Why winter surfing on the Great Lakes is all the rage

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CHICAGO -- The fresh water winter surfing season is now -- november through April. Dedicated surfers say, forget the cold! It's all about the wind and the waves. If you dress for it, surfing on the Great Lakes is second to none.

"While it sucks, it's really cold, freezing out, it just happens to be a great time to surf in the lakes," said 23-year-old Chicago surfer Cade Chudy.

Chudy is a nanny, videographer and winter surfer. WGN went out with him on a 24-degree gray day. And the water temperature was 34 degrees, so dressing for the elements is critical.

"I currently own a 5mm back zip that I am wearing right now," Chudy said. "So basically you have your hole right here -- your gloves, your booties, a hood -- makes you look like a knight in shining armor. Essentially with this hole sticking out."

While Chudy prepared himself for the waves along Chicago's shoreline, a handful of others were surfing the lakes in Whiting, Indiana.

WGN-TV Chief Meteorologist Tom Skilling explains the phenomenon.

"There is a little more instability in the atmosphere, and that means you put cold air over warm lake waters, and there is a little upward motion generated by that, and that could even act to enhance the waves a little bit during the winter time," Skilling said.

The burgeoning surfer community is not only in Illinois. Indiana and even Michigan's city, St. Joesph, about 2 hours outside of Chicago, brag about the community.

Jack Nordgren, 69, who the locals call "Waikiki Jack," has one goal: "My goal is to surf until I am 90,"

The grandfather and retired pastor spends half the year in Hawaii, the other half in Michigan. He says he finds Great Lakes surfing to be biblical.

"I really think I would be in trouble if I got to Heaven and I didn't surf. I really think God created me to surf and that is something I need to do," Nordgren said.

Surfing since 1965, Nordgren's even written books about it.

But catching a wave along the Great Lakes is no easy task -- just ask Third Coast Surf Shop owner Ryan Gerard.

"You have to want to put your time in. You have to really want it because it's not easy," Gerard said.

The costly gear, of course, is the price of staying warm. And then, there's forecasting.

Wind models, wave cams, buoy websites and even apps can tell you where and when is the best place to drop your board in the water.

But Nordgren says these days, modern communication is almost the best messenger.

"We're just calling and texting one another and when surf's up, it's like the coconut wireless in Hawaii. Everyone's just contacting everybody else and just meeting down there," he said.

Potential dangers of this type of surfing is not only the cold weather. Lightening and icebergs pose bigger problems. The buddy system on the lakes is highly recommended.

Surfing is growing in the region. In the Chicago area alone, surfers estimate there are close to a thousand people riding waves in the winter on the Great Lakes.

For more information, log on to these websites.

Third Coast Surf Shop's Great Lakes Surfing FAQ

Waikiki Jack's Surf Lessons



 Buoy Websites





Wave Models

GLERL Wave Model                            



Weather Models for wind

Weather Model Data                     

College of Dupage Model Site           

HRRR hourly model  (Click Great Lakes Domain)

Wind Map                                           



NWS Forecasts    (Wave period graphic click over water)


NWS Grand Rapids                            

NWS Northern Indiana                      


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