Surfing the Great Lakes
(This column was first published in the June 7, 2001 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)
Buffalonian Magilla Schaus, president of the Wyldewood Surf Club, recently sent me a copy of a delightful little book, Surfing The Great Lakes: An Insider's Guide To Monster Waves Along North America's Fresh Coast by P. L. Strazz (Big Lauter Tun Books). Dozens of surfers wrote essays and contributed pictures.
Of course, my first reaction to the book was: Wait a minute. Surfing the Great Lakes? These people must be kidding.
But they aren't and this book makes crystal clear that Great Lakes surfing is an activity that, although still restricted to a small number of enthusiasts, is becoming increasingly popular.
And there is good reason for this. Here is Strazz's answer:
"Yes, you can surf on the Great Lakes.
"Surfing, one of the most savory sports to pass from ancient to modern times, is even sweeter on the fresh waters of the Great Lakes. Endless miles of uncharted beach breaks with predictable waves are an irresistible, inland combo that non-surfers and saltwater surfers can only wonder about.
"Surfing on Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario is as multi-dimensional as the lakes themselves. Part extreme sport, part science, part therapy, it remains a five-decade-old anomaly. Not only because of the stigma that says surfing is done on oceans, but because of the lakes themselves. Their collective name is the real deal. Each can unleash great waves at virtually any unobstructed beach along their shorelines with the right weather conditions. This periodically furious temper is ideal for surfing and body-boarding, and it adds an incomparable variable to more traditional lake pursuits like windsurfing and kayaking.
"Day-to-day changes are caused by winds that push water toward shore in a process called 'wind setup.' The changes are usually associated with a major lake storm, which may last from several hours to several days. Under such conditions, the temporary water level difference between opposite shores can easily exceed 10 feet."
And he goes on to tell us about that surf:
"As the key element of Great Lakes wave formation, wind is critical to a successful surf experience.
"The formula varies with different locations across the water system, but surfable waves are typically created by winds in excess of 15 knots that have blown over water for more than 50 miles. It takes 5 to 10 hours of such conditions for waves to be ripe enough to propel a board.
"What makes a surfable wave? Waves as small as one foot can be surfed, though larger waves can make for longer rides. The largest waves on the lakes easily surpass 10 feet, and waves more than 20 feet are occasionally recorded by NOAA weather buoys, usually in spring and fall. Even bigger waves are possible under extreme conditions in open water, though there's a general agreement among meteorologists that 25 feet is the upper limit."
But, he adds: "Wind waves on the Great Lakes are different than ocean swell on the East and West coasts, where waves are formed by isolated storms more than a thousand miles away from land. Wind waves are comparatively more choppy and unpredictable than ocean swell, but they can also be warmer, and they're fresh. No salt."
Many surfers contributed to this book and one, John Newgard, who now lives in what many would consider surfing heaven, New Zealand, explains what he considers the difference between fresh water and salt water surfing:
"Compared to the oceans, the Great Lakes offer surfers a unique experience that goes far beyond the obvious differences between freshwater and saltwater. There are far fewer surfers due to misconceptions about the lakes not being able to produce waves. Many people think that the moon generates ocean waves, or they attribute waves to a deep, ocean force that they can't quite put their fingers on. So it is not surprising that the thought of surfing on the Great Lakes has only occurred to a fortunate few.
"Whereas a day surfing on the lakes is often spent with a few close friends or alone, a typical session at a popular ocean break like Raglan is spent with a crowd of strangers. It's difficult to adapt to being immersed in a crowd of proficient surfers at a high-quality ocean break, so I generally go when few surfers are out. This usually means avoiding times when the waves are high or just keeping a close eye on the crowds and making a move when the time is right, It can get frustrating. Most surf sessions are hardly enjoyable, as I get very few waves, and poor-quality waves at that. How I long for the lakes!"
