Taming The Lakes

Hurricane Sandy brings surf to an unlikely coast

| posted on November 14, 2012

Artem Abakumov, surfing Sandy's swell in Hammond, Indiana. Photo: Killion

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.

Interviewee Burton Hathaway, finding a fun right in Lake Superior. Photo: Malkemes

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.

Eric Schmidt and Artem Abakumov, Hammond, Indiana. Photo: Killion

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.

Blake Meisinger, tucking into Lake Superior. Photo: Malkemes

An unridden gem at 57th Street, Chicago. Photo: Killion

Lakeside quiver. Photo: Killion

Glenn Vuyk, Lake Superior. Photo: Malkemes

Violent seas in Chicago, Illinois. Photo: Killion

Will Wall, Lake Superior. Photo: Tanis

Jason Gilbert at 57th Street, Chicago. Photo: Killion

  • Mitch Noyes

    Stocked to call myself a Great Lakes surfer!!!

  • Dave

    Nice to get some props on a National level. The biggest difference in the lakes besides fresh water is our short swell period 7 sec is considered a long period. and yes every once in a while it gets Big ( usually very windy at the same time) , A couple days this past season were double overhead.

  • Lester Priday

    I have the pleasure of surfing with Burton, Rusty and Will quite frequently and it’s a blast! We make the most of our location and the weather challenges. I have surfed the lakes since 1979, before the internet, and have driven looking for surf and been skunked many times. Nowadays, with the internet and NOAA Bouys all over the lakes, we can score good waves much more reliably. A great crew of hard core surfers here and the vibe is super friendly.

  • john caleb

    this waves are amazing dream is to river surf and surf lake waves

  • Johnny Chinook

    Stocked to call myself a Great Lake salmon.

  • Tony Cee

    I’m wondering what effect fresh water has on the actual movement of surfers through the water and on the waves. Does the lack of salinity effect buoyancy in any noticeable way?

  • Mike Carter

    These pics remind me of the struggle we always had telling folks that sometimes there are very good waves in Texas


  • Sean O

    I grew up in Minnesota, but was born in Australia. I started surfing at 19, moved away from home and relocated around the world just to surf. I gave it up and moved home for family only to discover surf in my back yard. Sometimes Several months go by with no surf but when its On…it can get perfect. I have surfed with Burton and their crew and they are all great guys and surfers. In fact I still owe Burton $ for a t-shirt. After 8 years of surfing the lakes, it still blows my mind to be able to get barreled on a lake. And out of over 100 surfers that I’ve met, only one was a jerk. I feel truly blessed to be able live near family and be able to surf once in a while. Lake Superior didn’t quite get waves that Michigan did but stoked for you guys and Congrats Burton on this great article.

  • Nico

    I am from the Midwest but stay in Hawaii these days, where I surf. You guys are super core!!! When I go back home and through Chicago, my eyes stay glued to the small waves I see along Lake Shore Drive and I always wonder what it’d be like to surf em (freshwater). Mahalo for sharing your epic stories!!

  • kenny ashburn

    Great pics guys. Im also an ex Great Lakes surfer- been Oahu 13 years, but still love going back and surfing with my old mates, snow or no snow- cold or warm.Great scene, great people, always an adventure. I do miss that! I am proud to call you all friends!!! Aloha! Kenny da Gremmie!

  • john

    It must be a great feeling to surf somewhere like that. I surf the east coast all winter so i can inly imagine how cold it gets up there. respect…..

  • Mark Borah

    Hi Tony,

    Yes, the freshwater does make a difference. It is less buoyant than in the ocean, but it isn’t a huge factor since most of the year we are wearing rubber which helps with the flotation. Other than that, the biggest difference is that many times, the rides are a bit shorter since the waves have a shorter period. But when the wind direction, location, and conditions line up, the surf can truly be great.

  • Kevin Tank

    Really is a special moment when catch your first freshwater wave. Always seem like some sort of myth but it’s true. Moving here from Oregon I figured my surfing days were pretty much over, NOT! These guys are all major dudes, thanks for the fun times.

  • Will Wall

    I started reading Surfer in 86′, and have been a religious reader since. As much as a like keeping up with the Pro tour and stats. I also enjoy reading about different surf locations in far away places. Every Surfer dreams about travel and adventure, its apart of our Lifestyle. Thank you for sharing this Story Surfer Magazine, by far one of the most unique places to surf in this World. 🙂

  • Darrell Parks

    And NO SHARKS!

  • Reef

    Looked up to a few guys when i was a troubled teenager …just wanted to give respect to a few an sorry i cant name all of u..Lester Pri… Ocar Wolf.. Lee wili…(JJ ) John jaro…
    I dont want to complete last names…. Thanks guys you have been a great influance. And miss the vibe

  • Big Lake Jake

    Great to see some lake coverage on! Just had one of the biggest days ever to hit Stoney Point last week too… It truly was double overhead and glassy!