Any advice - Kayak surfing on Great Lakes

Hi all, Visiting South Haven, Michigan and trying to surf the bigger days on L Michigan has not been going well - any advice or tricks you have learned? Waves are so close together and break in multiple directions or combine and get huge. Also seems no real pattern to the sets. Usually I am the only boat out on the big days, no even kite boarders.
I can get past the “third” sandbar to the deep water but stay out there to paddle around and rest, but surfing back in is pretty scary and I usually flip 50% of the time on the really big days when a rogue wave hits me from an angle. I brace as best I can but I am in old 17’ CD Storm, great boat normally. but seems to have a mind of its own on L. Michigan. Any advice on technique, stability moves, what to look for, location along beach (nearer piers or farther away) or even getting a differently lighter, more manuverable boat??? I will figure this out and am having a blast but am getting punished. Thanks!

Keith Wikle is the expert in that area. He lives in Kalamazoo and regularly surfs Lake Michigan.

He runs The Gales Storm Gathering (canceled again in 2021 because of Covid-19)

The Gales also has a FB page which lists a phone number.

I am not on the Great Lakes. But I regularly surf my sea kayaks on the southeast coast of the US. I have surfed on Lake Superior once.
Spending time observing wave patterns and understanding their causes is a useful thing. It allows you to anticipate that breaking waves may hit you from an angle. You will be able to anticipate the areas and angles where waves from different directions may meet. Calm observation will lead to way fewer surprises, so don’t be afraid to take extra time to contemplate.
Every moment bracing is a moment that you are reacting instead of preparing for your next moment. In short period seas, you can find yourself doing little more than reacting to survive. Make it a goal to do what you can to brace as little as possible.
Speed is your friend. Everything is calmest and under the most control when you are traveling along with a wave. In time, this will feel calm and controlled, and sitting still will feel more vulnerable. If you find yourself hesitating, waiting to react, instead just dig in and keep your kayak moving.
Every sea kayak, every surf kayak, every surf board has sweet spots in terms of steepness of the wave. Have you ever watched board surfers drop in on a wave too late? It’s too steep, the wave is closing out, and the ride is over before it gets started. Every sea kayak design is subject to dropping in on a wave too late. Every one. There are simply marginal differences with different designs. If you are too slow in front of a wave that’s too steep, either your stern gets abruptly pushed and you spin sideways, or you rise up onto a steep face and race down, spearing into the bottom of the trough, and get overtaken by the wave, or you manage to get the wave to pass under you without taking off, which if the wave is too big and steep at the moment, simply isn’t a possibility. The good thing is that a sea kayak’s window to catch a wave isn’t nearly so narrow as a board surfer’s. We can catch it much earlier. But you should already be riding the wave by the time a surf boarder’s window opens up, or it may be too steep.
How is your sprint stroke? Have you managed to connect your leg strength to your forward stroke, hips moving and all? Bigger bursts of power result in better control. If you are providing enough power towards forward when a steep wave hits your stern, it will better allow you to take off forward, without the rising clear up onto the steep face and then dropping straight down. It will also prevent your stern being pushed around so much.
Can you fall over to the water on your left, and on your right, and just sit back up? This allows you to lean into a wave as it hits you without the worry of being unable to sit back up. It allows you to edge deeper and do more aggressive maneuvering without worrying about not being able to sit back up.
It isn’t so much that the kayak has a mind of its own. It’s just that waves apply a lot of force to a big, long, voluminous sea kayak (this is all sea kayaks, not yours in particular). There are certain positions on a wave where you can still override that force with your paddle and maneuver to certain degrees. Your job is to learn the moments and positions where you have some control, do what you can to expand those positions, and use them to avoid the positions where you have forfeited all control to the wave.
On the subject of kayaks, CD’s Danish series is pretty great at expanding some control in those zones. The Whiskey 16 does so also. The Petrel Play from Turning Point Boatworks would be sweet. The SKUK Romany is super popular out here for this. Sterling kayaks seem to push pretty aggressively towards these type characteristics. And there are others. But for the most part, the most skilled paddler is going to be best at making the landings that require the most skill, more so than a sea kayak design will provide overlap. You can drop in too late, or meet a wave right at the break point on the way out, and have similar results in any of them. But if you’re really into spending some time surfing sea kayaks, it can be well worthwhile to pick up a sea kayak design that’s geared towards it.
Have fun!

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As @Rookie says, Keith Wiklie is a good resource. He uses both a P&H Aries (the Delphin is the plastic version) and surf specific kayaks. here is a video surfing at South Haven in the Aries earlier this year:

His website is here:

Wow, great info already. Much appreciated Rookie, rival51 and CapeFear. I knew somebody would know something valuable.
Going back out today in big conditions and 20 knots with CapeFear’s ideas. I did figure out speed is my friend but i chicken out sometimes and try to let huge swells pass till I get closer to breaking zone. Too slow and I do get too high on a steep face and have hit my bow into the sand bar for spectacular 17’ forward roll. Sometimes leaning away from the already broken whitewater seems better and allows the wave to push me back to aiming straight onshore, but other times leaning into the wave keeps me up. I am not as confident with big leans that I can get back upright - will work on that. My old CD Storm has good rocker in front so I get out thru surf pretty well, but am too proud and lazy to go to a beach with a pier to tuck in behind . Also having too much fun now but will get a better surf kayak someday, hopefully by next year. Thanks again., keep ideas coming

“I brace as best I can but I am in old 17’ CD Storm, great boat normally. but seems to have a mind of its own on L. Michigan.”

