The Environment Report
8:55 am
Tue April 23, 2013

Saltless surfing: Riding the waves of the Great Lakes

When you think “surfing,” you probably think sunshine, “Aloha!” and warm beaches with palm trees. You probably don’t think winter, icebergs, and Lake Superior.

Surfing the Great Lakes is at its prime during the winter months, and this year’s delayed spring is providing a dedicated group of Great Lakes surfers with some great swells. Winter and early spring storms produce large waves that are ideal for surfing. 

Ryan Gerard is the owner of Third Coast Surf Shop in New Buffalo, Michigan. He’s noticed the effect of a late spring on surfing conditions.

“It is kind of a double edged sword,” he said. “The surf conditions have been pretty good lately because we’ve been having more of these weather conditions that bring us waves. I guess the other side of the sword is that we’re ready for summer too.”

The Third Coast

Surfers have been riding waves through Midwestern winters since the 1940s when soldiers brought surfboards home to Grand Haven with them from Hawaii after World War II. Known as the “Third Coast” or the “Malibu of the Midwest,” the Great Lakes area has become increasingly popular for surfing over the last decade. It has even lured surfers from Hawaii, Canada, and California.

Credit Third Coast Surf Shop

Gerard says surfing on a lake is very different from surfing the ocean. Ocean waves are caused by offshore storms a good distance from shore, while waves on the Great Lakes are produced by localized wind and weather patterns. These patterns determine the size, height, and frequency of the waves. The amount of waves in any season depends solely on the weather, which can be far from predictable. 

Great Lakes waves tend to be smaller and less powerful than ocean waves. Waves occur when low pressure systems across the dry Great Plains hit the large moisture levels of the Great Lakes and the cold air meets the warm water. Lake Superior is the biggest lake and produces the biggest waves, but Lake Michigan has more surfers than any other lake. For a glimpse at winter surfing conditions on Lake Superior, check out this video: 

Larry “Longboard” Williams is a pioneer of surfing in the Great Lakes from Sheboygan, WI. He proudly boasts that the Great Lakes have waves that will make any saltwater surfer go slackjaw. Williams has seen all kinds of waves, and he says this season was one of the best for surfing.

“Lake Michigan this past November produced record waves of 33 feet,” Williams said. “Our lakefront was packed in some of the worst weather that Wisconsin can offer, with everybody out to see how big the waves were. It was kind of funny…the police were trying to keep the surfers out of the water, which is kind of hard to do with a coastline 11,000 miles long.”

Storm fronts can roll in quickly on the Great Lakes. This means that there is a window of only about 2-3 hours for surfers to catch a wave. Experienced Great Lakes surfers act as amateur meteorologists, using wind and wave maps to stay in tune with the forecast and lake conditions. News of prime conditions inspires many to drop whatever they are doing and drive for as far as 2-3 hours away to get to the beach.

Changing lakes

Surfers experience the lake conditions firsthand, and this year Gerard has seen a big change in water levels.

“The low water levels have definitely affected our surfing spots here, and in my opinion, mostly negatively,” he said. “With lower water levels, the waves tend to break further out, and beyond that, the harbors get clogged with sand.”

Winter conditions in the Great Lakes region have also experienced a change. Winters are much warmer, so the lakes don’t ice over as frequently in the winter. Warmer winter conditions, increased evaporation rates, and dry winter days remove moisture from the Great Lakes, which reduces wave breaks for surfers.  

“I know that surfing will always be there, but things are changing quickly,” Williams noted. “I’ve never seen conditions change this quickly in the 60 years I’ve lived on the shore of Lake Michigan. With invasive species, with changing weather conditions, with global weather change, we need to be more concerned.”

Despite these milder conditions, winter surfing in the Great Lakes can still be treacherous. Snow, ice, and shelf ice (ice that accumulates and washes up on shore) threaten even the most skilled surfer. Wind chills can be -24°F with 35-40 mph winds and 17 °F air temperatures, according to Williams. Hypothermia due to cold air and water is a very real threat.

If you’re interested in surfing the Great Lakes but the icy conditions don’t appeal to you, Ryan Gerard recommends starting in the summer. The waves are smaller, the water is warmer, and the weather patterns are milder.

Despite the changing conditions and the frigid winters, surfers on the Great Lakes are there for the challenge, camaraderie, and thrill of it. Williams considers surfing the Great Lakes one of the biggest adrenaline rushes you will find in the Midwest.  

“You can’t believe you made it, you can’t believe you’re alive, so what’s the best thing to do? Paddle out again and see if you can catch another,” Williams said. “We’re surfers, we’re proud of the name. And you’ll always remember the first time you are called a surfer.”

-Rebecca Guerriero, Michigan Radio Newsroom