Freshwater surfers brave sub-zero temperatures at Stoney Point

Will Wall surfing at Stoney Point, Lake Superior. Photo: Burton Hathaway
Will Wall surfing at Stoney Point, Lake Superior. Photo by Burton Hathaway

While Southern California surfers suffer through an agonizing winter of flatness, a former SoCal resident recently scored some perfect waves at a location rarely associated with surfing—Minnesota. Granted there are no swaying palm trees or bikini-clad beauties lining the shore, but the waves were there, and despite temperatures plunging well below zero, a dozen or so hardcore surfers took on the freezing conditions and lived to tell about it.

Stoney Point
Burton Hathaway after surfing at Stoney Point on Lake Superior in sub-zero conditions. Photo by Erik Wilkie

Burton Hathaway, a former resident of balmy Huntington Beach, California, and his pal Will Wall made the seven-hour drive up from Racine, Wisconsin, to surf Stoney Point, Minnesota, one of the premier waves in the Great Lakes region. Now that he’s had a week to thaw out, we caught up with Burton to get the scoop on the epic freshwater swell…

What was the weather like that day?
It was sunny with just a few leftover clouds and a lot of steam coming off of Lake Superior because of the very cold temperatures.

What was the air temperature before wind chill was factored in?
It was around -12 degrees. But if you factor in the wind chill it was like 50 degrees below zero.

Water temperature?
Water temperature was between 36 and 38 degrees. Lake Superior is the deepest of the Great Lakes so it holds its heat longer into the winter. That also makes it the last lake to freeze over, which is nice because you can’t surf on a frozen lake.

Do you have to apply Vaseline to your face to prevent it from freezing?
Yes, Vaseline on the face is a must, or you will lose your face or nose to frostbite.

What kind of wetsuit do you need in those kinds of conditions?
We’re all wearing 6mm wetsuits with 7mm booties and 5mm gloves.

Do you have to ride a different surfboard in freshwater as opposed to saltwater?
Yes, to paddle into these Great Lake freshwater waves you need thicker and wider boards than you do on the ocean. You’re not as buoyant surfing out here on the lakes—the freshwater isn’t as dense as saltwater and you don’t float as well.

What’s it like after you get out of the water?
Some guys leave their cars running and heaters on full blast while they are out surfing, but Will and I just turn the heater on when we get in from the surf. We also have a portable Mr. Heater that we fire up. The tough part is changing out of your wet, thick, and cold wetsuit; you have to wait until all the ice melts off of your wetsuit—which can take up to 30 minutes—or you’ll rip your wetsuit trying to get out of it.

So you drove seven hours to surf in Minnesota. Why not just fly to California?
This is what we have for waves out here in the Midwest. It’s always an adventure and we go on surf trips all over the Great Lakes. It’s crazy. In the back of your mind you know you can die surfing in these very harsh and unforgiving conditions, but we live for surfing out here on the Great Lakes, and that is our passion.

Stoney Point, Minnesota firing on all cylinders in late December, 2013. Photo: Burton Hathaway
Stoney Point, Minnesota, firing on all cylinders. Photo by Burton Hathaway
Stoney Point
Great Lakes surfer Will Wall thaws out after surfing in -50 degree surf in Minnesota at Stoney Point. Photo by Burton Hathaway
In the middle of winter it takes surfers thirty minutes to thaw out after surfing Lake Superior and Vaseline must be applied to their faces to prevent frostbite.
In the middle of winter it takes surfers 30 minutes to thaw out after surfing Lake Superior and Vaseline must be applied to their faces to prevent frostbite.

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