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Lake Surfing 101
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!
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! Visit our Surf Forecasting page for more info.
HOW BIG DO THE WAVES GET ON THE GREAT 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.
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!
HOW IS SURFING ON THE GREAT LAKES DIFFERENT FROM SURFING ON THE OCEAN?
Great Lakes waves are generally smaller, less powerful, have shorter wave periods (the interval between waves) and are 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.
WHERE CAN PEOPLE SURF ON THE GREAT 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.
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!
I’VE ALWAYS WANTED TO SURF. HOW DO I GET STARTED ON THE GREAT LAKES?
You've come to the right place! The longest running surf shop in the Great Lakes, Third Coast Surf Shop has been devoted exclusively to Great Lakes surfing since 2005. 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 services we offer, and feel free to contact us any time with any questions you have.
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 on a big board. 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!
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 closest surf shop to Chicago. 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 drive from Chicago to New Buffalo or St. Joseph!
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.
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.
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.
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.