Surf the Greats

Posted by Kylie Gionet, June 09, 2015
Surf the Greats

Photo courtesy of Surf the Greats

With little knowledge about what Great Lake surfing was all about, we caught up with Marcello Gortana and his business partner Antonio Lennert (fresh off a recent surf trip to Tofino) to find out more about surfing the lakes right here in Ontario. Responsible for starting ‘Surf The Greats’, these two are helping to support and further establish a surf community here in the city that’s built on the stuff of true romance. You know, braving the elements and the mostly cruel Canadian weather conditions just to get out on a board and ride a wave. There's nothing unrequited about it, and we were eager to hear what they had to say.

Tell us a little about yourself. What inspired you guys to start "Surf The Greats"?
M: I grew up in South Africa and my business partner Antonio grew up in Brazil. We have both been very connected to the ocean and water sports. When I moved to Canada I basically gave up living by the ocean, and have only been able to surf when I go on holidays. After several years in Toronto, I started hearing stories of people surfing the lakes, but I had no idea where to begin. I finally met a lake surfer named Larry (from Peru), who basically taught me everything about how the waves are generated here. One weekend he invited me to come along with him in the hopes that I would actually find waves in Ontario. We all showed up at a spot across the street from Blue Mountain and that's where I met Antonio. We were both blown away by what we saw, and how "ocean-like" the lakes can be. We began surfing together, and through endless conversations in and out of the water, we saw the opportunity to start the company. After months of planning, we decided to launch "Surf The Greats" to give people the opportunity to learn more about Great Lakes surfing, and also to create experiences abroad.

Can you give us a little rundown of your business model? How do you guys operate as a brand?
M: A huge part of what we do is build awareness and community around all of the Great Lakes, while exposing lake surfing to the international surfing community. We also sponsor athletes to compete on the lakes and oceans, and create community-driven events here in Toronto with the goal of fostering a surf community.

Right now we are focused mainly on our apparel line. We are starting to get some opportunities with large retailers in Canada and we're really excited about that. In addition, we do surfing and stand-up paddle boarding lessons in Toronto and all over the Great Lakes. Long term we would like to focus on growing the international travel portion of our business. At the core of what we do is providing people with experiences that will really push them outside of their comfort zones.

How long have you both been involved with the surfing community? When was your first time on a board?
M: We have been involved in the surfing community in Toronto since the first day we surfed the lakes a couple of years ago. As surfers, we both started really young. I left South Africa when I was 11 years old, and surfed every year I went back during the summer holidays. Antonio grew up by the ocean in Brazil and has lived in California and Australia before settling in Canada, so he has an even stronger grounding in those early years.

It seems like you guys have connections everywhere. Is the surfing community a relatively small one?
M: The surfing community here is really small but it’s growing faster than anywhere I have ever witnessed in my life. We are experiencing a really interesting time for surfing here in Toronto because people are starting to realize that you can actually learn and get really good at surfing on the lakes. In terms of connections, we have met many surfers and like-minded people everywhere we have lived and travelled. Surfing has grown so much in popularity over the past couple of decades; pretty much every local community has that group of like-minded individuals. It doesn’t matter where you go, you always end up meeting good people who become friends for life.

How have you found the surfing community here in Toronto? Is there one? Or are you establishing it?
M: The surfing community here in Ontario is amazing. Everyone is really positive and welcoming. I have never really seen such a supportive community for newcomers to learn and improve in. People have been surfing the lakes for decades already, but there has been an explosion over the past few years. We can’t help but think we have something to do with that, but also know that there are several surf shops and surfers who are working to grow our community.

Money buys experience nowadays. A lot of people want an "all-inclusive" ride to spiritual and physical growth without actually putting the work in. What makes the experience you guys are providing a truly authentic one versus a trendy one?
M: At the core of what we do at “Surf The Greats” is a strong emphasis on personal growth. Our surf safaris are structured as a retreat, a journey designed to push people outside of their comfort zone to experience something unique and memorable. Our goal is to create a safe and supportive environment for beginners and experienced surfers to come together and learn from each other. And it’d not only about surf, we want people to connect through a life changing experience and grow from each other in all aspects. In terms of the local experiences, we run our trips from a surfer’s perspective. We only work with local guides and businesses to provide an authentic and “off-the-beaten-path” experience.

Surf the Greats (2)

Photo courtesy of Surf the Greats

What do you want people to take away from a session with you?
M: Often, people who join us for our local surf safaris don’t know each other, so we provide a safe environment for people to connect while exercising and immersing themselves in our natural environment. We really want to take people away from the modern trappings of daily life and come with us to explore some of Ontario's hidden gems. We want to inspire people to connect with nature in various ways so that they can incorporate that sense of adventure into their daily lives when they go home.

Dream destination for a surf trip?
M: Oh there's so many! Costa Rica is an all-time favorite of mine. The waves are unbelievable. It’s a perfect country for beginners to learn and I love the people and food there. For my own personal trip I’d like to do a bit more exploring in the world, and I have Morocco and Japan at the top of my list for surf trip destinations.

Current favorite surf spot?
M: For Ontario, it has to be Ashbridges bay. There is a little cove there that gets really big and fun when the conditions are right. And it is close enough to just drive home in my wetsuit.

What do you like to listen to before you paddle out?
M: Something super high energy to get the blood pumping before jumping in the cold water!

Surfing the lakes versus the oceans ... how does the experience differ? In what ways is it the same?
M: The lakes are definitely more challenging and they make you a better surfer for the ocean. There is no salt in the lakes so you are not as buoyant. The lakes are also a bit messier; due to the way waves are generated. On the ocean, the waves are generated by storms that are thousands of miles away, and they travel an entire ocean before reaching a shore. On the lakes, the waves are generated just on the other side of the lake, so the intervals are a lot smaller and they tend to be bit messier. However, on the right day you wouldn’t say you were surfing on a lake! And all the interactions with other surfers in and out of the water are pretty much the same. Surfing is not only a sport, but a lifestyle, and it doesn’t matter whether you are on the ocean or on the lakes. Surf is where you find it!

Where do you guys hope to see yourself in five years?
M: In five years we would like to offer surf trips to several destinations around the world. We are launching with trips to Barbados and Costa Rica, but already have routes planned for South Africa and Brazil. In addition to warm destinations, we are starting to research possible routes for cold-water surfing destinations such as Iceland, New Zealand, France, Portugal and other countries in Scandinavia. We will always put emphasis on making sure that our trips are challenging enough so that people feel like they had a very active vacation, and return home with experiences they will never forget.

Riding a wave has to have some sort of metaphor for life in it somewhere. What has getting on a board taught you about the bigger picture?
M: I think in general, for me, there has always been a connection between sports and life. Whether surfing or another sport, if you want to get really good at it, you have to keep pushing yourself and learning even on the days you feel frustrated. That approach translates very well to life. If you want to excel and have a successful life, you have to work hard and continue learning from your failures in order to reach your goals.

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