Despite what the parade of clichés that was the Vancouver Olympics opening ceremony might lead you to believe, Canada is not just a bunch of prancing Mounties rowing space canoes and riverdancing on maple leafs while Native Canadians bang giant drums. We do however like to do sporty things in stupidly cold weather. Here’s a little chat we had with a dude named Jonathan Ambeault who just finished surfing one of the Great Lakes in -30 degree Celsius weather (that’s -22 degrees Fahrenheit for you Yanks) with his bud.
VICE: So um, why the hell are you surfing in the winter in Canada?
Jonathan: I returned from Australia in 2004, thinking that I would be land locked and surf less, except for vacations. But then a friend of a friend told me about a group of people who surfed in the area. On the lake, surf happens throughout the year, but the winter yields larger, more frequent waves because cold air is denser, allowing wind to move the water easier, creating waves.
Have you heard of this thing we have in Canada called snowboarding? It’s like surfing, but on snow and sensibly clothed.
Yes, I started skiing at the age of five until university where I no longer had the opportunity to get away to ski hills on a daily, or weekend basis (for time and money reasons). I ended up transferring my passion for skiing to surfing, as it is year round, and much more cost friendly.
How do you keep warm?
In order to stay warm in a wetsuit, the water needs to penetrate your suit. A very thin layer of water sits between you and the wetsuit, but your body temp warms it up considerably. I was out the other day in small waves, not having to move around much which meant that water barely saturated my suit, nor generated body heat, causing me to become colder much quicker then usual. If you submerge quickly, then you feel the cold water for only a few seconds, or minutes, max. I am one of the crazies who wears a very thin suit, even in extreme cold as I find that with the extra resistance of a thicker suit, I am able to move around more, and generate my own body heat through movement. The majority of surfers out there in winter wear six or seven mm wetsuits, while I use a top quality four mm one. The coldest it has been when I have surfed was -30 degrees C, out in Oshawa in 2007. It was just last weekend that I was out in -22 degrees. The only spot that is exposed is your face, so you typically sit with your back to the wind, thus not feeling the cold.
Clearly you are tougher than those Australian pussies that surf in warmer water. Are there any other differences?
Aussie surfers tend to be a lot better due to more consistent waves (the last two weeks have brought us North-West winds and that equals no waves). The real difference in surfing here is the fact that the waves here come at you much more frequently. By that I mean that in the ocean, waves will typically come every 11 to 16 seconds, on the lakes it’s six to eight seconds. This means that it is A LOT harder and more physically demanding to paddle out through the waves for us lake surfers.
What does water that cold do to your man bits, are they concave when you get back on land?
Good question. I think most of us wear a bathing suit/board shorts or something under the wetsuit...but it's still cold. At least for a while. Some days our man bits probably hide up inside us for extra warmth.
How long does it take to get ice-balls?
Well, your helmet and upper back are really the only areas that freeze. Ice forms in around 20-30 minutes, but melts and refreezes as you are in and out of the water. In a -30 degree session, I can stay out for about two to three hours before I head to my car to warm up.
Jeeze louise, is it really that worth it?
In the end the only assets to winter surfing are: bigger waves and more frequent surfing days. There are usually 10-12 surfable days a month in the winter versus two or three in the summer. So, yes.