Home > Great Lakes Surfing FAQs

GREAT LAKES SURFING FAQ's

Have a question about Great Lakes surfing or Third Coast Surf Shop? Call us at 269-932-4575 or email info@thirdcoastsurfshop.com.

GENERAL QUESTIONS

  1. You can surf on the Great Lakes?!

    Yes! More people are surfing in more places on the Lakes than ever before - even in winter. Though different in some ways to surfing on the ocean, Lake surfing is as real and fun as surfing anywhere. If it weren't, we wouldn't be in business!

  2. What causes waves on the Great Lakes?

    Waves are caused by the transfer of energy from wind blowing over the surface of water. Whereas ocean waves are primarily created by offshore storms far from the beach, waves on the Lakes are produced by localized winds associated with various weather systems in and near the Great Lakes region. Luckily for Lake surfers, we get plenty of wind and waves year round!

  3. How big do the waves get on the Lakes?

    Big enough to sink huge ships! The waves on Lake Superior that sunk the Edmund Fitzgerald in 1975 exceeded 30 feet in height. All five of the Great Lakes are capable of producing very large waves, but most surfing is done in waves ranging from knee high to overhead. The size of the waves depends on factors such as wind speed, wind direction, wind duration, the amount of fetch (the length of water the wind is blowing over), and the bottom contours over which the waves are breaking.

  4. How often can you surf on the Great Lakes? When is the surfing “season”?

    There is no distinct season for surfing on the Lakes, as it can be done year round. Fall, winter, and early spring typically are the most consistent seasons for surfing as wind-producing weather patterns are in greater abundance. There are waves in summer, though they usually are not as consistent as the weather is generally milder. The amount of waves in any season depends solely on the weather, which is far from predictable. There may be a 10 day stretch of waves and then a month of flat water- it all depends on the weather!

  5. How is surfing on the Lakes different than surfing on the ocean?

    Great Lakes waves are generally smaller, less powerful, have shorter wave periods (the interval between waves) and less consistent than ocean waves. It is also usually windier, though there are many days where the wind turns offshore or dies completely and the waves keep rolling (albeit, for a relatively short period of time). For experienced Lake surfers, finding good quality waves is the goal- and the rewards can be abundant.

  6. Where can people surf on the Lakes?

    Just about anywhere there are waves breaking. Yet, as on the ocean, there are spots which produce much better waves than others scattered throughout the Great Lakes. Normally, the breaks more conducive for surfing, and those that have better waves, are found near man-made jetties, piers, and breakwalls, as well as natural shoreline formations like points, bays, and coves. Wind and wave conditions will also greatly affect the quality of a wave, as will the bottom contour of any given beach.

  7. What are some of the dangers associated with surfing on the Great Lakes?

    Most of the dangers associated with surfing on the Great Lakes are the same as those surfing on the ocean: hard bottoms (sandbars and rocks), your or someone else’s surfboard, rip currents, jetties and piers, dirty water, and cold air and water. Luckily, Lake surfers don’t have to worry about sharks! Most surfing injuries occur when a surfer either hits the bottom or is hit by a surfboard. Hypothermia due to cold air and/or water is a very real concern. Hence, the importance of wearing the right wetsuit and gear!

  8. I’ve always wanted to surf. How do I get started on the Great Lakes?

    You've come to the right place! Third Coast is the only Shop in the region devoted exclusively to Great Lakes surfing. Owned and operated by Lake surfers, we specialize in helping people get started the right way and providing everything local surfers need. Take a look at the service's we offer, and feel free to contact us anytime with any questions you have.

  9. How big do the waves need to be to learn how to surf?

    Small waves are ideal for learning the basics of surfing - a wave as little as shin high can be enough to propel a surfer. The key is to get in the water and on your board as much as possible. This gives you time to practice the fundamentals, and by slowly working into bigger waves, you will progress as quickly as possible. It is not wise, and can be dangerous, for a beginner to go out in big waves!

  10. Surfing in Chicago - is it possible? Is there a real Chicago surf shop?

    Quite simply, yes, you can surf in Chicago! There are certain beaches in the city which are legal to surf at, including Montrose and 57th St. in the summer, and Montrose, 57th St., Rainbow, and Osterman in the spring, fall, and winter. You can also now stand up paddleboard in Chicago - there are 12 designated areas where you can launch your SUP in Chicago, and you can find them by visiting the Chicago Parks District website.

