Surfer’s Voice is a new feature where we interview real surfers; the groms, old timers, beginners and seasoned vets that populate the Canadian surf scene from coast to coast, lake to river, and every ripple in between.
For our inaugural installment, we thought it would be fitting to check in with an unsung fixture of the Toronto surf community, South African-Canadian filmmaker/actor/surfer, Brad Van Rooi. Brad has been surfing the Great Lakes since the 80’s and you may have spotted him behind the lens, or sneaking a few peelers out the back.
Hey Brad, for starters do you have a favourite local break?
In the city, I’m sure, “Lighthouse” or as one of the OG’s of T.O. surf, JAM (Jam surf/skimboard maker) would call it “Rocks”. I love this spot and was part of the group campaigning to save it from development. I used my old contacts from when I worked at CityTV to help get the media involved. I also made a documentary about the fight to save the Lighthouse in 2017 you can still find the piece “Aloha Great Lake Surfers, Lighthouse” here. This was a great moment in Toronto surfing, when everyone in the community came together to fight for a break. Against the odds, we won. Lighthouse can have some of the sweetest and longest rides. On good conditions, the inside can wall right up, maybe even provide a little curl. The outside is a lot of fun and can get big without getting too rough.
Favourite break in the world?
Nosara, Costa Rica is a favourite for sure. North Guiones beach can be a little bigger and the smaller south Guiones beach is more manageable. It’s a beach break, so when it gets big, being aware of the rip’s is a good idea.
I’d surf it at 6am and it was perfect, peaceful, surf, with clean lines. At that time of the day, there would only be a handful of people out. By 8am, with 100’s of people in the water, I’d get out and feel like I already accomplished a big part of my day.
What I love about Nosara, is that it is developed by BuzzFeed owner and his filmmaker wife. It is not uncommon to be surfing with creatives from Hollywood and New York. People respect physical and mental space in Nosara, which is also a great appeal.
Ajax skate session (1988)
How did you first get into surfing?
At 12 years old, my family took a trip to Virginia Beach. As we pulled into Virginia Beach, we drove past skaters ripping the half pipe at Mount Trashmore. I was huge into skating. In VB, we stopped at WRV and 17th Street Surf Shop. The hotel set us up with a perfect view of the morning sunrise over the ocean, right off one of the best breaks in Virginia Beach, it was beautiful. The energy coming from the surfers shredding illuminated by the morning sun was electric.
The next day was grey and rainy, but stoked from watching the surfers, my brother and I, without a lesson, decided to paddle out. It was the worst day and I almost made it to the line up.
When did you first start surfing on the lakes?
Two years later, at 14, I would catch my first wave at Tim’s point in Ajax. We had a small crew of Tim Van Rossum, Mark Dipple, Ian Robertson, Phil, Adam and when we surfed Toronto, Jeff Green, Jam and Leno. Tim was a buddy who had a house on the lake, so he always knew when the waves were up and we forecast by looking at the wind in the trees and calling each other on landlines. There was no weather network, internet or cellular smart phones. We just figured it out.
Winter surf in Ajax, Tim’s Point (1986)
It was a heavy skateboard, snowboard and windsurf world at the time. We started taking trips to Virginia Beach and Cape Cod at 18. We were in our teens, so we weren’t always organized with bringing enough food. On one trip, we started bartering food with each other for favours, making each other work for it, until a middle aged couple saw we were starving and gave us some potatoes.
Eventually we would move on. Phil became a Hip Hop/Rap Producer; Ian Robertson, became a commercial and film director; Mark Dipple moved to Whistler and works on VW’s as a hobby. Tim Van Rossum, works in I.T. and sails. Jeff Green, Mike McKenzie and I are the only three remaining from our original crew still surfing the lakes today.
Early days, surfing A-bay in Toronto
Did you have any surfing mentors or heroes growing up?
