What it’s like to Surf the Great Lakes

What it's like to Surf the Great Lakes

During a media trip to Lake Erie Shores and Islands, I met Chad and Ryan Whaley from Green Door Media Works. You might also remember these brothers from a previous interview that Chad gave about the Volstead Speakeasy Bar that he and his brother started together in Sandusky.

Surf Lake Erie

These brothers also have a fascinating hobby which is surfing Lake Erie. I was immediately intrigued. Surfing the Great Lakes has been on my list ever since I saw Al Roker surf Lake Michigan in the winter several years ago on the Today Show. I thought you might enjoy learning more about why someone would enjoy surfing in a cold lake.

How old were you when you started surfing the Great Lakes?

I think the first time I went out in the water with a surfboard was around 15 years old.

Who influenced you?

My dad was actually the first person who planted surfing in my head.  He’s been surfing off the Lake Erie Shores and Islands since the 70’s and even had a article/picture of him from the local newspaper, the Sandusky Register, picked up by the Los Angeles Times back in July of 1981.  Fairly rare even today, people back then thought surfing the Great Lakes was unheard of.
Surf Lake Erie in the 70's

I ended up getting deeper into surfing in college due to a good friend, Kyle Stock, who founded the Surf Club at Ohio University.  Fairly large groups of us would basically carpool to camping sites at spots like the Outer Banks, Atlantic City and Florida.  Since then, he’s followed his passion for surfing by moving out to southern California where he can get out everyday. He and his buddies also recently started a really cool body surfing magazine called Swell Lines.

Surf Club

Have you surfed in the ocean?

Definitely.  Like I mentioned already, I made time in college to go on several east coast trips.  I also lived in Charleston, South Carolina for about a year and a half which afforded me the opportunity to get out a lot and surf the Atlantic.  I’d head down with my brother Ryan to Folly Beach almost every morning, which is a really cool beach town about ten minutes from downtown Charleston.  I mentioned my friend Kyle earlier, I’ve also been out his way and was lucky enough to borrow his gear to surf some Pacific waves…right away I saw why he moved out there.

If so, how would you compare the two?

In one word, I’d say Erie is relentless.  I’ve actually never surfed any of the other Great Lakes besides Lake Erie, but compared to ocean waves, they’re pretty brutal.  Don’t get me wrong, Lake Erie waves can definitely get good and I’d say almost as good as ocean waves, but that’s pretty rare.  Where the ocean tends to regularly produce ground swell that’s somewhat consistent coming in uniform sets, Lake Erie is all wind swell that’s usually super messy and disorganized.  However, when you randomly get the timing right, Lake Erie waves can be super fun and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.  Plus there’s no sharks, big bonus.

Surf Great Lakes

Describe what it’s like to surf in cold water.

Just a tad chilly.  Really, it’s not too bad until the water gets into the low 40’s and even then the worst part is standing outside putting all of your gear on.  All the wetsuit technology has made it a lot easier.  The whole losing your breath thing only happens that first time water seeps in by your head and I’m not going to lie, that part’s terrible.  I read about some guys who have surfed double overhead waves in Lake Superior during sub-zero temps – now that’s crazy.

Surf Lake Erie

What do you wear to stay warm?

We have all sorts of wetsuits that vary in thickness, measured by millimeters (mm).  We can usually get away with a 3/2mm until the water drops below 50°, but after than it’s onto the 6/5/4mm sealed/hooded wetsuit.  It’s probably overkill considering the thicker one is suggested at 40°, but I’d rather stay warm.  Surf booties and wetsuit gloves are also a must when the water gets very cold, as is vaseline to ward off face icicles.  Now I’ve never had to do that yet, but I’m hoping to get out when it’s really cold this year.

Surf Great Lakes

What is the best time of year to try surfing in the Great Lakes?

While you’re likely to have more waves during the fall and winter due to heavier winds when it’s colder, summer is definitely the best window to try surfing for your first time.  Despite not having heavy northerly winds on a consistent basis, occasionally you’ll get a strong northeast or northwest wind producing some solid waves in warmer water.  When you’re learning the basics it’s much more fun flopping around in a regular bathing suit.

Surf Lake Erie

What tips would you give to someone who wants to surf the Great Lakes?

Go with someone who has done it before and try to make your first time in warmer weather/water.  While it’s really fun and something I think everyone should experience, it’s super important to be safe and for your first time, be fairly warm.  Once you experience how powerful the lake can be and get the feel for it, then get all the gear and head out on colder days.  Make sure to always surf with a buddy though.

Surf Lake Erie

Why should someone add this adventure to their list?

Compared to the east and west coasts there’s only a handful of Great Lakes surfers, I think it’s something like a few thousand. How cool is that?  Adding your name in there is definitely worth a bucket list check mark.  Plus surfing in general is just such a fun sport.  It’s not about how good of a surfer you are, it’s just simply about the experience of being out there in the elements.  Trust me, I’m not an expert by any means, but I still love it.



Thanks to Chad for sharing his experience. I’ll hopefully get to cross surfing off my list sometime in the near future.  

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