I had scheduled an interview with Aurélien for that afternoon, but the waves were pumping on the lakes. I sent him a message to tell him that we would have to postpone the interview and we rescheduled for the next day. Mark, Pat and I headed to Lake Erie; we were so pumped that we took the rest of the day off and were anticipating some fun waves. As we get to the parking lot, I hear someone call my name: it's Aurélien! He drove all the way from Rochester, NY to come surf. We had an epic session that afternoon and I got some great shots of Aurélien drawing some amazing lines! The next day, I'm on Skype with him. He is still so stoked about yesterday's session! We chat for a bit about more possibilities of surf in the near future and then focus back on starting the interview.
Name: Aurélien Bouché Pillon
Occupation: Entrepreneur, business developer
1. You are originally a surfer from France, who grew up by the Atlantic Ocean, and moved to the States where you now surf the Great Lakes! Can you give us a walkthrough of how that came to happen?
I grew up in town of Biarritz in France. Biarritz according to me is the capital city of surf in Europe! I have surfed in many countries and cities, but Biarritz must be one of the most beautiful surf towns in the world. I then decided to move to the States to challenge myself and grow.
2. What kind of challenge were you looking for in the States?
I didn’t have specific expectations, I didn’t initially expect to stay and live here. It was quite a culture shock when I came to States. I had brought two surf boards to go to California and decided to go surf in San Diego. However, the surf spots were crowded and life was expensive; I didn’t feel connected to the place. It was depressing.
3. And is that when you started surfing the Great Lakes? Was that the turning point?
Yeah it was! I didn’t even know much about the Great Lakes! I remember hearing the weather networks talking about a storm coming our way, I think it was Hurricane Ernesto. It made me start to think that such a big storm would bring strong winds and that on such a big water body there would be waves! I went to Lake Ontario, where I saw perfect 3-feet waves rolling and 3 other guys surfing them. I asked them if I could borrow a wetsuit (it was cold) and board, went to surf and had a blast. My hands were so cold!
4. How would you describe this first experience surfing the Great Lakes?
It was like a spiritual gift, it was meant to be. I went to Lake Ontario and connected instantly with the Great Lakes.
5. How was the Great Lake surfing community like at the time?
At start, I surfed alone with a group of 8 friends. We were all from different background and had different personalities that the lakes brought together.
6. How has the Great Lake surfing community evolved now?
I haven’t been surfing the Great Lakes for long, only about 10 years. However, that’s long enough to see change and evolution. We saw more people through the years, it was becoming more popular, especially in Toronto and around here too in the US. In past couple years, the popularity of Great Lake surfing has been exploding; there has been a huge growth in the community in the States and Canada, especially in Toronto.
7. Can you tell us more about that recent gain in the popularity of the Great Lake surf scene? And its effect on the community?
Great Lake surfing is exploding! It’s growing with more surf shops, projects and involvement from the community. Not everybody is going to love each other; there are pros and cons to the industrialization of Great Lake surfing (more people in the water or more littering). However, everyone loves the same sport, we have the same values and respect for the lakes. There is a really sense of community around the Great Lakes and it keeps growing stronger.
8. How did surfing the Great Lakes and its community changed your life?
I think it is the nicest and most genuine place to surf in the world! I think it is great that we can show the world what the Great Lakes can do surf-wise and I have made my mission to do that. I want to show people that we can surf anywhere and be happy! I want to show that you can smile while ripping a 2- foot wave or when surfing in the winter.
9. Would you say it is almost a life mission?
I’d say that it is my mission and passion; it’s something that I always wanted to do. Each one of us have their own mission and there have been a lot of people in our community that contributed to rise in popularity of the Great Lake surf culture. I hope that I represent that community properly and that I am a good ambassador of the Great Lake surfing community. Great Lake surfing has changed my life, it is a spiritual journey.
10. How have you been involved with the community?
I initially started as event organizer for the ESA (Eastern Surf Association) and organized events in Rochester, some which I have co- organized with the help of my wife. I helped making a Great Lakes surfing team, including surfers from Canada and the States, and we went to compete at a competition organized by the ESA. I also love to compete and have gone to participate in competitions on the Great Lakes (such as Kincardine) and on the east coast.
Also, I initially started in the energy industry as a business developer with my wife, but now I have redirected my attention to the sports industry (surf, skateboard and outdoors). I have helped surfing brands, focused on Great Lake surfing and cold water surfing, nationally and internationally – Canada, States and in Europe.
11. Since you have been surfing the lakes for a decade and been working with some the surf brands; could you tell me more about the improvements made in the equipment for cold water surfers?
I think Jack O’neill would be proud of leap in cold water technologies we’ve made. There are more choices and surf is more affordable. The surf equipment has changed and allows us to surf in really cold and brutal conditions. I am an ambassador for Hyperflex, who makes wetsuits, and the linings are much better! They allow us to surf for up to 4 hours in really cold conditions. Great Lake surfing also requires a different type of surfboard. You must be open-minded to the different buoyancy of the water. The shapes of the boards have become interesting too.
12. Do you have any advice for someone who has to choose their first surf board for Great Lake surfing?
As I said before, you need a different type of board for Great Lake surfing because of the buoyancy; thicker boards, etc.. The thing is that you don’t always need a longboard because the waves are smaller on the lakes, you can still use short boards to surf the waves which are a bit more mushy here. It all depends on you. Last year I ordered 4 boards and I wanted to order two more, but my wife didn’t agree! My goal now is to order 1-2 custom boards per year and my wife said that she was okay with that!
13. Do have any anecdotes or story you would want share with us?
There are a lot of memories and moments: special places, surfing in the winter, seeing a bald eagle… One memory that comes to mind is that during my first session ever, someone was on the pier and took a photo of me surfing. The next day, I was in the newspaper and it said something about a French guy surfing Lake Ontario. Since then
“Frenchy” has been my nickname. All my friends call me like that, I am the French guy who surfs Lake Ontario. Another memory is the start of the event at Kincardine, at the very beginning. Seeing the community get together, despite some competition being in the air, Great Lake surfers form part of a family. One of my best memory remains taking the group of Great Lake surfers to compete on the East Coast! People were blown away by how happy we were to be here and how happy we are to surf the Great Lakes.
14. Ultimately what do the Great Lakes mean to you?
When you think about it, it feels like the Great Lakes were never meant to be surfed or have surf shops around them. However, the Great Lake community has been created by adventurers and explorers, people who have challenged themselves and their minds. I feel like people who contributed to the community deserve more respect because of how powerful the experience is and how special the Great Lakes are. The Great Lakes are not better than the ocean, but it’s technically comparable. Surfing the Great Lakes feels more special: you can be the first one to surf a spot, you can still enjoy something new and different, it is colder and requires some outside the box thinking.
Surfing the Great Lakes is a special thing to me, it is a spiritual journey.
The #isurf series follows people of the Great Lakes community and retells their stories through anecdotes, interviews and photographs. #isurf will be released every other month, the first part will be released on the Wednesday and the second on the Friday.