Sunday, August 28, 2011

Warm water surfing in the Great Lakes

Paddling out through the surf zone.
Last night, the kayaking listservs were abuzz about the building waves on Lake Michigan. Paddlers arranged to meet at 63rd Street Beach in Chicago, Portage Beach in Indiana, and the New Buffalo beach in Michigan to play in the waves.

Forecasts varied, but most indicated waves up to 5 or 6 feet at the south end of the lake.
We met our friends and fellow Geneva Kayak Center coaches Aaron Litchfield and Chris Hoffman at 63rd Street Beach on Chicago's south side. The waves were three to five feet and nicely formed. The wind had dropped to 15 to 20 knots.

Sharon catching a wave back in.
Here on the Great Lakes, waves are created mainly by wind. Its strength, duration and fetch (distance it travels) determine the height of our waves. That means the ideal time to surf is immediately after the wind decreases but before the waves settle down. (You can learn a lot more about this at Go Kayak Now.) Today was made even more ideal by the warm water and bright sunlight. When the sky is overcast and the water is cold, everything feels more ominous and dangerous. Today, it was just pure fun.

Alec, Aaron and Chris paddling out to catch another ride back to the beach.
After a couple hours of riding waves toward the beach and paddling back out, we decided to explore the clapotis along the north side of the 57th Street Harbor break wall. Reflecting waves combined with incoming waves to create chaotic heaps of water. The four of us felt confident paddling in this area, since all of us are comfortable in pretty rough water, but it was not a place any of us would have gone alone or without other skilled paddlers.

Clapotis near a break wall creates chaotic conditions.
In fact, once you get comfortable with clapotis, you tend to find yourself seeking it out.

Aaron and Alec playing in another area of clapotis south of the 63rd Street Harbor.
It's a treat to get some surf practice in summer. Soon the water will be cooler and the days shorter. We'll still go out when the north winds blow, but we'll be decked out in dry suits and toting hot tea. And in early October, when the surf season is in full swing, you'll find us at The Gales: A Storm Gathering, a new symposium dedicated to rough water kayaking. This is great opportunity for anyone who wants to build skill and confidence in these kinds of conditions.

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