February 23, 2023, 12 p.m: The temperature in Duluth, Minnesota, on Lake Superior is between 7° and 10° F.
A mighty blizzard is about to hit Duluth with gale-force winds, blowing most residents to the stores for emergency supplies. Not everyone, though. Surfers were more excited about the size of the waves on the shores of Lake Superior at Duluth expected the next day, February 24. The surf shop in Duluth, The Back Alley, planned to close down that day.
The surfers waxed their boards and got ready to put their four-wheel drives to work in the snowdrifts and then trek through the woods to reach the waves that were expected to rise possibly 10-feet high. Duluth lies at the westernmost edge of Lake Superior, which is at the end of 300-mile bay where high-velocity winds whip up in powerful gusts of frigid air from the Arctic region.
These winds, spurred by low-pressure systems, create surfing waves, and the surfers head for the takeoff zones. Jerome Fischer, The Back Alley’s owner, and friends discussed the locations to catch the best waves the day before. Between Lester River, which runs off of Lake Superior to the north from Duluth and Brighton Beach, Duluth surfers rushed to the shore to take advantage of the waves. They emerged from the waves with icicles hanging off their beards and smiling broadly from ear to ear.
Which Great Lake Is the Best to Surf?
All the Great Lakes can produce waves large enough to surf. Weather conditions have to be just right. The polar jet stream is responsible for the great waves on the Great Lakes. The Great Lake’s polar jet stream is a layer of forceful upper-level winds that rest on top of the polar belts, at about or north the 60° latitude, in the Arctic region. It is up to opinion which Great Lake is best for surfing.
Which Great Lake is best to surf depends on which surfing expert you source. Surfing on Lake Superior is popular at Beaver Bay, Marquette Beach, Grand Marais, Stoney Point, and the Zoo. It’s Brighton Beach, Lakefront, North Point, Portage, Racine, Touhy Beach, and Wind Point on Lake Michigan.
On Lake Huron, Bay City, Georgian Bay, Lakeport, Lexington, Port Austin, and Port Huron report big waves. For Lake Erie surfing, check out Hamburg Beach, Luna Pier, Point Abino, Reebs Bay, and Sterling State Park. Head out to Ashbridge’s Bay, Frenchman’s Bay, Jack Darling Park, Lakeside Park Beach, Niagara River Mouth, Scarborough Bluffs, and Wolfe Island on Lake Ontario.
What Is the Difference Between the Great Lakes Waves vs. Ocean Waves?
The waves on the Great Lakes cannot compare to the ocean waves of Hawaii’s Peahi Beach at Maui, or the waves in Australia, Mexico, South Africa, Tahiti, etc. As a whole, the Great Lakes have more coastline than the U.S. East and West Coasts’ coastlines combined. Like the oceans, the waves on the Great Lakes are responsible for many shipwrecks.
Storms a far distance away from land create waves that crash onto the shorelines on oceans. Waves on the oceans grow much rougher and higher because they have more time and distance to gain strength. Localized winds on the Great Lakes produce a shorter wave generation period, so their waves travel less of a distance, but towards the shoreline faster.
What Is the Biggest Surf on the Great Lakes?
Surf season on the Great Lakes begins in late summer to early fall and runs until mid- to late spring. As long as the winds maintain a baseline speed of 18.6 mph for three to four hours, swells will generate. Air and water temperature must also maintain a wide distance from each other as colder air needs to descend on warmer water.
On October 24, 2017, a storm produced 77 mph winds on Lake Superior, which generated a 28.8-foot wave, the largest wave recorded on the Great Lakes since about 1955 (OMA start date for data). Chief meteorologist from Michigan, Mark Torregrossa, reported that a “bomb cyclogenesis”, a cyclone that grows stronger over 24 hours, produced this weather event. *
To explain more clearly, a bomb cyclogenesis is the generation of an extratropical low pressure area where the barometric pressure falls at least 24 millibars, or more, in a 24-hour period. This phenomenon happens most often north of 60° latitude, where the Great Lakes lay. Mr. Torregrossa said that a bomb cyclogenesis was responsible for sinking the Edmund Fitzgerald in November 1975 on Lake Superior.
Bomb cyclones are also called midlatitude cyclones and wave cyclones and occur in the winter. They require high pressure systems, cold air and cold air fronts, and strong upper level winds. As the barometric pressure begins to fall, the storm grows stronger and begins to create disturbances on the surface of the water. Not all the large waves on the Great Lakes form from a bomb cyclogenesis.
