Surf’s up on Lake Ontario

Photo by Mark Deffenbaugh

With heavy snow blustering in through a harsh 30-degree wind, an Oswego winter storm has turned Oswego State into a ghost town. However, a walk down Route 89 just off campus will reveal a group of surfers oblivious to the conditions, braving the 50-degree waters of Lake Ontario.

The surfers are taking advantage of the storm, traveling down the Oswego coastline to surf different spots. As far as they are concerned, the only condition that matters is that the wind is blowing strong out of the west, creating large enough waves to surf.

An area where surfers say the sport is gaining interest, the Great Lakes provide a different set of challenges from ocean surfing, such as cold water, strong tides and often extreme weather conditions.

“Lake surfing is a challenge and the waves are not as good, but we surf because we love to surf,” surfer Scott Johns said.

Johns, a 36-year-old from Rochester, N.Y., surfed the ocean when he was younger and started again recently when a friend introduced him to lake surfing.

“These are the conditions we are given, so we make the best of it,” Johns said.

Using cold-weather wetsuits, the Great Lakes can be surfed during even the coldest months. The strong winds of the fall, winter and early spring usually provide the best surfing conditions, so a good wetsuit is a necessity.

The wetsuits are up to six millimeters thick and made from neoprene designed to trap water within the suit to be heated naturally by the body. Once the initial water is in, the suit seals and traps the now warm water without letting any more cold water in. By trapping body heat, the suit allows for surfers to stay in water as cold as 40 degrees.

The Lake Ontario surfers are organized through a Facebook page. On the page they post pictures, discuss conditions and plan meet-ups and trips. Surfing tournaments are held throughout the fall and winter season, usually planned very tentatively due to the unpredictability of surfing conditions.

The group of surfers in the area all vary in background and age, each driven to the lake for different reasons.

“I got into surfing on a trip to New Zealand, ever since then I was hooked,” Tony Schepis said. “I went to a surf shop in the Outer Banks where I discovered people surf the lakes.”

Schepis, a 27-year-old from Rochester, N.Y., attended Oswego State for four years, but said that even though he noticed the wave size, he had never thought to actually surf during his time on campus.

“Surprisingly enough the girl I was visiting in New Zealand eventually came to Oswego as a foreign exchange student thinking Lake Ontario was the ocean and could be surfed on,” Schepis said.

The Great Lakes can often feature waves big enough to seem like an ocean, but the waves are produced in different manners. Lake waves are less powerful, come in shorter intervals and are far less consistent than ocean waves. Ocean waves are primarily created by offshore storms far from the beach. Lake waves are created by local winds. This distinction usually leaves Great Lakes surfers to surf in the middle of storms to catch the best possible waves, where ocean surfers often surf on the fringe of larger storms.

“Most enjoyable is knowing that we are part of a few that brave the cold to surf the lakes,” Aurelien Bouche-Pillon said.

Bouche-Pillon, 30, of Rochester, was born in France and said he was drawn to surfing by the lake itself.

“It’s a unique experience, surfing 100 miles from the ocean,” he said.

When asked about the best spots along Lake Ontario, most surfers are guarded in a manner similar to fishermen and their favorite spots. Each surfer admits to having his or her own preference, but is hesitant to give the location away, usually instead insisting the best spot is better left for a surfer to discover on his or her own. “The best spots are still undiscovered considering lake surfing isn’t all that popular and there is more coastline on the Great Lakes than the East and West Coasts,” Johns said. “So lets just say, the quest begins.”

“Finding a spot needs patience and intuition and imagination,” Bouche-Pillon said.

Kody Kasper, a Niagara University student from California, insists the best surfing can be found along the north shore of Lake Erie. Kasper surfed in California before coming to the Great Lakes region for school. He said the waves have less push, but at their best are comparable to those of the ocean.

Third Coast Surf Shop, a Michigan based company specializing in the sale Great Lakes surfing merchandise, said on their website that the best spots can be found around man-made jetties, piers and break walls. Also natural features, such as coves and bays can produce solid waves.

Kasper said that if one wants to get into lake surfing, a person should have a strong will and want to surf before buying the equipment.

“You will lose some money, if you’re worried about money,” Kasper said.

(Mark Deffenbaugh | The Oswegonian)
(Mark Deffenbaugh | The Oswegonian)

A wetsuit capable of withstanding the low water temperature costs between $300 and $400, while a long board, recommended by Third Coast Surf Shop for beginners, can range between $600 and $1000.

As far as risks, lake surfers are free from having to be concerned with sharks and jellyfish, but still have several things to look out for while catching waves, including heavy currents and hard ice blocks near shore.

“The risks are like everything in life, do it or don’t do it,” Bouche-Pillon said. “It’s not for the average people on some days.”

As the sport continues to grow in the area, Lake Ontario surfers are encouraging to any who want to try it.

“Do it up, get bitten by the surf bug, and join the family of freshwater surfers,” Kasper said.

Johns advises that each surfer have strong swimming abilities before entering the water, and adds, “don’t drop in on me, and the first round of beers is on you, Aloha!”

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