Surfer's Voice: Michael Billinger

Surfer's Voice: Michael Billinger

Surfer’s Voice is an exploration of Canadian surfing through the words of the real surfers that populate the surf scenes from coast to coast, lake, river, and anywhere else a wave can be ridden.

Well, the dog days of summer are upon us, in between low pressure systems we thought it would be a great opportunity to head to our nation’s capital to talk-story with Michael Billinger, founding member of River Surf Ottawa-Gatineau/Surf de rivière Ottawa-Gatineau, about his experiences surfing around the world, and the waves he has sampled from the Canadian H20 buffet.

Hey Michael! For starters where are you originally from? Where do you live now?

I grew up north of Toronto on Lake Simcoe. I moved to Ottawa for university, then lived in Edmonton for 10 years. I moved back to Ottawa in 2011.

Do you have a favourite local break?

We’re lucky to have some variety here in Ottawa in terms of river surfing options but my favourite is definitely Bate Island. That’s where the old-timers hang out. There’s also a secret spot on Lake Ontario that gets surprisingly good under the right conditions.

Michael Billinger River Surfer Ottawa-Gatineau River Surfing Association

Michael mid session at a Lake Ontario secret spot.

Favourite break in the world?

That’s a difficult question. I have been very fortunate to be able to surf all over Canada (fresh and saltwater), the United States (New England), Argentina, Mexico, Costa Rica, Spain, Morocco, Ireland, the Dominican Republic, Barbados, and even Israel. Tofino is a very special place because it really feels like being in the wilderness and Nova Scotia is great because the people are so friendly. I have very fond memories of the Basque country in Spain, which is amazing because you can surf in view of ancient castles and snow covered mountain peaks off in the distance.

How did you first get into surfing?

I used to have a girlfriend from Argentina, so I travelled there with her several times. Her family has a small beach house in a town called Miramar, which is a surfing hotspot in the country. The first time I went there, we just hung out on the beach, which I found to be kind of boring. The second time, there was a surf school set up on the same beach, run by two local professional surfers (Matias and Chingu Bollini). It turns out that they were two of the best surfers in the country. I watched them surf for a while and decided to sign up for a lesson despite not speaking Spanish very well (and they speak no English). Language didn’t prove to be much of a barrier and I was instantly hooked after one lesson. I surfed every day for a week and immediately bought a wetsuit upon my return to Canada. Since then, almost all of my personal travel has been for surfing.

When did you first start surfing on the river?

The first time I tried was when I lived in Edmonton. I had seen several river surfing videos on the internet and really wanted to try. I picked up a really nice Sikta board when I was on Vancouver Island the summer after my first surf experience in Argentina. I did a bit of research to find out where the whitewater kayakers went. One nice weekend, I took a long drive along the North Saskatchewan River, stopping to buy a helmet along the way, and found what I thought was some good looking whitewater. I launched myself into the water only to find out it was about a foot deep! No wonder there were no other paddlers around.

Michael Billinger River Surfer Ottawa-Gatineau River Surfing Association

Michael shredding in Ottawa.

I later hooked up with a group of local Edmonton-based surfers led by a guy named Carl Hughes, who is a shaper who relocated from Wales (and has since moved to Vancouver Island). We made a few trips down to Sundre to surf on the Red Deer River, where we met up with some much more experienced river surfers from Calgary, who showed us the ropes. There’s a really great surf environment in Alberta and the Alberta River Surfing Association (ARSA) crew has done some amazing things and has been extremely helpful to us here in Ottawa.

Can you tell us a little bit about the surf scene in Ottawa?

In general, there are lots of surfers in Ottawa. We have all sorts of vacation surfers, hurricane chasers, a few lake surfers, and an ever growing community of river surfers. A few years ago, there was just a core group of surfers who were all pretty hardcore, but now there are so many younger surfers and the skill level is through the roof. They might not be as hardcore as us older guys, but they sure put in the time and are definitely reaping the rewards. They surf all sorts of waves that we never even thought to try and they surf at levels that us old timers generally wouldn’t even get out of bed for. Most importantly, the younger surfers treat us older guys with respect, and I appreciate that. We have a very welcoming and largely bilingual community.

I’m also extremely proud of the efforts of many of our river surfing community members during the unprecedented flooding in Ottawa and Gatineau last year (2019). Many of us answered the call to help out by getting in the frigid water in our wetsuits to help with sandbagging around houses and other structures that were on the verge of being lost. It was a very rewarding experience for everyone involved.

Michael Billinger and Ottawa River Surfers help communities affected by the flood

From left are River Surf Ottawa-Gatineau crew members Nasser Yassine, Michael Billinger, Tim Stiles and Brook Simpson. They were scheduled to do a river surf competition on Saturday, April 27, 2019, but postponed to put their talents to good use at Fitzroy Harbour. Photo: James Bagnall/Postmedia

How did you get involved with River Surf Ottawa- Gatineau (RSOG)/ Surf de rivière Ottawa-Gatineau (SROG)?