As a group, we never had mentors, we just surfed and played in the water. We pushed ourselves and got stoke from VHS surf films like Jack O’neil’s, “Ozone”. I was more a skater at that time and came in 5th place for an all Durham skate competition. We were inspired by Tom Curren, Mark Occolupo, Martin Potter, Gary Elkerton, Barton Lynch and Tony Hawk and the Bones Brigade. Kelly was riding Sundecks.
Fistral Beach, UK (1992)
What is it about surfing that appeals to you?
I surf alone a lot. Surfing creates a ‘flow state’, that creates a body mind synchronicity. This happens when the mind body connection takes over, when someone is highly focused on what they are doing. It is in this moment that time loses meaning and a feeling of euphoria occurs. It is a great escape, even in the city. It is a time when I can be present and for a moment, nothing matters. Except for that ‘kook’, or a buddy, trying to steal my wave.
Can you describe some of your most memorable sessions or waves even?
The most memorable was in South Africa driving my grandmother's old Datsun and driving past the townships to Muizenberg near the end of aparthied. The New Boys and the Young Americans, would shoot pop guns (metal tube, bullet, elastic band, rock) at each other and an innocent bystander was killed a few days earlier, so I was nervous. I paddled out into surf small clean waves without a leash. I shared a wave with a seal, and then it disappeared, and a small shark came around. I took a 10 minute break, caught some more waves and my grandmother bought me a leash the next day. Muizenberg was a regular spot for a month. I returned in 2015, and it was crowded. I was more uneasy on the beach than I would have been in the water.
Muizenberg, South Africa (1991)
Does your life as a surfer have any impact on your life out of the water?
Completely. I try to reflect on what I am doing in life and try to follow the surfing practice of knowing when to fight the current and when to go with the wave.
When you are not surfing what else do you do with your time?
Write, day dream, make plans, put plans in action, think about stuff and try to do things with my life. I’ve written a short surf film that I am trying to get produced and am starting a Sundance Collab on writing. I’m working on another surf film and hoping to use the time during the current pandemic to grow as an artist.
What kind of changes have you seen in the local surf scene, and the wider Great Lakes surf scene?
A couple of guys became a crew, then a long stretch of time, then growth, then more growth, then growth on steroids. Crews became tribes and we all became a community.
Magilla Schaus [Canadian/American Great Lakes surf pioneer and founding member of Wyldewood Surf Club] invited me to his wedding and was a wonderful person, before the growth Magilla told me he wanted community, growth, and good surfers to evolve. He would send me my ESA mags once a month. I was an ESA member. I really embraced the idea of the community he wanted to create. I found that there were a lot of surfers outside of the community that aren’t really represented and that don’t reveal themselves to the community. I think we all represent a community that the larger world of surfers never see in the water.
Brad & Jeff Green going wave for wave at the Cove in Scarborough Bluffs
Do you have any additional words you’d like to share with the surf community or those new to the game?
Having surfed the lakes since 1986, I’ve witnessed a lot of change. Lake surfers are being taken a little more seriously now, then they ever have, from what I can see.
I started Toronto City Surfers to try to create a throughline of story, attributed to the Aloha in the community. I wanted to create a narrative of context as there will be so much more growth. It is important to create a consciousness of reality for Great Lake surfers, that we are real surfers and should embrace it. We are watermen and waterwomen. I wanted to create a narrative that adds to the positivity of the Toronto surf scene.
I now want to create a context of Toronto surfers in the world. Story helps us visualize ourselves and our ability on a world stage.
What we have today is another beginning. Eventually someone will decide to create a school competition circuit. Eventually there will be wave pools (hopefully). Eventually surfers starting today will reminisce about the good old days and remember when they were the first surfers. We were all beginners at some point and will all be elders at some point. The only thing I can add is be kind and be good guides.
Keep up with Brad’s Toronto City Surfers project and head to his website to see some of Brad’s other work.
Interview by Elie Landesberg
We're all roomies on this ball of water and dirt.. Find him on Instagram.