For most Torontonians, summer at the beach gives way to winter on the rink. But for the local surf community that paddles out into Lake Ontario in sub-zero temperatures, ice is just something to be brushed from their eyebrows as they strip off their extra-thick wetsuits, mitts and boots at the end of a brisk morning spent chasing the waves.
“The immediate response we get is ‘You’re crazy,’” admits Antonio Lennert. An avid winter surfer, Lennert owns Leslieville’s Surf the Greats surf shop, but he hasn’t always been such a freshwater enthusiast.
Born in southern Brazil, he grew up in warm Atlantic water and received his first surfboard at age seven. A move to San Diego in his 20s introduced him to a new part of the ocean and to his partner, Lucas, whose career soon led the men to similarly surf-friendly Australia.
But when their next move brought the couple to Toronto in 2009, Lennert found himself feeling strangely landlocked.
“I would stare at the lake when it was flat and think, ‘If only it had waves, it would be perfect,’” he says.
It wasn’t until he was back on a surfboard during a November 2012 trip to the Bahamas that Lennert began to realize just how wrong he had been about the Great Lakes. After another surfer struck up a conversation out in the ocean, Lennert was surprised to discover that the man was a fellow Torontonian — and even more surprised to hear his enthusiasm for the waves back home.
“I told him there weren’t any,” he says. The friendly stranger’s response? “Dude — look further.”
Lennert took the advice. The following summer, he drove out to Kincardine, on Lake Huron, to give lake surfing a proper go. Encouraged by that early experience, he continued on to explore Lake Erie’s Port Stanley and Crystal Beach and Lake Ontario’s Woodbine Beach and Bluffer’s Park. As autumn brought stronger winds, the surfing grew more exhilarating, and by the time snow started to fall, Lennert simply wasn’t ready to stop.
“It’s such a beautiful and special experience to surf here in the winter with the beach covered in white,” he says. Lennert credits today’s neoprene wetsuit technology with making all-season surfing more feasible and forecasting apps like Windy with helping him to anticipate strong wind conditions.
That said, Lennert stresses that winter surfing requires following clear post-surf warm-up procedures, like drinking a hot beverage and making sure your car is equipped to brave the steep drive out of Bluffer’s Park after a big snowfall.
Because of these extra safety considerations, he recommends that beginner surfers wait until spring to book a lesson with one of the International Surfing Association-certified instructors at Surf the Greats.
Launched in 2017 as a pivot from Lennert’s successful graphic design career, the friendly boutique-slash-coffee shop is helping to grow Toronto’s surf community. “When someone goes to the trouble to surf here, it’s so unusual that there’s a certain level of acceptance built in immediately,” he explains.
Larry Cavero is another one of this tight-knit community’s biggest champions. Like Lennert, he started off surfing in the ocean at a young age — in his case, in Lima, Peru — but took a few years to adapt to the Canadian climate after moving here in the ’90s. (Making his early winter surfing attempts in a run-of-the-mill Canadian Tire wetsuit didn’t help.)
Now a true pro, there’s no one more eager to face the mid-January chill. “You’re doing something you didn’t think was possible,” Cavero raves. “You feel bulletproof.”
A dental technologist by day, Cavero is also the city’s go-to for expert board shaping and repairs through his backyard board shop, Surf Dreams Canada.
For him, winter surfing is a family affair. “I know there’s a photo of me when I’m, like, a day old on a surfboard,” says Keana, Cavero’s 19-year-old daughter, with a laugh. And while most kids open their first lemonade stand on the sidewalk, back in 2009 Keana and her sister, Nailani, had a different venue in mind for their first business venture: the then garbage-strewn beach at Bluffer’s Park.
At ages seven and four, the sisters launched the Cove Beach Clean Up, complete with a charity lemonade stand that raised money for Nellie’s women’s shelter. The Caveros have continued to address beach litter and support different community organizations with followup events every year since.
Channelling their dad’s past mentorship, Keana and Nailani also recently launched Keanaila Surf Co., their own part-time board-repair and surf-apparel business. Their T-shirts feature Nailani’s drawings of favourite regional surf spots, like a stretch of Hamilton Beach dubbed “Go Karts” for its proximity to Lakeland Kartway, where the girls grew up racing with their dad after surfing.
“They’re places with a lot of meaning to us — and to a lot of people,” says Keana.
Indeed, these T-shirts reflect the strong pride that lake surfers feel for their beautiful, if unconventional, surfing locales. For them, a dip into freezing cold water isn’t some sort of extreme dare, or a consolation prize for not being able to get to the ocean — it’s a way of taking full advantage of nature.
And thanks to the passion of people like the Caveros and Lennert, the wave behind Toronto’s surf community continues to build. Forget hockey skates — it’s time to invest in a winter wetsuit.