New wave of female surfers carving up the Great Lakes

Meet the Lake Surfistas: Water Women of the Great Lakes

More people in Toronto are discovering that yes, you CAN surf here. But did you know there’s an active (and friendly) surf community that dedicates their efforts to bringing together women to surf or SUP the Great Lakes? Meet Lake Surfistas

This all-women crew who surf, SUP surf and SUP the Great Lakes (and beyond), aim to get more women into these sports whether it’s 32°C or 32°F out (yes, we surf in the winter here) through events, workshops and their online discussion group that is only open to people who identify as women. 

As someone who is finally feeling more confident on a surfboard, I wanted to share how helpful and amazing it is to have such a welcoming, knowledgeable and diverse community who share the same passion for getting out there in the water. 

And so, I asked my friend and surf-inspiration Robin Pacquing, one of the founders of Lake Surfistas, to share her story and why everyone needs to know about this supportive community whether or not you currently surf or SUP.  

Lake Surfistas founder 

Lake Surfistas' Robin Pacquing (Photo: Warren Won)

How did you get into surfing the Great Lakes (GL)? 
My awareness of Lake Ontario and the ocean started at a young age. I always had an interest in surfing and "extreme" sports, thanks to cool older cousins and watching shows like 90210 and Baywatch. When I was about 11 or 12, my dad owned a small 16’ aluminium boat, and we would regularly explore the Toronto waterfront and go on weekend fishing trips to Hastings and Bala. These two factors alone became a perfect catalyst for discovering GL surfing.

Fast forward to 2001, a family trip to Hawaii led me to my first surfing lesson with the Waikiki Beach Boys. I was obsessed with surfing after that but was worried about being a "poser" for dressing like a surfer girl and not actually surfing.

Fast forward to 2005 – I was researching trips to the West Coast and found out you can surf in Canada. That blew me away. I did more research and discovered an existing group of local surfers, some of who had been surfing on the GL since the 60s!

A switch turned on in my brain, and suddenly surfing became my calling. For the next few years, I read the forums, pored over maps, examined the wind, drove along the shoreline I was already familiar with. This time, with newly trained eyes to look for waves, I discovered that the park we used to launch our boat from, Marie Curtis Park, was a local surf spot. I saved up for a wetsuit, went on a trip to Tofino. I did whatever I could to learn more - became friends with those who surfed locally, saved more money for gear, boards, and surf trips to the sea.

Photo: Gavin Fregona

What inspired you to start Lake Surfistas?
Around 2012 to 2014, having already witnessed the organic growth of GL surfing before the days of Facebook and Instagram, social media basically blew up the "secret" of GL surfing. I began seeing more women in the water, and it was the start of a growing sisterhood and who's who. The immense comfort of seeing another woman in the line-up was intertwined with a genuine concern for their safety, a desire for them to feel joy and succeed in the water, but also competition and intimidation within myself.

I wanted to set the path straight with all of the newcomers. Surf culture in Toronto grew from a child into a rowdy teenager...excited and full of energy. There were a lot of valid questions, business opportunities, and many genuinely stoked yet unprepared people jumping into established surf spots without a fuller understanding of the hazards involved.

I felt it was important to share my research and learned knowledge/experience with others. If the “old guy” surfers were patient enough to give me surf guidance years back, I wanted to do the same for the women. 

In addition to sharing the knowledge, I wanted to pay it forward and honour the first friendships I had with other females (and males) in the early days. Sonia Jaafar, Veronica Owens and Eunice Ching all partnered with me in those exploratory days. Surf Ontario, the first dedicated surf shop in Ontario and Wyldewood Surf Club, the oldest surf club on the Great Lakes, also showed me the ropes. [Robin is also the first person of colour inducted into this club.]

In the summer of 2014, I hosted a rocking house party with family, old friends, artists, and a good chunk of local surfers, both new and veteran. It was the kind of good vibe party you get hanging out in the parking lot post-surf- beer from the trunk of a car, wetsuits peeled, and social hour with your surf buddies. 

It was during this party when Lisa Parkes of Seaweedsa approached me with the prospect of hosting a women-only surf event. By then, I had the means, the ears, and the surf connections in the existing community to make this happen. A few weeks later, Ladies of the Lakes (LOTL) was born. It was a sunny yet cool October Day at Pleasant Beach in Lake Erie. We were thrilled to see 30 women attend. We were even more thrilled that the day brought waves.

After a few years, Shazia Mazhar and I discovered that another community group not related to surfing had the LOTL name, so we rebranded as Lake Surfistas.

What continues to inspire me to run Lake Surfistas is not far from my initial inspirations. The only difference now is that I'm not the only one spreading the knowledge, looking to make new surf friends and the only woman in the water. And if I'm not the only one having the feel-good vibes after a Great Lakes surf session, I'm damn sure all these other women are feeling it, too.

Photo: Jerry Fabian

What are some of the challenges you face (or have faced) as a surfer?
I'm grateful that I no longer feel like I have any limitations in accessing surf. However, a real challenge for me is that I'm starting to feel its toll on my body from surfing and paddling every season for so long now. Ear infections, pain in my shoulders, knees and ankles, skin damage from exposure to wind, sun, and the cold are part of my pursuit and passion for surf. While regular stretching, RMT and hydrotherapy sessions help keep me healthy, I truly worry that one day I won't be able-bodied enough to endure the harsher surf days, a major wipe-out, or be able to surf at all.

I’m glad you know what makes you feel better. On a lighter note, tell me about a memorable Lake Surfistas moment?

In 2016, we raffled off the first Grumpy Bob board. It was a tiny, beautifully handcrafted thumb of a board that seemed only perfect for a kid or someone with plenty of experience. When I called the winning ticket, the winner was a tween girl named Sidney. The whole room BURST into cheers of love and excitement for her! Almost everyone went up to Sidney to give her congratulatory high-fives and words of encouragement. Some even told me they never felt happier losing a raffle, especially if it meant a brand new board to a little girl. The entire thing brought me to tears.

Photo: Deb Reaney

How has Lake Surfistas made an impact on the Toronto Surf Community?
Local surf knowledge is spreading, and not just through social media, but as real connections and conversations among real people. I’d like to think that Lake Surfistas has a big hand in that, especially among the growing number of women. I think it’s also because over the years we continue to be a grassroots movement. We are always grateful and humbled by the support given to us by the local community at large, yet we don’t seek any corporate funding or sponsorship. What we do and provide comes from our hearts, our wisdom, our longevity, and not by our ego. To us, it’s our way of remaining true to the sport, the water, and the community we belong to. When people see that in us, they’ll genuinely come to us for guidance and sisterhood.

What’s also super cool is when people suggest that I “should look into this group called Lake Surfistas,” not knowing that I started the whole thing!

Photo: Cameron Johnson

Where do you hope to see the Lake Surfistas community in the next few years?
Now that surfing is an official Olympic sport, I hope to see our community grow. I want to meet more women along all the Great Lakes, in Canada and the US. I want to know their stories, exchange experiences, and gain their sisterhood. I would love to see a grom from the Great Lakes become part of Team Canada, or Team USA, or Team Anywhere. I want Lake Surfistas recognized as the biggest and most diverse women’s surf club in the world.

Check out the 6th annual Lake Surfistas Beach Day in October – a day to celebrate, connect with and learn from our lake surf sisters who ride the waves. Family-friendly, rain or shine. 

Group photo top: Nathaniel David Johnson

Related Articles: 
Toronto: The Next Surf City with Surf the Greats

Related Review: 
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