Time Zones

From Toronto, Hardy Surfers Head for 'Canada's South Coast'

Rob Dobias, one of a band of regulars who surf the Great Lakes through the winter, plunges into Lake Erie from a boat ramp at Fort Erie's Crystal Beach. By late afternoon, an offshore buoy registered nine-foot waves.
Rob Dobias, one of a band of regulars who surf the Great Lakes through the winter, plunges into Lake Erie from a boat ramp at Fort Erie's Crystal Beach. By late afternoon, an offshore buoy registered nine-foot waves. (By Doug Struck -- The Washington Post)
By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 26, 2006

FORT ERIE, Ontario

On his day off, Toronto policeman Rob Dobias was up at dawn, checking the weather reports sent from the shipping buoys in the Great Lakes. Overcast . . . cool . . . five-foot waves . . . blustery wind gusts to 35 miles per hour. A nasty day.

Dobias was pleased.

By 7:30 a.m. he had collected his pal, Grant Kennedy, a graphics designer living in Toronto, and the two were on the road. They skirted the western end of Lake Ontario, where the water was flat, and arrived two hours later on the shores of Lake Erie -- "Canada's South Coast," the sign by the road said.

They scouted out their usual place. The waves were big, but too choppy. They moved east a few miles to Crystal Beach, a quiet waterfront cluster of cottages with a view of low New York mountains across the lake.

At 10:45, Dobias, 32, and Kennedy, 41, sauntered to the end of a boat ramp and leapt with their surfboards into the chill, windswept waters of Lake Erie.

This is a far cry from the surfing Dobias did off his native North Carolina shores, and from the endless white beaches of South Africa, where Kennedy grew up. But for both expats, who followed spouses to live in Canada, it would have to do.

"I thought I'd have to give up surfing when I came to Canada" four years ago, said Kennedy. When he heard they surfed on the Great Lakes, he tried it "out of desperation," he admitted.

For a hardy band of Great Lakes surfers, the season begins now, when the beachfront motels board their windows and the cottagers take in the beach chairs. The warm, languid summers produce few good waves on the lakes, except from an occasional passing storm. But turbulent fall and winter weather roils the water, and Dobias and his friends take to the surf every week.

"We'll go in any weather. With these wetsuits, it doesn't matter," Dobias said. "We've been out in hail that put welts on the bald head of one of my friends. We've surfed on the lake when there is cinder-block-sized ice on the shore. As long as the water isn't iced over, we will be out."

For a while, this day seems disappointing. Dobias and Kennedy bob in the water like seals sniffing the air. The swells tease them, building with promise, then wilting weakly as the surfers start to paddle. Finally, Dobias catches one, then another, in a set of larger waves. He is up on his board and rides for a few dozen yards before sinking slowly.

"Small," Dobias says with a shrug. "Can't get any speed."


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