As our community began to rapidly expand about 5 or 6 years ago, we noticed a lot of unsafe practices out on the river. In particular, a lot of newcomers were showing up without proper wetsuits, boots, gloves, and in many cases, with the wrong boards (either way too short or way too long). We also saw a lot of ankle leashes, which present a serious entrapment and drowning hazard in the river. In consultation with some other local surfers, particularly Nasser Yassine, Dave Crichton, and Trevor Cunningham, I started the Ottawa River Surfing Association Facebook group as a way to share safety information with community members. As our community and the number of people in the group exploded, we decided it was time to become a registered not for profit association, which became official last year. We decided to change our name to River Surf Ottawa-Gatineau (RSOG) / Surf de rivière Ottawa-Gatineau (SROG). I am very proud to be a founding member and currently sit on the RSOG/SROG executive. Our mandate is to maintain a strong, welcoming, well-established surf community that advocates for the interests of river surfers while encouraging safe and environmentally responsible use of rivers. We strive to build positive relationships with stakeholders so that river surfing is recognized as a responsible and sustainable part of the community. We seek to protect existing river waves and explore opportunities for new waves that are safe and high quality. 

Do you have any surfing mentors or heroes?

I’m lucky to have surfed for many years with local legends like (Big) Mike Crichton and his brother Dave, both of whom I have learned a lot from. Nasser and I spent a lot of time learning together, so for me, he is the ultimate surf bro, despite the fact that he doesn’t get out much these days! There are many experienced kayakers and other paddling legends like Larry Norman around, and they have been very helpful in terms of teaching all us surfers about the whitewater and doing the odd rescue. 

In terms of heroes, definitely Kelly Slater, the greatest of all time. The guy is even older than me and still on the professional tour! Other favourite surfers include Rob Machado, Gerry Lopez, Shane Dorian, Mick Fanning, Joel Parkinson, Italo Ferreira, Jordy Smith, John John Florence, Kolohe Andino, Julian Wilson, Stephanie Gilmore, Lakey Peterson, Carissa Moore, and Johane Defay, just to name a few. Can’t forget Pete Devries — that guy is amazing!

How does the experience of riding a standing wave compare to riding more conventional surf?

It’s totally different in some ways, but also very similar in other ways. In the ocean, you’re always being projected forward by the waves, but in the river, the water is moving very rapidly under foot in the opposite direction. Depending on the wave, it can be a right or left, clean and green, or a foamball, similar to a closeout. It can be a small, narrow wave or wide with multiple sections. My favourite river wave has a big left shoulder, which has really helped my backhand surfing, being a regular footer. It’s definitely a unique experience to be on the wave for several minutes at a time, having to jump off either because the legs are burning or because those waiting in the lineup are getting impatient! It doesn’t matter how good you are - you never get that kind of wave time in the ocean or lake if you don’t live nearby. The biggest difference is that rather than taking an ocean wave on the head, we have to deal with rocks and whitewater as we get swept down-river in frigid water. But it’s super fun.

Michael Billinger River Surfing in the winter in Ottawa

Michael riding the Ottawa River, deep winter.

What does your quiver look like?

Of course, I have several boards! I tend to favour all-round boards, and use all of them in the ocean, lakes, and river, depending on the conditions. I still have the Sitka 7’6 Wave Burglar I bought in Victoria, which was my first board. I also brought back a 6’4 egg from Argentina, shaped by Steve Wilson, who is considered one of the best shapers in the country (and well respected throughout South America). I have a 6’0 Torq Summer 5, which is really fun in the river and on the lake. I used to have a 6’2 Firewire Dominator, which I kind of regret selling now, but I replaced it with a Mick Fanning 6’0 Beastie soft top, which is so much fun and a really great travel board. I just tried it on the river last weekend and it was amazing! I had a 6’2 Libtech Ringer for pumping surf but I just sold it, so I will be looking to replace it with something new soon. I have an 8’0 Boardworks Froth soft top for really small ocean days or average lake days (or the occasional summer river surf), which is super fun.I also have an old Rusty Big Cat that I have been in the process of fixing up for the past couple of years and hope to finish one of these days.

For someone going from beach to river or vice versa, how transferable are the skills?

It’s funny because I have seen some people show up at the river, who are probably very good ocean surfers, and they really struggled in the river and quickly gave up. For the most part, I think they try to pop up way too soon. On the other hand, we have several surfers in our community who have never surfed in the ocean, so they probably don’t have great paddling skills. As I mentioned above, I think the skills are completely transferable when you’re on the wave carving the face, but getting on and off are a different story! In reality, the river during the spring freshet can be a very dangerous place. Over the years, I have seen a lot of first time river surfers come out and try once or twice, get scared, cold, and frustrated (because it is not easy), and we never see them again.