It turns out that northeastern Lake Erie is one of the prime surfing locations and Magilla's Wildewood Surf Club was one of the first inland groups formed. Here are the reasonably nearby locations Strazz mentions in his book together with his comments about them:
in New York
Buffalo: Woodlawn State Park (clean sand break works best on NW, SW winds)
Hamburg: Hamburg Beach (shallow beach break on all W winds)
Angola: Wendt Beach (W, SW winds generate best surf); Bennett Beach (W, SW winds generate best surf)
Lake Erie Beach: Point Breeze (ntense shore break on NW, W, SW winds)
Farnham: Evangola State Park (W, SW winds generate best surf)
Dunkirk: Wright Park Beach Point (W winds generate large beach and point breaks); Gratiot Point Park Beach (shore break works on SW winds); Lake Erie State Park (shore break works on SW winds)
in Ontario, Canada
Crystal Beach: Palmwood Point (point break looms large during frequent W, SW winds)
Port Colborne: Nickle Beach (rollng shore break on SW winds); Wyldewood Beach: Large waves on predominant SW winds; Pleasant Beach (waves best on SW winds; ideal shortboard location)
Port Maitland: Rock Point Provincial Park (strong beach break works best on SW winds)
in New York
Wilson: Wilson-Tuscarora State Park (windsurfing along half-mile beach; shore break works best on NE, NW winds)
Bluff Beach: Hamlin Beach State Park (reef and point breaks work best on NE, NW, W winds)
Rochester: Webster Park (beach break); Durand Beach (beach break goes off on strong E, NE, N winds); Ontario Beach: (jetty, point break on NE, N winds)
in Ontario, Canada
Niagara-on-the-Lake: Niagara River Mouth (far offshore sandbar generates sizable waves on NE, N winds); Niagara Shores Park (rolling beach break works best on NE, N and NW winds)
St. Catherine's: Municipal Beach (sandy bottom; goes off nicely on a strong NE, N wind, adjacent to sewage treatment plant)
Port Dalhousie: Michigan Beach (fickle but rewarding surf spot on NE wind, waves wrap around west side of pier)
Grimsby: 50 Road Beach (rocky, cobblestone shore, waves build on E, NE. winds)
Hamilton: Van Wagners Beach (numerous sandbar and shore breaks on E, NE winds; Hamilton Beach (established surf location near lift bridge, jetties, sandbar and rolling shore breaks best on E, NE winds)
One of the essays I most enjoyed is an interview of a young Canadian woman. Ms. Gervais' responses tell us much not only about herself but about surfing as well:
"After learning to surf in Florida in 1995, Caledonia, Ontario's Leslie-Ann Gervais honed her skills on Lakes Erie and Ontario and went on to earn a spot on the Canadian national surfing team. She competes in surfing events across the globe, under a variety of conditions, all the while maintaining her primary passion: fencing. A champion fencer Gervais, you guessed it, also earned a spot on the Canadian national fencing team. Here she shares a few thoughts about catching waves on the Great Lakes.
Q. Your first surfing experiences were during a fencing tournament in Florida. How did you get tuned in to the waves around your home?
A. I read a letter from a local surfer, Dave Rodgers, in Surfer magazine. I called Dave and he was very helpful in telling me all the best surf spots, which, around here, have a lot to do with the location of sandbars.
Q. You surf and fence at extremely competitive levels. How do you juggle your training?
A. I've always given first priority to my fencing training, as my surf training has always been sporadic due to the Great Lakes usually being frozen solid in the winter. There are surfers who do surf through the winters where the lakes don't freeze, but I suppose that I'm not hardy enough. I cross-train by doing lots of snowboarding, which I feel will help me with my carving. I also do some wake-boarding to help with my surfing.
Q. Caledonia is near Hamilton, on the western tip of Lake Ontario, but you can easily head to Lake Erie right. Where do you like to go?
A. I now surf only Lake Erie because it's cleaner than Lake Ontario. But there are tradeoffs. Lake Ontario is closer, and it's deeper so the waves keep rolling in even after the wind dies. On the other hand, Ontario always takes longer than Lake Erie to build. Lake Erie is good on westerlies at certain spots, but, if there is a strong southwest over 30 kilometers per hour, you are guaranteed good surf.
Q. What is the surfing community like in the Hamilton area?
A. Enthusiasm for the sport is definitely on the rise. When the waves are good, one is never alone at the favorite surf spots, although, a couple years ago, you would have found yourself out there alone on occasion.
Q. What kind of boards do you use on the Great Lakes?
A. Most surfers use a long board because the waves here are weaker than ocean waves. Therefore, you get a much longer ride with a long board. But I ride a shortboard which my board shaper, Midget Smith, shaped for the Great Lakes. It's a thicker board, allowing for greater floatation.
Q. You've excelled pretty quickly at surfing since you started at age 16. If you had to tell a new Great Lakes surfer three important points to getting a good ride on fresh water waves, what would they be?
A. My three points would be to start with a long board, wear a wetsuit so that you can be comfortable in the water, and bring a friend.
Q. Do you remember your best day surfing on the Great Lakes?
A. My best time was on Lake Erie after three good days of blowing wind, which turned. The surf turned into big, clean waves which I had all to myself. That was about three years ago. Now there would be about 40 surfers out at my spot.
Q. What do world-class surfers do differently than average surfers? How are their techniques different?
A. World-class surfers spend a lot more time surfing than the average surfer, and they frequent more surf spots to gain experience in a variety of conditions and waves. Their techniques are obviously more fine-tuned and their experience shows in their styles.
Q. When you travel around the world and meet accomplished surfers, how do they react when you say you surf on the Great Lakes?
A. I've had responses such as, 'How is it possible?' Usually, they wonder how we can surf in such cold water, not realizing that in the summer that we can trunk it, which they can't do in California.
I don't know what Ms. Gervais means by trunking it, but I do know when I find a fine book that introduces me to a sport at the cutting edge.
Magilla Schaus has offered to take me surfing next fall. I hope to take him up on his offer even though my only other attempt didn't turn out so well. It was a miserable failure in San Diego many years ago where I was a near miss by a more proficient surfer and where I also almost had a heart attack when I mistook an approaching harbor seal for a shark.