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.