For most Canadians, the prospect of surfing in the winter likely suggests a beach vacation to Hawaii, Central America or Southern California. But for dedicated aficionados across this country, surfing in Canada is a year-round labour of love.
While winter surfing occurs at various Canadian coastal spots, rivers and lakes, certain locations are among the most established.
Located on Vancouver Island’s west coast in the Clayoquot Sound Biosphere Reserve, Tofino is Canada’s surfing mecca. This stunning spot boasts 35 kilometres of surfable beaches – the best being Cox Bay, North Chesterman and Long Beach – and enough surf schools and shops to get anyone stoked.
Although summer is peak tourist season, Tofino’s temperate climate and average winter water temperature of 8 C enable surfing all year.
Tiffany Olsen, manager and instructor at Surf Sister, one of the oldest surf schools in the world run by women, can teach and surf more in winter due to lighter managerial duties.
“I like being on the beaches when they’re a bit less busy and I like bigger waves,” Olsen says.
For Tofino’s winter, she recommends a 5/4 neoprene wetsuit (meaning the material along the torso and upper legs is five millimetres thick, while arms, shoulders and backs of lower legs have four-millimetre panels) along with a surfing hood, gloves and booties.
Originally from Camrose, Alta., Olsen, 34, began surfing 13 years ago in Tofino. She strongly recommends lessons and a format like Surf Sister’s, which starts with a beachside tutorial. Of the latter, Olsen says: “Most of it’s safety – how to handle your surfboard, stay safe in the ocean, and a quick how-to on catching a wave. Especially in winter, safety is very important.”
For example, she says winter waves can be unpredictable and the higher winds may lift up boards and hit surfers.
The Surf Sister team checks beaches every morning and must sometimes cancel lessons due to weather – winter is prime storm-watching season in Tofino.
Olsen also advises surfing with a buddy, staying in waist-deep water in the whitewash when refining skills, and using a large enough surfboard and a leash.
Despite the cautions, Olsen says there are days when it’s sunny and conditions are perfect for beginners.
“With the right wetsuit, I think people are amazed at how warm they stay.”
Braving the Great Lakes
Google “Great Lakes winter surfing” and you’ll quickly see photos of people with ice in their hair and beards. What makes people chase waves in these frigid waters?
Robin Pacquing, 42, is a realtor in Oshawa, Ont., and a well-known figure in the Great Lakes surfing community as well as a Paddle Canada advanced stand-up paddleboard (SUP) instructor.
She admits: “The older I get, the colder I feel! But going consistently means I’m able to keep my technique up without having to wait for a vacation or better weather.”
Pacquing first tried surfing on a trip to Hawaii around 2001, but it wasn’t until 2005 that she discovered Great Lakes surfing was a thing – even though she grew up on the shores of Lake Ontario in Toronto’s Long Branch neighbourhood.
“That sparked this huge thing in my head – ‘what, people surf here!’” Pacquing recalls. “I wanted to do everything I could to find out more about it and get the gear and get better.”
As a Filipina-Canadian, Pacquing says it was initially intimidating to break into a sport not known for diversity. “But I knew there was a connection to it with my heritage and despite it being male dominated, I could make it my own regardless of what I looked like,” she says.
Pacquing honed her skills along the shores of Lakes Ontario, Huron and Erie, and met other surfers, who shared information. She also became the first Asian Canadian to join the Wyldewood Surf Club in Port Colborne, Ont., one of the oldest Great Lakes surfing institutions.
In 2014, Pacquing co-founded Lake Surfistas, a volunteer organization supporting women of all abilities to enjoy surfing, SUP and paddle surfing in the Great Lakes. While events have been limited during the pandemic, Pacquing is hopeful they’ll be able to get more active again this year.
This winter, she’s paddle-surfed about three times a month near her home – balancing it with her career and family life with her partner and two stepsons.
While acknowledging wetsuit technology has greatly improved, Pacquing thinks beginners should start in more temperate waters and work their way up.
“It can be intimidating,” she says. “Especially if you’ve never been in super-cold water or worn a thick wetsuit.”
She recommends a 6/5 thickness for the latter, eight-millimetre boots and seven-millimetre mittens, and suggests bringing a jug of warm water to pour over your head when you’re done.
“Don’t overexert yourself,” she cautions. “It’s easy to stay out longer than your body wants.”
Nova Scotia dreamin’
Lawrencetown, N.S., about 30 kilometres from Halifax, is known for some of the best surfing on Canada’s East Coast, but don’t expect a “Tofino-esque” surf town.
“Customers will often comment they think they must have driven by the town because it’s not a town – there are houses on the side of the road,” says Nico Manos with a chuckle.
Manos, 38, is Nova Scotia’s first and only professional surfer, which he defines as having made a living from it without supplemental income. He, along with his wife, Jill, a firefighter and surf instructor, own the area’s East Coast Surf School and Lawrencetown Surf Co., which sells surfing equipment and accessories. While the school is closed in winter, the store runs year-round with a clientele of seasoned surfers.
He learned to surf at Lawrencetown Beach and by 18 began representing the Quicksilver brand. For about a decade, Manos travelled over half the year, competing, promoting and consulting for Quicksilver and other sponsors before “self-exiting” to start a family. He and Jill now have two young children.
Manos says while Nova Scotia has “tonnes” of surfable beaches, Lawrencetown and Martinique beaches stand out for their consistency and suitability for beginners.
Winter brings bigger waves and icy conditions getting to and from the surf, but he says the biggest potential for error is wearing inappropriate wetsuits in the average zero-degree water and not having had lessons.
“If you’re not able to identify rips and lateral currents and safe egress, it’s going to present the same sort of dangers as if you didn’t know those things in the summer,” Manos advises.
Otherwise, he recommends a change poncho if suiting up on the beach and using softer surfboard wax for better grip.
In winter, Manos averages five to seven surf outings a week.
“It makes you feel alive,” he says.
If you like that, you’ll love this
For those looking for a riff on a summer water sport without actually getting wet, there’s snowkiting.
The winter version of kitesurfing or kiteboarding, it replaces water with snow, and a surfboard or wake-style board with a snowboard or skis.
“A lot of people are already skiers or snowboarders, so if you have that skill set, you don’t have to overcome another hurdle while also trying to fly the kite,” says Josh Barker, director of the Canadian Kiteboarding and Alberta Kiteboarding associations.
In both roles, Barker organizes events and designs courses, although he says the national association has become less active during the pandemic.
You need sufficient wind to propel you, along with a large enough area of snow or ice.
“For people who don’t have mountains at our backdoors or want to spend $120 on a lift ticket, it’s amazing,” says Barker, who lives northwest of Red Deer, Alta. But he stresses the importance of ensuring you’re allowed to be in the area and that it’s safe.
Additional equipment includes a helmet, bar, harness and kite – the latter of which are available in a range of styles and sizes. Barker also strongly recommends lessons with a certified International Kiteboarding Organization (IKO) instructor.
He says it’s easy to source local venues and instructors via social media and online searches.
While some extreme enthusiasts catch big air off mountain peaks and Barker himself placed third in Norway’s 2016 Red Bull Ragnarok 100-kilometre race, with improvements in equipment and appropriate wind and snow conditions, he says snowkiting can be safe and accessible.
“You don’t have to be a super-strong, youthful person to enjoy the sport.”