Strong winds on Lake Erie create waves up to eight feet tall that crash onto the beaches of Presque Isle State Park, located four miles west of Erie, Pa. Surfers flock to the park when the waves form, even if the temperature is below freezing and the wind chill is below zero.


“Lake surfers are not picky,” wrote Erie-based surfer Ryan Burke in an email. “We are stoked every day when the waves arrive. Waves are in low supply, and any chance we get, we surf!”

Presque Isle has been a popular surfing destination around Lake Erie for decades, bringing in wave riders from surrounding states. When waves are breaking, as many as 20 people can be surfing on the sandy peninsula throughout the day.


With colder air moving in, surf season is underway. But surfers have a limited amount of time before ice freezes on the lake.


“October through January is surf season on Lake Erie,” Burke wrote. “Colder air brings stronger and more frequent winds making surfing three to four days a week available.”

Lake Erie is oriented in the same direction as prevailing winter winds, often blowing from the west and southwest, that produce large swells and waves. For the best surfing conditions, the wind can’t exceed 30 mph, or it will blow off the tops of the waves and create dangerous currents, according to Burke. “The best time to surf is after big winds blow and die off. The waves still come but with cleaner, flatter water,” he wrote.


Burke wasn’t always a lake surfer. He learned to break waves on the Pacific Ocean but moved his family from Monterey, Calif., to Erie in October 2017. “Moving to Erie allowed us to have a one-income household, buy a home, and spend more time with our daughter,” he wrote. After the move, Burke didn’t give up surfing and happily transitioned from ocean surfing to lake surfing.

Over the years, Burke has found key differences between riding waves in Lake Erie instead of the Pacific. Even though lake surfing may be different from ocean surfing, it’s still a swell time.

Ryan Burke, left, and Jim Samuels sport ice beards after surfing on Lake Erie in freezing temperatures. (Ryan Burke/Jim Samuels)

Brain freeze!

Surfers who paddle out into the Great Lakes during winter months have described “brain freeze,” or a cold-induced headache, when they submerge their heads under the water.

“Although I use a wet suit that keeps me warm enough to surf, my face is exposed to the frigid water,” Burke wrote. “When falling on a wave or duck-diving into a wave, the hood of my wet suit floods, and the biting-cold water is felt.”


Headaches happen because of constricting capillaries in the neck and head because of the cold, Burke said. Typically head pain occurs quickly with the temple and forehead experiencing throbbing pain.

“Working hard in the water, paddling around warms the body up and offsets the cold. A little dose of adrenaline always helps too,” Burke wrote.

Surfer Ralph Joslin walks toward the beach at Presque Isle State Park. (Neal Louma for The Washington Post)

Freshwater vs. saltwater surfing

Because the Great Lakes are freshwater, surfers don’t have to worry about shark attacks, of course. But freshwater is less dense than saltwater, so surfers and their boards have less buoyancy and more drag on the lake than on the ocean. However, Burke said, the difference in buoyancy between surfing the Pacific Ocean and Lake Erie is hard to perceive.


“What people mistake for less buoyancy with lake surfing is the waves are less powerful and harder to catch,” Burke wrote. “So bigger and wider boards with more volume work better in freshwater.”


Burke designs and produces his own specially designed lake boards, called PI Surfboards, which are locally sourced and manufactured in a 650-square-foot warehouse in the United States.

“The boards I make for lake surfing have a few more liters of volume (foam) and an extra half-inch of width compared to ocean boards,” he wrote.

Burke said the bigger boards are also better for paddling and catching waves for beginners.

Jim Samuels rides a wave on Lake Erie with a surfboard designed by Ryan Burke. (Jim Samuels for The Washington Post)

Wind swell vs. groundswell

Burke said the waves on Lake Erie are much less consistent than ocean waves because they are created by local winds rather than larger weather systems.

“The lake gets waves called ‘wind swell,’ which means local winds produce the waves,” Burke wrote. “Wind swell often results in five to eight-second spacing between each set of waves which is a short interval and makes surfing more difficult to set up and paddle for a wave.”

Anthony Miller rides a wave on Lake Erie. (Dean Zeller for The Washington Post)

Oceans experience groundswell waves, which are created by weather systems or seismic activity thousands of miles away. As a result, groundswell waves are often uniform and approach beaches in sets, with ample spacing between waves.


“Wind swell also is generally less powerful than groundswell waves,” Burke wrote. “Groundswell has a longer wave period and is more desirable for surfing.”

Wind swell waves occur on both oceans and lakes, but groundswell waves do not happen on the Great Lakes because of the lakes’ relatively small size compared with the oceans.

Tyler Rich surfs Lake Erie with snow on the beach. (Neal Louma for The Washington Post)

Given brain freezes, wind swells and intermittent waves, why do surfers venture into the ice-cold water of the Great Lakes to surf in the winter?

Burke summed it up: “Surfers need their fix of adrenaline, stoke, and stories to tell to brave the cold while icicles form on their beards and wet suits. Surfing may just be that fun!”