Conforms with my experience with the CD Squall (small sibling of the CD Storm), which I had about 20 years ago. A far more skilled paddler may be able to do more with it on a waveface… For me a “surf session” in that boat was really just bracing and rolling practice more than surfing because I would purl, pitchpole or go immediately into a side (bongo) surf.

I occaisonally surf a PH Delphin (roto version of the Aries) which I picked up specifically for long boat surfing. Huge difference because the design of the Delphin actually allows for some controlled surfing on a moderate size wave, 4’ and under (for me). Any bigger, I stick with my surf specific waveski.

I got the Delphin pre-owned so it was a good deal. Apparently PH has a newer roto surf/play boat out now – the Virgo.

Enjoyed your time in the surf with the Storm. Even if you don’t get good rides, you’ll be getting all kinds of rough water paddling practice that will help with more surf specific designed boat later.


Then there’s Surfer Dan.

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Total respect for the dedication of GL surfers!!! Like New England surfers, they have to look for winter to get the bulk of the waves. Unlike for us in NE, much of the winter GL waves are crappy at best. LOL!


Maybe Keith will post here, I know he was headed out to surf the big waves this AM according to his facebook posts. From my experience in sea kayaks in the surf if you are lucky and pick the right wave you can trim with a nice shaped wave and maybe exit with style, but most of the time it turns into a a bongo slide at the end of the ride. Trying to take steep waves straight in ends in getting pitchpoled. I know a few people who are really good at surfing seakayaks but they choose the conditions, location and waves very carefully. Catch the wave as it is starting to hump up very early, make a bottom turn with a long, smooth rudder. Dropping in does not work. Trying to lean away from a foam pile to bring the bow straight in is pretty much a recipe for getting window shaded unless you have very good boat control. The paddle is a pretty good rudder, if used properly and don’t be afraid to low brace while moving down the wave, even into the wave face, sometimes on a steep wall I use my waveside hand, and just collapse/tip into the wave face to set up for my bongo slide. You might consider picking up an older whitewater boat with a planing hull, if you want to surf in chaos.

Thanks sing and SeaDart, more good ideas and advice. SeaDart must be a GL kayaker because I am having his same experiences. Still having fun but feel I should get a more surf oriented boat. Met a couple of Keith’s friends last evening and watched them after I got too tired. They had better surfing boats and used the south pier and beach to their advantage. Much longer period waves there and a way to sneak out and get behind the nasty stuff. Thanks again all.

Hey, for surfers, there is no such thing as “cheating” to find an easier way to get out through the break zone. The goal is to surf a wave. Sprinting, bracing and rolling are just another set of “means” to achieve the end. It is standard practice for surfers to look for rip currents that can be be “conveyer belts” to get out quicker through the break.

The benefit of points and jetties is that these often have rip currents running along side them. Also these structures impact the contours of adjascent bottom with sand/pepple built up that often creates wonderful/magical peeling waves that all surfers want for longer rides, as opposed to “close out” waves that are more usual on beach breaks.

Some caution needs to be taken with using “sneak routes” along side points and jetties. More than a few time, I paddled out from the “protection” of these structures to find myself in WAY BIGGER waves/swells than I was expecting (and mentally prepared for).

Cowabunga! Enjoy (with caution).


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Speaking of how “structures” can benefit the quality of waves and surfers…


Long ago when I paddled WW, I had a Dagger RPM and would surf ocean waves in Southern Japan. The waves were usually very clean and easy to ride but it took a little care not to bury the bow leaning forward to initially get on a wave.

I surfed L. Erie when I moved to the States. Waves were messy, didn’t break consistently and in general, compared to the big ocean waves were not that much to worry about in terms of really getting slammed but because they are smaller and break closer to shore, watch your head on the bottom and wear a helmet. Stay with beach breaks, or you might find a nice sand bar near the mouth of a river where waves could break nicely depending on the wind. Sometimes the sandbar won’t be anywhere near this and they change over time but be careful if the river is really flowing and the place you’re surfing can take you into that flow, it is possible to get caught between the waves flowing in and river flowing out, if the river is docile no worries but at big flow this isn’t a good place to be.

A longer boat will surf smaller waves more easily but a smaller WW boat might be more fun, old used beat up WW boats can usually be had pretty cheap.

If you don’t already, a little time to learn a roll, at least on 1 side = less time swimming and better boat control.
Have fun!!!

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The best time to “surf” great lakes is right after a big wind dies-then you can get nice smooth ocean-like rollers. But the best time to have fun is in the thick of the wind, although then its more like storm paddling/survival with strenuous launches and a few violent rides thrown in.