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Surfing the Great Lakes: Want to know where to start?

Surfing the Great Lakes: Want to know where to start?
March 28, 2022 Natasha Blakely

Sunny weather, bikinis and board shorts, the salt spray of the ocean – surfing tends to conjure a very specific image in most people’s minds, and it’s on the ocean coasts, not the freshwater ones in the Midwest.

But to a small community around the Great Lakes region, surfing looks very different – featuring more full-body coverage and ice-cold weather.

Watch Great Lakes Now’s segment on Great Lakes surf group Lake Surfistas here:

Great Lakes Now talked further to surfers Robin Pacquing and Jordan-na Belle-Isle with surf group Lake Surfistas for advice on what anyone looking to get started with Great Lakes surfing should do.

So, you want to surf the Great Lakes. What next?

There are a few key differences between Great Lakes surfing and sunny ocean surfing.

Regardless of whether someone is a beginner or well-versed in surfing, Pacquing advised interested surfers to observe the shoreline and conditions before jumping straight in because of how different ocean surfing is.

“Some people will go on vacation,” Belle-Isle said. “They’ll take a surf lesson, say in Mexico, and catch a couple of waves with an instructor who pushes them into the wave. And they’re like, ‘Great, I can do this,’ and they come back home. They buy a surfboard, they go to the Great Lakes, and they’re like, ‘I can’t do this. I suck.’”

Unlike the ocean where tides and terrain contribute to relatively predictable surfing conditions, Great Lakes surfing is dependent on winds, which is why the Great Lakes surfing season is in the fall and winter. The reliance on the mercurial winds also means that anything more specific like a good day or time to surf is hard to predict.

“We’re just constantly checking wind predictions,” Belle-Isle said. “And we’re looking at the forecast and the next coming days, and we’re kind of trying to guess when’s it going to be.”

Applications and websites like Windfinder, Windy and the Weather Network are all useful resources for that.

Aside from weather alerts, surfers need to pay attention to the equipment they need for Great Lakes surfing. Unlike surfing in Costa Rica or Hawaii, thick wetsuits are a necessity, along with booties and gloves.

For more specific recommendations on equipment to get or tips and tricks, Pacquing and Belle-Isle suggested joining community groups like Lake Surfistas, any of the many local and regional surf groups on Facebook or turning to local surf shops like Sleeping Bear Surf & Kayak.

“We have a discussion page on Facebook where people in the community are welcome to ask questions like what kind of surfboard should I get? Where’s a good beginner spot? Where should I go? And it’s also an opportunity to make friends and go with other people,” Belle-Isle said. “So I think that would be my first piece of advice, is make friends with somebody who knows how to lake surf or has done it a couple of times and is comfortable and go with them, because you never want to go alone. Always go with a buddy.”

Where to catch a wave

The thing about surfing the Great Lakes is it’s so dependent on weather for the right waves, that a good location can be just as hard to predict.

“You just kind of have to be on alert and be willing to drive and be willing to search for when the waves and the winds are favorable,” Pacquing said.

Both Pacquing and Belle-Isle recommended turning to local surf groups to find good locations to surf, because local groups will know better local locations and also for safety reasons.

“We definitely want to help people,” Belle-Isle said. “If I were to name my top five favorite spots, I also have the responsibility of making sure people are safe. So, I don’t want to be like, ‘Oh yeah, I surfed this spot.’ and then you get 10 people, 20 people who go there who have no idea what they’re doing and end up in a really bad situation, because lake surfing does require a certain amount of know-how, safety, of knowledge and skill.”

But here are a handful of popular beginner surfing locations to give anyone interested a starting point:

1) Lake Huron – Kincardine

2) Lake Huron – Georgian Bay

3) Lake Ontario – Ashbridges Bay Park

4) Lake Michigan – Sheboygan

5) Lake Erie – Pleasant Beach


Catch more news on Great Lakes Now: 

Surfing the Great Lakes: ‘What? People do that here?’

Great Lakes surfers to Michigan: Don’t close beaches during rough waves


Featured image: Robin Pacquing of Lake Surfistas heads out to surf the waves of Lake Ontario. (Photo Credit: GLN) 

1 Comment

  1. J, Dickson 6 months ago

    Kincardine is the real mecca of surfers on the Great Lakes, including annual contests that attract participants from outside Canada. Contact Ash at the Sports & Surf Shop in Kincardine for details,

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