story by David Diehl
photos by Ben Eggers
Surfing Lake Ontario in the winter is not for the faint of heart.
“All of us that lake surf say ‘Aloha’ to each other,” Ben Eggers says with an obvious smirk. “It’s kind of ironic, especially in the winter. It’s 20 degrees in Rochester!”
A student at St. John Fisher College, Eggers is studying way more than the average student’s curriculum. Yes, he has his syllabus, but he also has his storm systems and his surprise swells. Eggers, 21, is a Lake Ontario surfer.
When you think of surfing, you think of vibrantly colored boards, vibrantly colored surf gear, and vibrantly colored surfers on vibrantly colored coasts. Enter “The Grit Coast.”
“Grit Coast is a play on words,” Eggers explains. “The Australian Gold Coast, revered for having some of the best surfing in the world, has pristine, white sandy beaches with warm water and perfect waves. I labeled us the Grit Coast because surfing takes a lot more work and effort here. The water is a lot colder and the waves are a lot smaller, but the satisfaction is much bigger. It’s something that we have to earn and something that we wear with a lot of pride.”
The lake surfing community isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon; some members of the group have been doing it for more than 20 years. But it is an inviting one. No matter how cold the weather is, the Grit Coast, as a movement, happens to be a rather warm one.
“The people here are also a lot nicer than the people that you would find on the coast. They’re more accepting and excited to welcome people into the scene,” Eggers states. “On the coast, it’s a little dicey with people fighting over spots, but here it’s more open and inviting.”
At what point does someone from the coast say it might be cool to go and rob some waves off of Lake Ontario?
“It’s a prime spot because cold weather systems come down from Canada,” Eggers explains. “There’s a lot of wind, which generates waves. Its deep depths transition to shallow bottoms quickly, which causes waves to form. There are a lot of spots like that in Lake Ontario – it’s the second-largest, depth-wise, of the all the Great Lakes. There are plenty of deep spots that these waves form and the crash into sand bars all around the coast.
“It’s not so much that we gravitated towards lake surfing, it’s that we ended up here due to certain circumstances,” he continues. “I think the nature of us having grown up in coastal environments, is that we are always searching for what’s possible and making the best of a situation. So we try to bring that same sort of lifestyle to the lake.”
The most striking aspect about this extreme sport is that it is not all for fun, or all for show. It’s not Keanu and Swazye at the beach looking as cool as they are. This sport is hard. And although it may not sound like the most desirable of environments, it means so much to its participants. Eggers repeatedly referred to it as a “badge of honor and pride” that lake surfers achieve when they beat all the formidable conditions. That lake water is frigid, but after they hit a perfect surprise swell, the result is actually cool.
“It’s a lot more work,” Eggers admits. “The fresh water makes a big difference because it is a lot less buoyant than salt water. So the water hitting the board actually makes it drag down a bit, so it’s harder to pick up waves, especially if there are smaller waves.
“The lake-water smell is definitely different than salt water,” Eggers says. “I always think about it when I’m heading out there: when you surf salt water, you always come out feeling clean and refreshed. When you come out of the lake, it’s a little grimy, but it adds to that badge of honor. You persevered. It’s the elements. Waves are few and far between. They are more likely to happen in the winter – when it’s colder and icier. It’s a little less desirable to go out. It is not something that people do for show like on the other coasts. This is hardcore for the love of the sport.”