One of the first times Geoff Ortiz surfed the Great Lakes was back in 2007 in Toronto. It was December and cold. Ortiz had learned to surf in Costa Rica seven years earlier and was fully addicted. Once he realized he could surf in his hometown of Toronto, he started watching the weather and heading to Bluffer’s Park on the city’s east side whenever the swell was up.
One morning, as he crossed the road in his wetsuit with his board under his arm, a police officer approached him.
“He goes, ‘what are you doing?’” recalls Ortiz. “I told him I was going surfing. He said, ‘what do you mean you’re going surfing?’ And he just had to clarify. He had to make sure I was sound of mind.”
Since then, Ortiz has surfed Ontario, Huron and Erie whenever possible. One look at his Instagram feed shows that if there are waves, he’s out there. The self-employed contractor regularly drops everything to chase the freshwater swell.
“I’ll drop the kids at school and go straight from there. If I’m going to Lake Erie, my wife will drop the kids off at school a little earlier. On those days, I’ll make lunches for the kids and leave as early as possible to beat traffic,” he says of the two-hour drive.
Four years ago, Ortiz stopped taking his surfboards with him and began standup paddleboarding instead.
“I realized I’d be able to catch more waves and spend more time on the water with a SUP. But early on, I wasn’t catching many waves at all. It was quite difficult,” he recalls. “I was always dealing with chop and falling a lot. But I was stubborn. Once I got the hang of it, I got more waves and the rides tended to be a lot longer than on a surfboard.”
Despite the sub-zero temperatures, winter is a great time to surf the Great Lakes. At any given wind speed, waves build higher in cold weather because cold air over warm water transfers more wind energy than warm air over cold water.
When the water temperature is close to zero, and the air temperature is below zero, a mild 15-kilometer wind will generate two- to three-foot waves. Lower wind speed makes for cleaner waves too.
But how does Ortiz motivate himself to get in the water when it’s -15°C, before factoring in the windchill?
“I’ve done it enough times now I’ve normalized it,” he says. “For the first while it was harder to motivate myself to get out there. And as a paddleboarder, it can actually be quite cold until you get some water in the suit. Even though I know it’ll be warmer once I get in the water, I still avoid it while up on my board. But once I fall in, I warm right up.”
Now an ambassador for Xcel wetsuits, Ortiz wears a 5/4/3 suit—five-millimeter thick neoprene on the body, four-millimeter on the arms and three-millimeter on the hood—and rubs “wind and weather” cream on his face.
He’s usually the only standup paddleboarder out in the dead of winter, but he’s often not alone. There’s a small but mighty band of Great Lakes surfers who claim as long as the lake isn’t iced-over, it’s never too cold to surf.
“With wetsuit technology, it’s really not crazy at all,” says Ortiz. “I can pull my hand out of my glove and shake hands with somebody and my hand will be warmer than someone walking on the beach. It’s not crazy once you start. The session doesn’t end because I’m cold, it ends because I’m exhausted.”
Tougher than Sub-Zero. Photo: Sandy Nicholson