Lake Superior in 8ft swell

My friends heard I was in town last minute and invited me to join them on an epic 18 mile downwind that finished with us paddling under the Duluth lift bridge, a longtime dream of mine!

Buoys were showing 4.8-5.2ft average wave height, and the 10 minute outlier set consistently hit 7-8ft. Conditions were chaotic and very ocean like. The local wind was only 10-25mph but slightly further up the coast and off shore they were 25-35. The lake had shallow ocean-like ground swell. If you blindfolded me and dropped me off a helicopter I would have thought I was on the pacific in crap conditions.

Everyone in the group capsized at least once. I swam twice from breaking waves overtaking my stern when I wasnt paying attention. After the 2nd swim I figured out what was happening and stayed upright after that.

We went through the ship canal under the left bridge and wow was that gnarly. swell was coming from 2 angles, would hit the walls, reflect, and build. Waves were massive haystacks, 50’ long and 8’ tall. Right as I got to the bridge one of the biggest, steepest waves of the day built up behind me and surged me under the bridge as I screamed with joy, laid back as far as I could.

As luck would have it the in-laws of one of the guys got video of us coming through the channel. It was amazing to get good on-shore video during such an epic run!

Total distance was 17.8 mi in 2:40. I was paddling a loaner NK Kayaks Ezercize (V8 class boat). Air and water temp were in the high 50s. I wore an Oneill 3/2 Hyperfreak and was about right through the first half, and somewhat chilly the 2nd half after the solar energy penetrating the clouds faded. If I had a 3/3 or 4/3 I might use that next time. given similar temps.

The standout moment of the day was after we all finished, my good friend Zach asked if I wanted to go play in the canal again so we did. He is an expert skiier, but not familiar with large, breaking waves. We got 2/3 of the way down the canal and the waves started crumbling. They were reflecting off the wall at about 20*, but we were going straight out up to that point.
Zach started to slow down and 2 waves hit him at 20*. He disappeared behind the 8’ swell for a few seconds but was amazingly upright. I caught up to him and said we gotta move son. Each time a crumbling wave hit I would turn my boat perpendicular at the last moment, but he wasnt. Finally I catch him and he yells “This is Gnarly” right as a 3 crumbling wave hits him and he swims (murphys law). I wasnt too worried because his boat was facing the right way (towards the center) and he had a small buffer to the wall (~30’). I hammered to get some speed so I didnt end up like him. He let 1 wave pass and managed to remount on the first try in some of the worst conditions I’ve seen. Certainly equal to the worst I have remounted in. I circled around and followed him back through the lift bridge once more for an epic ending to an epic paddle.

I’m in the green boat that occasionally makes an appearance in the later half.


Great report. Great video. :clap: :sunglasses:

I like a short sleeve IR semi drytop with neo neck, arm and waist gaskets (no double tunnel) for those “shoulder” conditions. So, I sometimes wear it over either a 2 mm or 3/2 mm wetsuit when I think conditions may be a tad more and I don’t want to get into a full 4/3.


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:sunglasses::cool: nice work.

5.9993 mph :+1::smiley:

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Dude! Totally AWESOME!


That’s awesome. Thanks for sharing. Some impressive skill on display there.

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Nice video. Looks fun. Rocking and Rolling. Do you have to worry about ship/boat traffic out there?

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What sea kayaks are made for.

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More shots from shore of us going through the shipping canal. The current really shows in the video, although I didnt perceive it in the moment.

@sing, yes, a wind layer would have made it about perfect after the 2nd swim. or even any wind block ing layer to reduce evaporative cooling

@Paddledog52, the waves werent quote steep enough to surf on consistently, so you were working hard to get on them! On a perfect downwind I can average closer to 9mph, but those are few and far between. That requires ideal conditions like a 30mph day on the Columbia River Gorge

@3meterswell Yes, it was pretty epic, even by my " never seen an ocean too big" jaded glasses. it was sloppy, big, and fast just like the pacific on a raging day.

Thanks Cape. Just a walk in the park on a nice day :slight_smile:

@sedart we passed 1 ship on the way there, but it headed farther towards open water immediately and was a long ways from us. There were none in the canal and the lift bridge would have been a good warning something major was coming.


Those videos really show the size of the swells. Damn big.


Ocean swells are dramatic but not hard to ride out. I do not like steep wind driven waves, especially on shoals or wind opposing tides. It is the steep waves that are the most trouble. The other group of waves that are dangerous are tidal rips that can be vertical 4 foot walls of water that come out of nowhere.


Agreed. 12 foot ocean swell is impressive, but the period is so long its just like pading over a small hill, not a dumping steep wave for the most part. (Though the top 1-2 feet of large ocean waves around me tend to crumble and break in large conditions. Same was happening on superior - the crumbling waves made me swim twice before I was actively listening for them. In the first video you can see a small one hit my friend and spin him out).

For the type of paddling we like to do (open water surfing) wind against current creates ideal waves.
These exact conditions are what make the Columbia River gorge so special. But in tidal rips or shoals with stronger current the steepness can become too much.

I was surfing the rip coming off the jetty near me in haystacked 3 foot waves a month ago. It was some really good but technical surfing and gave me a chance to practice a remount in some tough conditions


I get 2’ bay chop steep breaking whitecaps coming over the deck and deck bag. CD boats I have are far from a plumb bow. They ride over most waves but steep little curling chop they pierce.

Looked like fun, been through there countless times in those conditions in a sea kayak and there’s no better exercise for a sphincter. The hairyest part is right at the mouth. Its not a place you want to be swimming if there’s a 700 foot laker bearing down on you though.

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My friend finished his edit with some more good shots of the day. I start a really nice ride at 2:36


This is what’s headed for Lake Superior this evening:

"The National Weather Service at Marquette says this about the winter storm warning area: Heavy, wet snow begins tonight and continues through Monday night, resulting in poor travel conditions. Total snow accumulations of 8 to 16 inches in the higher terrain a few miles inland from Lake Superior with locally higher totals approaching 2 feet possible across the Michigamme Highlands. Winds gusting as high as 45 mph through Monday afternoon then as high as 50 mph Monday night.”

When living in MN, I often paddled Superior (including 4 round trips), though my trips would normally stop in Sep or Oct - and then only on good days.

The exceptions were the couple of times I headed up to the ‘Gales of Nov.’ weekend (the Stan Chladek version), but even then, though cold, no ‘real’ gales.
I wish there was still a copy of the video he took of the ‘Halloween’ creatures on Superior.

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Great article to read. Thanks

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