Great Lakes Surf ?


(This column was first published in the June 4, 2001 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)


Many years ago I joined my friends Lane and Tim Montesano and Mike Davis for a swim at Point Abino, a few miles west of Buffalo on the Canadian north shore of Lake Erie. It was one of those perfect late-August days, a bright sun shining between scudding clouds and a strong southwest wind keeping the air temperature pleasant. But what was most unusual about that day and what makes me recall it now was the surf. It tumbled us about just like ocean waves do along the south shore of Long Island. We rode air mattresses for many yards on the big ones until we were overturned when the wave crests broke.


I recalled that long-forgotten experience when I received a letter recently from Buffalonian Magilla Schaus, president of the Wyldewood Surf Club. He was seeking information related to my recent column about power generation from ocean waves but his letter also talked about surfing our large fresh-water lakes. He later sent me a copy of a book about this: Surfing the Great Lakes— an Insider's Guide to Monster Waves along North America's Fresh Coast by P. L. Strazz, published by Big Lauter Tun Books. It is a delightful little book packed with information not only about surfing but also about water and weather.


But surfing the Great Lakes! Had it not been for that long ago experience at Point Abino, I would have thought, as many of you probably are thinking as you read this — nonsense!


Shaus and Strazz make clear that the facts tell us otherwise.


Listen to what Strazz has to say about waves: "As the key element of Great Lakes wave formation, wind is critical. 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.


"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.


"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."


The fate in 1975 of the Edmund Fitzgerald, immortalized in that Gordon Lightfoot song, reminds us that Great Lakes storms can indeed generate powerful wave action but Herman Melville had warned us even earlier in Moby Dick. The Great Lakes, he said, "are swept by Borean and dismasting blasts as direful as any that lash the salted wave; they know what shipwrecks are, for out of sight of land, however inland, they have drowned full many a midnight ship with all its shrieking crew."


Strazz tells us that the earliest Great Lakes surfing took place over 50 years ago in Lake Michigan and that it gained in popularity there and along the northeastern shore of Lake Erie in the 1960s. It was then that the Wyldewood Surf Club was established.


Why then don't we see these surfers? The answer should be evident -- when those winds pick up the rest of us retreat to our inshore homes.