Elie Landesberg surfs the Great Lakes

Elie Landesberg lives in Toronto and surfs the fresh cold waters in the Great Lakes. We where curious so we decided to have a chat with him:

What is it like to surf in the great lakes?

Surfing the Great Lakes, like surfing anywhere for that matter is a pretty incredible experience. I live in Toronto a major inland metropolitan city, and surfing to many is not really considered possible, it’s not even on their radar. But as all of you probably know if you have enough water, and enough wind you will have waves. Surf conditions on the Great Lakes are similar to those on smaller seas, or sheltered bays, in that surf is generally the product of local storms and wind swells. What distinguishes Great Lake surf conditions, from say Mediterranean surfing is the fact that we sometimes deal with near freezing water temperatures and air temperatures as low as -15C. Sometimes however when the wind direction is just right, things are, dare I say… perfect.

What your best advice to stay warm in those conditions?

To stay warm during the winter, I would say invest in the warmest wetsuit possible, I wear a hooded 6/5/4, with 7mm boots and 5mm gloves, and I switch to a 4/3 spring through fall. It might seem obvious but sometimes I tuck my hands in my armpits to keep myself warm when waiting for the next set. Aside from that I would say on really cold days have a bit of warm water to pour into your suit when you first put it on and a thermos of warm coffee or tea waiting in the car, change at home in the shower if there is nowhere indoors to change at the beach, and sometimes a little vaseline on the cheeks can help your face from freezing after few too many cold duck dives. Oh and pee in your wetsuit.

What is the local community like?

The surf community in the Canadian Great Lakes is changing day by day. What used to be a relatively grass-roots pursuit in the face of a commercially saturated global subculture is now in the grips of its own Gidget type surf boom of sorts. Due to the growing popularity of SUP, availability and quality of wetsuits, and the conspicuous nature of social media, what was once an in-secret is now becoming fairly commonplace knowledge. While we don’t have the crowds of popular California surf breaks, there are definitely a lot more people in the water, and since it is a bit of a wild west on the lakes, you sometimes see some interesting stuff. The surf community on the lakes is pretty colourful, there are a lot of expats, who discovered that they did not have to give up surfing after all, there are people like me who began surfing abroad and there are surfers bred on the lakes.

For the most part people are very relaxed and happy to see other heads in the lineup, but of course there are individuals who haven’t taken too kindly to change. It’s really the same old locals story you have in any surf community. I guess it is part of tradition. It never really manifests itself into anything more than complaining online. Generally the people I surf with just seem happy to be surfing, and my attitude is that things are constantly changing so you gotta go with it. If you have issues with others’ etiquette, pull them up, don’t push them down.


How’d you get into surfing?

I have always had motivation to surf, perhaps it is innate, or due to exposure to the ideal of surfing, I am not entirely sure. When I was home sick from school I used to watch all the campy Bruce Brown movies…Water Logged, Endless Summer,  Surf Crazy. I grew up swimming, sailing and camping all around the lakes and having seen the potential for sizeable waves I have always figured surfing here was possible. I discovered surfing on the lakes when I was a kid but it wasn’t until years later that I would actually get my feet on a board. I had a few opportunities to surf as a teenager, but it wasn’t until I started travelling that I really got deeper into the pursuit. After a string of fall and spring sessions over the years on the lake I decided to invest in winter gear and surf year round at home. I love surfing here, but to be completely honest when it’s pitch black and 20 below freezing my mind drifts to Costa Rica.

Many people see surfing as a sport, some as an art, others as a culture and so forth. How do you view surfing?

Well I think that surfing is multifaceted. There is no denying the physicality of surfing, as well as its leisurely nature, which some would constitute as sport. And there are definitely individuals who are very into the sportization of surfing, competition and bringing more of a jock vibe to the whole thing, and if that is their fix I am cool with it but that is not entirely how surfing feels to me.

With any sport or pastime there is always a culture that will develop, a language, perhaps style, artifacts etc. I am sure there is even croquet subculture, but surf culture is definitely a unique beast. It is something that has almost become a Western mythology, based on the early days of American surfing, the rebellious bohemian escapist. And that appeal of surfing has been caught in this weird feedback loop with mainstream society and actual surfers. The image of surfing is used ad naseum with little regard to the referent of actual surfing.

There is definitely an art to surfing, it is something that requires a mastery, there are different genres of surfing, and it can put a personality on display.

But I would say I view surfing more as a pursuit, something that people attach meaning to, be it points, style, or just something to do. I know it sounds completely flakey and almost cliche at this point, but for me surfing is a spiritual pursuit. It is a way for me to rise above the mundane, connect with my environment and remind myself that I am alive.

Which surfers inspires you? 

I really love all of the videos by Kepa Acero, I think he presents a really interesting take on a surf life. His persona seems sincere, and I am always excited to see what his next adventure will be. I also would say Gerry Lopez, firstly from a style standpoint, I don’t know if anyone has made tuberiding at pipe look more effortless, But also the dude was living in the trees in Indo in the 70’s surfing G-Land and exploring and experimenting. I think that spirit is an integral part of the vibe that is lost with the whole sportization of surfing.

Why are you an ambassador for SurfEars and how did that relationship begin? 

I found SurfEars online after trying every surf/watersport ear plug on the market. I’ve dealt firsthand with some of the negative effects surfing can have on your ears, and I don’t want to be limited by my equipment. I would only rep a product that I use personally and wearing SurfEars when I hop into cold water is a no-brainer. I have been trying to get the message out to other surfers in the region, especially some of the crews that surf in very cold and very polluted areas, because I think that it is way less hassle to get a quality set of ear plugs, than to deal with getting sick or having your ears drilled.

Do you have other skill sets or areas of passion? 

Definitely!  I’ve spent the past few years working as a commercial photographer. I have also recently picked up Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (aka getting beat up). Also like all other humans on the planet I love music.

What does your ideal day look like? 

My ideal day would start somewhere a lot warmer than here, early morning, head high, slight offshore, maybe just a few good buddies in the lineup. After a tasty little intermission, maybe take a little hike in the hills. Paddle back out for sunset. A little Marvin Gaye before the night’s through and I’m happy

Quote to live by/ closing quote:

You gotta want it.