come to live for, and hopes to expose more Toronto-area residents to it over the years. “They can go from completely flat to having 6-foot waves breaking in just a few hours and then stop completely shortly after. It makes the chase very rewarding.”

Photos by Lucas Murnaghan.

Want to try surfing? Check out MEC Outdoor Nation and Surf the Greats for the latest events, and don’t forget to tag your freshwater Instagram pics with #myhomewaters to help protect Canada’s waterways.

Kim Budziak

Wordsmith, avid skier and rookie road biker. Firmly believes the best days are the snowiest ones.