    Third Coast Surf Shop is THE Chicago surf shop. Look around...you will not find anything close to what resembles a real surf shop in Chicago. We are proud to provide gear for Chicago surfers and will continue to make sure that it is worth making the hour long drive from Chicago to New Buffalo!

GEAR QUESTIONS

  1. What kind of surfboard works best for surfing on the Great Lakes?

    Almost any kind of board surfed on the ocean can be surfed on the Lakes, though some are more functional than others. For beginners, a longboard is the only way to go. Due to the generally smaller, less powerful waves and the decreased buoyancy in freshwater, boards that are longer, wider, and a little thicker help to get into Lake waves a little easier. Having said that, a skilled surfer could easily perform very well on just about any board in good Lake waves. A surfer’s size, ability, and the wave conditions should be the factors determining what type of boards are best for that person.

  2. What type of surfboard do you recommend for beginners?

    A longer board is always best to learn on. The extra surface area and volume will float better, be more stable, paddle well, and make catching waves and popping up much easier. Who wants to spend time struggling and getting frustrated on a shortboard when you can be up and surfing on a longboard much more quickly? The faster you learn the basics, start catching waves, and getting quality rides, the more enjoyable the experience. Start long, and work your way shorter.

  3. Besides a surfboard, what else do I need to start surfing on the Great Lakes?

    A good quality wetsuit, or wetsuits! For most Lake surfers, there is a very short period of time each year that they can get by without a wetsuit. For people who get cold easily, some sort of suit is usually needed all year long, even in summer. Wetsuits vary in thickness and their technical features, as do booties, gloves, and hoods. Having the right one for the conditions is critical. Other items to keep in mind are wax, a leash, a surfboard bag or sock for protecting your board, and soft racks for carrying your board on your car.

  4. Do wetsuits really keep you warm? What about in the winter?!

    Yes! Wetsuit technology has improved leaps and bounds recently, enabling Lake surfers to comfortably surf year round. As stated above, having the right suit and gear for the conditions is very important. It would be dangerous to surf in January wearing a 3/2mm wetsuit more appropriate for summer. With the right suit, however, surfers routinely get out in below freezing conditions for hours at a time. Most Lake surfers have multiple wetsuits and accessories needed for surfing all four seasons comfortably and safely.

SURF FORECASTING QUESTIONS

While predicting waves on most ocean coasts has become a science of its own, with countless surf reports, surf-specific web cams, and detailed forecasts, surf forecasting in the Great Lakes is in its relative infancy. To put it bluntly; you have to work at it. Fortunately, there are now numerous resources available, mostly via the World Wide Web. Read on for a look into surf forecasting on the Great Lakes.

Finding waves is easy. Finding good waves is the challenge.

FORECASTING 101

What makes waves? It's simple: wind. We need wind to make waves, but we also need a good stretch of water for the wind to blow over to produce those waves. That brings us to something called fetch - the length of water the wind is blowing over. Look at any beach on a map and find the longest amount of fetch connected to the beach, and that will tell you what wind direction you need to make waves at that beach. And, keep in mind that a stated wind direction means the wind is coming from that direction (a north wind blows from the north, to the south).

Some beaches get waves from many directions, but the above example would theoretically build the biggest waves. The size of the waves depends on factors such as wind speed, wind direction, wind duration, the amount of fetch, and the bottom contours over which the waves are breaking; but the fetch is probably the most important factor. An example? If you were in New Buffalo, on southern Lake Michigan, a west wind (blowing from Chicago to New Buffalo) only has about 50 miles of fetch, but a north wind (blowing from the Upper Peninsula) has about 300 miles of fetch - which wind direction do you think produces bigger waves in New Buffalo?

THE TOOLS

Assembled here are some of the most functional online tools used to find waves in the Great Lakes. Included are wind maps, wave models, and other relevant links that can be found in any serious lake surfer's online arsenal. Read the description for each, then dive in and start to get to know them. Your reward? Good, uncrowded waves that even an ocean surfer would be stoked to find.

WIND

  • GLCFS - A color coded, 2 1/2 day wind map for all of the Great Lakes.
  • OFS (Michigan : Superior : Huron : Erie : Ontario) - Click your lake for a 30 hour wind animation.
  • Sailflow - Another functional wind forecasting tool for all of the Great Lakes.

WAVES

  • GLCFS - A color coded, 2 1/2 day wave map for all of the Great Lakes.

BUOYS

WATER TEMPERATURES

ICE

LIVE WEBCAMS