Why this Ontario surfer wants you to hang 10 on the Great Lakes

TVO.org speaks with Antonio Lennert about when, how, and why to ride the waves on the world's largest freshwater lakes
By Mary Baxter - Published on Jan 02, 2020
Antonio Lennert, 36, teaches surfing and sells gear at his Toronto shop, Surf the Greats. (Denise Militzer)

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When Antonio Lennert moved from California to Toronto in 2009, he lost something he’d had his entire life: easy access to ocean waves.

Growing up in Brazil, Lennert had loved to surf. “We had a beach house just a five-minute walk from the beach,” he says. “My brother and I would just walk there at any time to see what the waves were doing or how they were.”

In 2003, when he was 20, Lennert moved to the United States, and he was never far from the beach — he lived first on the Atlantic coast and then in California, where he studied at San Diego Mesa College.

But that all changed when he accompanied his partner, Lucas, to Toronto.

On nice days, Lennert says, “I would ride my bike to the lake and stare into the horizon.” Lake Ontario reminded him of an ocean. “There were never waves, and I used to tell myself, ‘Oh, if only there were waves, Toronto would be the perfect city to live.’”

Then, in the spring of 2013, while on a trip to the Bahamas, Lennert met a man from Toronto who gave him a tip: the Great Lakes are surfable, but only in bad weather.

Back at home two months later, Lennert saw a storm coming, grabbed his surfboard, and headed to the shoreline.

Today, Lennert, 36, teaches surfing and sells gear at his Toronto shop, Surf the Greats. Recently, TVO.org chatted with him about dodging ice blocks, driving home in an icicle-covered wetsuit, and the challenges and benefits of Great Lakes surfing.

How is surfing one of the Great Lakes different from ocean surfing?

Fresh water affects your buoyancy. You need a board with a little bit more foam to compensate for the lack of buoyancy — especially once you have all the winter gear and you get wet. You’re about 10 pounds heavier.

The timing’s a little bit different. Everything happens a bit faster here. You have to be ready to go at any given time, whereas in the ocean, waves come on a very steady pace. You can see them coming from a kilometre away, and they’re usually nice and clean.

What is your biggest challenge?

Figuring out when the waves will come and where would be the right spots to surf. If you don’t fully understand the science of wave generation, if you don’t know what it takes for us to get those waves — wind direction, wind speed, air temperature — it’s very difficult to go to the beach at the right time and at the right place.

Our waves are the result of strong winds — it’s what we call wind swell. One thing that we’re looking for is low-pressure systems — they often bring bad weather and strong winds that affect the water in terms of friction. We need at least 20 knots [roughly 40 kilometres per hour] of sustained wind, blowing consistently from the same direction.

We also need fetch, which is the distance travelled by wind over water. And that wind must blow for at least five hours for us to start getting waves that are rideable on the other side of the lake.

There are a few other variables in play: the colder the air and the colder the water, the less wind we need. That’s why, as we get into fall and winter, the waves tend to get bigger. And then there is also lake depth, or bathymetry. If it’s really deep, it’s going to take more wind to generate a wave. That’s one of the reasons why Lake Erie — the shallowest of the lakes — keeps working in terms of waves during the summer months when the other lakes go flat.

What are the risks?

If you surf during the winter months when it’s below freezing, hypothermia comes into play, even though the wet-suit technology has evolved to a place where we can actually surf through the winter at -20, -30. If you have the proper gear, you can surf for three hours in -20.

Water pollution is an issue as well. Lake Erie, you have a lot of issues with algae blooms during the summer months. There have been times in the height of summer when there’ll be hundreds of dead fish on the beach, and we know that water is probably not good for humans.

In Toronto, we have issues with combined sewage pollution. When there are heavy storms, our sewage system doesn’t have the capacity to filter all that water before sending it into the lake. That compromises the water for up to 72 hours.

What about ice?

January, February, Lake Huron and Georgian Bay will freeze over, but near Toronto, Hamilton, Lake Ontario usually stays open — so we do surf here through the winter. You get to a point, usually in February, when there are big ice chunks floating around everywhere. It can definitely be dangerous, especially if you’re not a very skilled surfer. One of those pieces could totally knock you over.

How do you warm up after?

If it’s below freezing, you just need to have an exit plan before you get out of the water. I set my towel and a big changing robe that is made for the winter in my car, and I have a thermos with tea or hot water. The moment I get back, I hop into my car, turn on the heat, and basically just wait a bit. A lot of times, I just drive home right after my session with icicles hanging off my wetsuit and just go straight to the shower. If I drive to a place like Kincardine for the day, I change there to drive back.

How do record-high water levels affect surfing?

Waves that would break 200 yards out are now breaking 50 yards out, so a lot of our waves are breaking right onto the shore.

Which is your favourite lake?

I really love surfing Lake Erie because it’s the warmest, especially in the summer months. But my favourite is Lake Huron and Georgian Bay. The water quality is a lot better up there.

Fresh water or salt water?

I was born by the ocean, so I have a very deep relationship with and love of the ocean. I love the Great Lakes just as much for different reasons.

I have never seen such a special surfing community — so welcoming and diverse — as ours on the Great Lakes.

These are some of the largest bodies of freshwater in the world. This is where we get most of our water. The fact that we get to surf here, it’s really special.

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.​​​​​​​

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