Great Lakes Surf Clubs and Organizations
Great Lakes winter surfing is so popular that there is an abundance of local surf clubs are located around all five lakes. There are a few associations, but they are loosely organized, and not always active. For example, the Great Lakes Surf Festival did not update its website for the 2023 winter surf season. The last information there is its final 2022 schedule.
Along with all the local surf clubs, there are surf shops, and surfing lessons, and some clubs like the Great Lakes Surfing Association (GLSA) are active in programs like the GLSA Pier and Beach Rescue Project and the GLSA History of Great Lakes Surfing Project. The links are broken on the GLSA website, but there is email contact information.
Things to Know About Surfing the Great Lakes
The average swells on the Great Lakes are four-eight-feet high in the winter and two-four-feet high in the summer. Unlike the oceans, surfers do not worry about sharks in the Great Lakes. In winter, surfers deal with obstacles of ice or snow chunks floating in the water, and those can slow down the ride.
Surfing the Great Lakes poses the same dangers as those when surfing the ocean and include:
- Dirty water
- Hypothermia because of cold air and cold water
- Jetties and piers
- Rip currents
- Rocks and sandbars
- Your surfboard or someone else’s surfboard
The Right Wetsuit and Great Lakes Average Water Temperatures by Month
Average Monthly Water Temperatures
- January: Warmest average temperature, 39.7° F
- February: Warmest average temperature, 38.7° F
- March: Warmest average temperature, 38.8° F
- April: Warmest average temperature, 47.3° F
- May: Warmest average temperature, 58.5° F
- June: Warmest average temperature, 70.5° F
- July: Warmest average temperature, 78.3° F
- August: Warmest average temperature, 77.2° F
- September: Warmest average temperature, 73.2° F
- October: Warmest average temperature, 65.8° F
- November: Warmest average temperature, 52.7° F
- December: Warmest average temperature, 44.4° F
The Temperature Guide for Wetsuit Thickness (per millimeter, mm)
|Water Temp||Wetsuit Thickness||Wetsuit Type||Seal Type|
|65°-75°||0.5 mm-2/1 mm||top+shorty||NA|
|62°-68°||2 mm-3/2 mm||springsuit or full suit|
|58°-63°||3/2 mm–4/3 mm||full suit+boots||sealed|
|52°-58°||4/3 mm-5/4/3mm||full suit+boots+ gloves+hood||sealed+taped|
|43°-52°||4/3 mm-5/4/3 mm||full suit+boots+ gloves+hood||sealed+taped|
|42°-below||6 or 5 mm||full suit+boots+ gloves+hood||sealed+taped|
Winter surfers do not hang ten; they wear surf booties. Wetsuits, booties, hoods, and gloves come in sizes of millimeter thickness (mm). The thickness of a wetsuit plays a key role in how flexible, warm, and waterproof the suit is. A sealed wetsuit’s seams are glued together before the seams are stitched together. A sealed and taped wetsuit is sealed with liquid tape. Spot taped seams have tape glued inside the seams in critical areas.
Fully taped seams have tape glued inside all seams. Neoprene tape is used to make sure the suit is as flexible as possible. Liquid-taped seams are made with a liquid rubber that make the suits 100% waterproof. Sealed seams are designed to keep water from leaking inside the suit. The best sealed wetsuits are more expensive. Because hypothermia is the primary risk when surfing in the winter, they are worth the expense.
Traditionally, zippers were located on the back of a wetsuit because it was easier to get into them, and surfers were not lying on a zipper when they were paddling their boards. Today, neoprene suits are flexible and neoprene chest zip wetsuits have no zipper sewn into them. Neoprene wetsuits ensure that the suit feels like a second skin, but not tight enough to restrict body movement.
Winter surfers choose to wear 6mm black wetsuits with 7mm booties and 5mm gloves. They must apply generous amounts of Vaseline to avoid face and nose frostbite. Because the saltier ocean water is denser than freshwater, winter surfboards are thicker and wider than ocean surfboard.
Getting into the wetsuit and surfing in the winter is not near as difficult as getting out of the wetsuit. Winter surfers cannot get out of their wetsuits until the ice melts because the wetsuit will rip if the ice on it is not melted. That can take 30 minutes. Park restroom and shower facilities are closed in the winter, so surfers will leave their vehicles running with their heaters on full blast, and then jump in to melt the ice quickly after surfing.
* It is unclear when the National Weather Service (NWS), The Office of Oceanography and Marine Assessment (OMA), and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) began collecting data on wave height on the Great Lakes. It appears that time frame is from1955 to 1970, depending on which agency collected the information. Research indicates that the OMA began wave height data recording in 1955. The Edmond Fitzgerald went down in 1975, and it looks like the NWS began collecting wave height data in 1970.