Author | Photo Shazia Mazhar at Ashbridges Bay - Photo by Aly Ambler

Surf the Great Lakes: How Lake Surfistas Are Helping More Women Hit the Waves

When you hear the word surfer, what image comes to mind? A bronzed Adonis with chiseled abs, splayed on the beach in sunny California? Woman, it’s time to shake up that visual, and get yourself on that board.

Robin Pacquing and Shazia Mazhar lead the Lake Surfistas, a grassroots movement that aims to bring together women of all abilities to celebrate Surf and Standup Paddleboarding (SUP) on the Great Lakes. If you’ve ever dreamed of learning to surf—right here in Ontario, no less—read on.

Photo: N. David Johnson

SDTC: Briefly, who are the Lake Surfistas and how did you all come together?

RP & SM: We started out as a small group of female surf friends wanting to connect with the growing lake surf community. Before social media, finding other local female surfers was incredibly hard. We are a grassroots movement that aspires to bring together women of all abilities to celebrate Surf and Standup Paddleboarding (SUP) on the Great Lakes. Our connections with water and surf and womanhood have created such wonderful friendships. In recent years, we have built an online community and grown to over two hundred women. Currently Robin, Shazia and a few other ladies facilitate the community and run events.

What is the most rewarding part about helping other women learn to surf? Any memories stand out in particular?

Robin: I relish being able to share this knowledge that was either handed down to us by better surfers, or we had learned the hard way. It’s absolutely rewarding seeing women take this knowledge and make it their own for their surf time. It’s wonderful being able to tell these stories. For example, I remember the first time I told Shazia to use her back foot when dropping in. And then I remember her catching a tonne of waves right afterwards, and I’m smiling and cheering! It was so rewarding because it was something that I was taught, and I was able to pass that along to someone else and help them. And she’s passed it down to someone else. It’s giving back to something that gives us such joy!

Why is it so important that women learn to surf/SUP?

Robin: The surf community in the lakes, and the oceans, has been male-dominated for a long time. Often women feel intimidated sitting out in the water as the sole female. Surfing and SUPing are engaging, energizing sports that women gravitate toward, so we want to ensure they feel safe, confident and have the skills to thrive. Also, awareness of our geography and natural resources. The Great Lakes are on the brink, so the more people who know about it’s power and importance, then the more people will want to to protect it.

Photo: N. David Johnston

How has surfing the Great Lakes benefitted you personally?

Robin: I can divide my life so far into two: Pre-surf, and Surf. Pre-surf, I didn’t know who I the heck I was, and I didn’t have any positive confidence in myself. And then when I really pushed myself into it in 2006, a big focus on my life turned to figuring out how to surf the Great Lakes as much as I can. I wanted to know everything and get better at it. I shaped my own career out of it. It has benefited me so much that I am living in a way that I never dreamed existed when I was a kid.

Shazia: I just started surfing the lakes in late 2014, and as a newer surfer, it’s helped me build my skill faster than waiting a few times a year for a beach vacation. It’s given me great confidence in my abilities, and the community of women I’ve met inspires me every day. It’s also become a place of peace for me. I was going through some big life stuff when I started surfing, and the gratitude I feel when I’m out on the waves is incredible.

What is the biggest misconception about surfing you’d like to clear up?

Robin: That you have to look or be a certain way. We have women of all ages, shapes, ethnicities, and abilities in our group. The surf girl that the media portrays is not necessarily the woman that will rip the hardest, and we encourage everyone to give it a try.

Shazia: I have alopecia (no hair), so I’m definitely not running down the beach with my hair flowing! It’s been a journey of acceptance to be out there bald (in my baseball cap) and feel like I fit in.

What is your fave area in the Great Lakes for surfing?

No spot is the same as another, though every spot has its own general characteristics. They all have the potential to be jaw-droppingly incredible, but that entirely depends on the day/wind/season/shoreline/water levels. Our favourite time of year is from August to October. We rack on the kilometres driving around Southern Ontario, hitting Ontario, Erie or Huron. It’s then when almost every popular surf break will have many amazing days and conditions. There’s nothing like that surprise August surf where you can be out there in a bikini!

How can we be better stewards of the Great Lakes? What are practical ways we can help?

The answer is really many small things that collectively make a huge impact. Using reusable containers and bags. Properly participating in recycling programs. Say no to grass- and plant-native plant species in your yard. Pick up some trash during a surf check or walk through the park or even along a city street. Our playground is also a place to protect. Supporting organizations like Lake Ontario Waterkeeper helps to ensure the lakes will continue to thrive. The flow of the land goes into the ground, to ravines, rivers, lakes, and eventually out in the ocean. It’s all connected.

We know it’s a bit too brisk out there to start surfing today. In the meantime, Lake Surfistas is partnering with Barnacle Babes to bring a screening of  She Is the Ocean to Jackman Hall on March 7th. The film is a documentary profiling women who are warriors for the ocean at all ages of life, and 5% of the proceeds will go to the Ocean Legacy Foundation. Get all the deets here.

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