What is it about surfing that appeals to you?

There are two things really. One if forgetting about everything else that’s going on in my life. It’s an amazing de-stresser. The second is that I am by no means an athlete, and there is no other sport or activity that makes me push myself in the same way. When I surf, I work hard, and I reap the benefits both physically and mentally.

Can you describe some of your most memorable waves or sessions?

Generally, I have very fond memories of “magical” early morning river surfs with Nasser and Big Mike. 

Big Mike and I also had a “magical” surf session in Maine a few years ago when we were chasing a hurricane swell. We had surfed Long Sands and Fortunes Rocks but the swell wasn’t really too impressive. On the last morning, we ended up in Old Orchard Beach. While checking the surf at one of the main breaks, a man leaned out the window of his house and said, “You guys looking for a surf break? There’s a quality A-frame not too far from here.” He told us exactly how to get there and where to park. He wasn’t lying. The surf was pumping, the waves were great, and we were the only two surfers in the water.

I have lots of great memories of surfing Lake Ontario with Nasser, especially the one day where we struck gold and were in the right place at the right time. It started to rain and the wind suddenly died. We had about half an hour of smooth, rolling, chest high waves. There was also another day when we recreated the famous Slater/Machado high five while in the water. That was sick!

Michael Billinger River Surfer Surfing in Nova Scotia

Michael making the most of a small day in Nova Scotia.

Finally, surfing in Israel was an amazing experience. I went there to speak at a conference for work. I don’t often get to travel internationally for work, so I jumped at the opportunity and strategically booked a hotel across the road from one of the main breaks. I knew that the waves in Tel Aviv are inconsistent, but when we arrived after our long 12 hour flight, I looked out the window of my room and saw that the waves were pumping. I dropped everything and ran out to rent a board. I got two solid sessions in while the swell was good. Surfing the Medditerranean is so unique. It’s salt water but not quite like surfing the ocean because it’s all wind swell. It’s kind of like surfing one of the great lakes on the best day you can imagine because the wave period can be 10 to 12 seconds. It was definitely an interesting crowd out in the water but they were very friendly when they found out that I was a foreigner, despite the fact that everyone drops in on every wave!

Does your life as a surfer have any impact on your life out of the water?

To be honest, I’m not very philosophical about surfing. I just like it. Well, I like it a lot. I am interested in different cultures and ecosystems so it affords me the opportunity to go to new places where I can experience different things while doing something I love. 

One impact is that it has forced me to learn to do new things. My father is an auto mechanic, so I appreciate people who have practical skills. In my view, if you’re going to be a surfer, you should learn how to repair surfboards, which is what I have done. I started by fixing up that board that I brought home from Argentina, then I did a few repairs for friends. Now, I have a repair shop and take a lot of pride in doing high quality professional repairs for the surfers in my community. I’m also very fortunate to have my amigo, Larry “the Legend” Cavero in Toronto, who is always happy to answer my questions about repairs based on his extensive experience. Every repair is a new adventure. I’m not getting rich doing repairs, but I’m learning a lot, having fun, helping out other surfers by doing quality repairs at reasonable prices, and extending the lives of surfboards in order to reduce waste.

As an anthropologist do you have any curiosity regarding the spirit and philosophy of surfing and surf culture?

Not particularly. I’m actually a biological anthropologist, so my expertise is/was in human evolution and forensic identification. I just like being in the water and sharing that experience with others. As I already mentioned, surfing different places allows me to experience many unique cultures and environments. To me, that’s what life is all about. 

I do like to try to find patterns and make connections between various things. I have been practicing martial arts for about the past 10 years. Almost everything we do in terms of martial arts training is beneficial for surfing, from breathing to balance to cardio and strength training. Also, training to stay calm while being attacked or instantly turning up the intensity is definitely helpful for dealing with challenging surf situations. I also find yoga really beneficial for surfing too.

Michael Billinger River Surfer from Ottawa Surfing on the Great Lakes

Michael stepping out of an unnamed spot in Lake Ontario. Photo: Rejean Lemay

What do you think makes Canadian surfing unique?

We’re tough. We have many different types of waves and we surf in all conditions. Often, really bad conditions.

How do you feel about surfing in the now deferred Summer Olympics?

I’m looking forward to seeing what happens in 2021, assuming that everything will be rescheduled. I think that the competitions at the Wave Ranch have been really cool, but I’m glad that the Olympic events will be held in the ocean. I really like the head to head format where wave selection is a major factor. 

It’s been great chatting with you Michael! I have to ask, have you ever had a chance to surf in Lake Simcoe?

What a great question! I have heard rumours that a few people have surfed on Lake Simcoe but I have yet to find any waves that looked good enough for me to want to try.

Check out this article for more details regarding the RSOG/SROG’s community efforts during the 2019 flooding of Ottawa-Gatineau. 
Connect with Michael on Instagram.

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