Surfing the Gales of November

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Known for the many shipwrecks they have caused, Lake Superior’s “Gales of November” have developed quite the reputation. Songs have been inspired by the gales, most famously Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” The gales of November also invite people from all over to come surf the chilly waters of Lake Superior.

Marin Stefani is from France and came to Duluth to surf at Park Point. 

“I’ve been surfing on and off since I was a little kid,” said Stefani. “My family is pretty sports-oriented. We go snowboarding, we go skiing and stuff on the western coast of France. This was my first time surfing in the U.S. actually, and it’s great.” 

St. Paul resident David Powell surfs at Lake Superior 10-15 times a year. A Minnesotan native, Powell learned to surf in Oregon.

“My wife and I lived out on the west coast, and that first winter we were living out there, we saw that you can surf in Minnesota,” said Powell. “This is where we grew up and we didn’t realize you could surf here. And they were getting better waves more consistently than we were out in Oregon. So when we moved back, made it a priority to want to surf out here.”

This time of year stands out for many surfers.

“The gales come in,” said UMD student Ben Gjerde. “I don’t completely understand it, but November’s the best. Once you get December and January. It’s freezing cold, but it’s still super good.”

The gales of November are well-known to surfers but could happen other times of the year. 

“Climatological late October into early November is the most often time that we can see gale strength storms and up to storm force storms which are 48 knot winds, which is even stronger,” explained NWS Duluth Warning Forecast Meteorologist Joe Moore. “But we have had them as early as early October, and we can also get these in the spring as well.”

As we transition from the warm, moist air of summer to the cold, arctic air of winter, powerful weather patterns tend to develop in the fall. 

“We get into a very active weather pattern where these low pressures can be very deep, and high pressures are coming in from the north, bringing in arctic air,” said Moore. “This can cause really strong winds and large waves on Lake Superior.”

Jerome Fischer, owner of The Back Alley, pays close attention to the wind forecast to know when and where to hang ten.

“If you get the wind, it’s like, all right, and you go drive around and look for waves,” said Fischer. “Now hopefully there’s something. Sometimes you get skunked, and that’s just kind of part of it, but you just go look for it.”

The strength and direction of the wind are both crucial for good surfing. 

“The biggest thing is just like the main thing that everyone’s looking for is like a northeast wind blowing in between like 13 knots and over, you know, the harder it is blowing across that lake, the bigger the waves are going to be,” explained Fischer.

A shift in direction can either help or hinder surfers. 

“What you need is a lot of wind coming onshore, so the wind blows up on it and it cleans it out,” said Gjerde.

“A little shift in the direction of the wind can make different spots work or not work,” Fischer added. “So as someone that’s surfing kind of gets more experience and the more they go out, the more that you kind of learn what spots work with what wind conditions.”

There are challenges with surfing on such a large, powerful lake. 

“Park Point is usually super tough when the wind’s coming onshore. So it’s just like, you can’t get out there unless you’re just paddling for your life. And then you look up, and you’re just like, ‘wow, I made no ground at all’,” said Gjerde.

The chilly waters of Lake Superior also require the use of the thickest wetsuits. 

“You’re looking for a 5/4 or a 6/5 wetsuit, keeps you nice and toasty most of the time, and then 7 mill booties and mitts,” said Fischer. “So you have mitts on your hands, shoes on your feet, and then all those thicker suits generally come with a hood, and you’re ready to go.”

There are a couple of tricks to stay a bit warmer, such as putting Vaseline on your face and warm water in your suit. Staying warm makes it easier to learn if surfing for the first time.

“If you have a suit that is too cold or something like that, not only do you know what you’re doing and you’re trying to learn, you’re also uncomfortably cold, and so that’s a big one, just getting the right equipment out the gate,” explained Fischer.

Once you get the right gear, wind in your favor, and get the hang of it, surfing the gales of November can be an experience like none other. 

“I kind of like the cold for some reason. Like, you kind of feel like you’re just kind of chilling out there in the freezing cold, like, especially during the winter,” said Gjerde. “It’s just a whole new ballgame. You feel like you’re doing something people don’t usually do. You’re having fun while you’re doing it.”