America’s Third Coast – 3 Tips for Surfing the Great Lakes

Though it is believed that Great Lakes breakers were first surfed nearly a century ago, and possibly much earlier by native peoples, the first significant wave of participants arrived in the 1960s. The west coast surf craze was leaking into Middle America, and small surfing communities sprouted across the Great Lakes. Michigan was at the forefront and today, surfing on the ‘Third Coast’ is more popular than ever!

Guest blogger Ryan Gerard of Third Coast Surf Shops shares more history on surfing in Michigan below, in addition to some tips for beginners. Hang loose and check it out!

The sheer size of the Great Lakes is what makes surfing on them possible. Containing 6 quadrillion gallons of water and more than 10,900 miles of shoreline (3,126 miles are in Michigan, more freshwater coastline than any other state!), the Great Lakes is one of the largest fresh water systems on earth and have more coastline than the East and West coasts combined.

Furthermore, while ocean waves are created by distant storm systems, waves on the Great Lakes are formed by localized winds. It’s not just a summer sport either. Thanks to ongoing improvements in wetsuit technology, surfers are now able to comfortably ride lake waves year-round, including in winter.

Surf Shop - VW Bus

Photo Courtesy of Third Coast Surf Shop

With its rise in popularity, lake surfing has been featured by national and regional news sources like CBS’s “The Early Show,” NBC’s “Today Show, The Weather Channel, Newsweek, The New York Times and NPR. The notion of surfing on freshwater lakes in the heartland of America, especially in winter, tends to catch people’s attention.

Since 2005, our mission at Third Coast Surf Shop has been to spread the joy of the surfing lifestyle in Michigan, the Great Lakes, and beyond. Owned and operated by Great Lakes surfers, the shop offers rentals, lessons, kids’ camps, repair, and a full line of surf and skate gear, clothing, and accessories; everything needed to get wet. Consider visiting the great surfing state of Michigan for your next trip! 

If your interests are peaked – here are a few tips for your first time in the water.

1. Best weather conditions for surfing in the Great Lakes:

  • The waves are typically small in the summer, which makes it the perfect time to learn to surf. The big waves and prime surfing time is during the fall, winter and spring.
  • In the summer, stand-up paddleboarding is one of the coolest new ways to get on the water.  Relatively easy to do with a little practice, stand-up paddling is similar to kayaking; all you need is a body of water and a paddle. While perfect for calm days on the lake, in the harbor and up the river, stand-up paddleboards can also be surfed when there are small waves as it is essentially a giant surfboard.

2. Types of Equipment Needed:

Ryan Gerard, New Buffalo, 2007 (

Photo Courtesy of

Short surfboards are best for the advanced surfers, while long boards are better for beginners because there’s more surface area to work with and it provides greater stability.

Wetsuits are crucial for safe surfing, especially in colder seasons. There are various types of wetsuits for surfing in different conditions. A hood, booties and gloves are needed in colder conditions.

3. Tips for surfing on fresh water:

  • Take a lesson. There is no better way to start the process than with an experienced teacher.
  • Bring a friend. Learning together is safer and way more fun.
  • It takes time and perseverance to find good surf in the Great Lakes, but when you do, it makes it all worthwhile.
Photo Courtesy of Third Coast Surf Shop

Photo Courtesy of Third Coast Surf Shop


Ryan Gerard opened the first Third Coast Surf Shop in 2005 in New Buffalo. Since then, a second anchor store was opened in St. Joseph in 2010 and four kayak and stand-up paddleboard rental sites have been added in Southwest Michigan.  Gerard started surfing on Lake Michigan in 1998 and has surfed in nearly a dozen countries since. Check out their Facebook and Instagram.

Winter Surfing in Pure Michigan

Photo credit: Mike Killion

Since 2005, Third Coast Surf Shop has been the premiere source for everything freshwater surfing. Products include surfboards and accessories, wetsuits, swimwear, beach gear, clothing, sandals, and sunglasses. Available services include lessons and rentals (surfboards, stand-up paddleboards, sandboards), kayak tours, and kids’ beach day camps. Third Coast Surf Shop has been featured in such national media as The Today Show, The New York Times, and Conde Nast Traveler.  

Ryan Gerard, Proprietor of Third Coast Surf Shop, was kind enough to answer a few of our questions.

Q: How is winter surfing different than any other kind of surfing?

Photo credit: Mike Killion

A: Surfing in Michigan in the winter takes a dedicated approach; the air and water are both very cold, it is often windy, and it is not easy to find the best waves for surfing. With the right gear and time spent on learning where to go and when to be there, great waves can be found. Dealing with the cold and often brutal weather elements (snow, ice) is well worth it when you are surfing fun waves with a small handful of friends.

Q: Where in Michigan can you surf in the winter?          

A: Anywhere there are waves, which would be on any beach exposed to open water on Lakes Michigan, Superior, and Huron. The challenge lies in finding the best spots to surf, which requires time and dedication. You must learn how to forecast when there will be waves, where, and the best time to surf them.

Q: Do you need any special equipment?

Photo credit: Mike Killion

A: Yes. To surf in Michigan (or anywhere with a cold climate), you must have the proper wetsuit and wetsuit accessories (boots and gloves or mittens). We wear 6/5/4mm hooded wetsuits and 7mm boots and mittens made specifically for cold water surfing. To use improper gear could be dangerous. The surfboards we use are the same as what are used to surf anywhere else in the world. However, many surfers use boards that  are a little bigger (longer, wider, and/or thicker) than what might be used on an ocean coast. The surfer’s ability and wave conditions have a lot to do with that.

Q: Where can people go to learn more information?

A: Third Coast Surf Shop has been teaching surfing lessons continually longer than anyone else in the Great Lakes region. Since 2005, we have taught thousands of people learn to surf. Outside Magazine recognized our shop and southwestern Michigan as one of the best places to learn how to surf in North America. You can visit us at for details.