The word “taming” might seem out of place in reference to lake surfing. Clearly the pulse from Hurricane Sandy was more house cat than Bengal tiger, but there’s more to the story of surfing on the Great Lakes than snapshots from a single swell. The real challenge with being a Great Lakes surfer isn’t daunting waves, it’s hiking through snow banks, paddling out through the sleet, and riding waves in thick rubber—it’s the battle with the elements. To find out more about one of surfing’s surprisingly hardcore enclaves, I spoke with Huntington local turned Wisconsin surfer Burton Hathaway. Here’s what he said about living the lake life.
So these waves were a product of Sandy?
Yes, a few weeks ago we had about five days of surf from the outer winds of Sandy brushing by the Great Lakes. We had very strong winds and waves out of the north from the storm. The south end Lake Michigan buoy hit 21.7 feet on Tuesday October the 30th. The other lakes got surf as well from the storm, but most of them had too much wind and were blown out.
Was there any damage to the Great Lakes area?
No, not really. There were just a few tree branches down, but the main threat was the possibility of flooding close to the shoreline down by Chicago due to the high waves.
What kind of waves do you typically get on the Great Lakes?
Our surf season out here really starts after the Labor Day weekend in September and runs through January when we really start to get cold. At that point the ice shelf and the ice in the water become an issue. We get all different swells in this window, from strong winds out of the south to cold arctic winds out of the north from Canada. You really need to know what the right winds will be for the right surf spots to score out here on the Great Lakes—timing is everything. Waves can come up fast and sometimes they will be gone in as little as three hours. Other times a swell can last all day.
How much do the conditions vary throughout the year, as far as winds and water temps?
Typically, we do get small waves in the summertime and longboards are key. We trunk it in mid- to late-summertime and the water temperatures can get up into the mid 70s. That is also our flattest time of year–you have to travel to get better waves. Right now, the water is between 48 and 50 degrees, which is warm for this time of year, but the temps always drop fast going into late November and early December. We are going to start getting very cold winds mainly out of the north and northwest from Canada in the next few months that will bring a lot of fun surf to all of the Great Lakes. This is the time of year a lot of surfers start to thin out because of the very cold air and water temperatures.
How did last week rank on the scale of good surf for the Lakes?
The first couple days had way too much north wind, but a few very sheltered spots were super fun. After the wind settled down on Wednesday we had super fun, glassy waves up to head-high plus. At that point I would call it an 8 out of 10.
What is the surf culture like in the Lakes? Are there surf shops, local shapers, etc.?
The surf culture on the Great Lakes is something very special, and after surfing all over the place for the last 24 years, I can tell you there is nothing like it in the world. Surf culture is alive and well out here. Everybody is always super stoked to see each other out, and we are always hooting for each other. There are a few surf shops like Third Coast Surf Shop in New Buffalo, Michigan, and EOS Surf Shop up in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. There are more than a few local shapers all over these lakes like Justin Bruursemm of Burly Surfboards and Matt Campbell of Black Box Surfboards, both here Michigan.
What are the benefits of being a Great Lakes surfer?
There are no crowds. Well, a few spots can get a little crowded in the warmer months, but in the dead of winter when its -28 wind chill, you will not see another soul. That’s my favorite time of year to surf out here, but you had better be able to surf around a few icebergs and not take one to the head.
What is most frustrating about it?
Timing the winds and swell right to score can be difficult. If you are a few hours late the swell could already be dropping or if you show up too early you might have to wait in your car for a few hours with the heater blaring until it builds.
Is it all worth it?
When you’re surfed out after a session at an epic right point with just a few good friends, it’s all worth it. I never thought that I would become a Great Lakes surfer, but I am truly stoked to call myself one after living and surfing here for the past seven years. But like I said, you have to enjoy surfing in super harsh conditions—you have to be ready to face snow, ice, rain storms, and blizzards in order to score in the winter time. With more coastline than the east and the west coasts out here on the Great Lakes, it’s a never-ending adventure looking for perfect freshwater waves.