In California, my husband would be one of thousands of surfers pulling up to the beach with a surfboard strapped to the top of his car. In Michigan, however, things are a little different. So, it’s only natural that people wonder just how surfing on the Great Lakes works. Here are answers to some of the questions I’ve been asked over the years.
Can you really surf on the lake?
Yes, people surf on Lake Michigan all year long. Fall, winter and early spring are the most consistent times for surf, as there are more wind-producing weather patterns. Although the waves are usually not quite as big and consistent in the summer, the warm, more gentle waves make it an ideal time for beginners to learn to surf.
So people surf in the winter?
You might not realize it, but wetsuit technology has improved dramatically in recent years—so much so that surfers have ridden waves in Antarctica. If you have appropriate equipment, it’s possible to stay comfortable and safe surfing in the coldest conditions, right up until the lake freezes over. Ryan even tells me that he’s warmer in his wetsuit than I am standing on the beach in a parka.
Who surfs on the lake?
At the shop, we’ve seen surfers come from points all over the Midwest and Canada to surf Lake Michigan, representing every age, skill level and walk of life. A love of surfing—and the challenges that come along with it—is the common thread among all of them.
Where can people surf on Lake Michigan?
A big reason we chose St. Joseph for the shop’s main location is that there are a number of great beaches for surfing in the area. However, there are many other places around the lake where people surf, including certain beaches in Chicago (for specifics, visit chicagoparkdistrict.com).
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.
How big do the waves get on Lake Michigan?
Just last October, waves on southern Lake Michigan reached more than 20 feet due to Hurricane Sandy. However, most surfing is done in waves ranging from knee-high to overhead heights. 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.