Bio - Eric L. Mihelbergel is an intermediate/advanced windsurfer, kiteboarder, and foiler living in the Great Lakes Region of New York State who enjoys sharing about windsports and fitness.
What Are Waves...on the Great Lakes?
By Eric Mihelbergel(Written August 2019)
There are many different kinds of riders on the Great Lakes. We have surfers, windsurfers, kitesurfers, wind foilers, kite foilers, SUP surfers, and SUP foilers. Each looks forward to the waves generated by our local wind. But what is a wave on the Great Lakes? Is a wave different than swell?
I Googled the term 'wave' to see how Google defines it. They define it as, 'a long body of water curling into an arched form and breaking on the shore'. But, is this how riders on the Great Lakes define 'wave'? Let's explore.
Surfers: I don't surf on the Great Lakes, but I know many people who do. For them, they would agree with Google's definition. They need a long body of water "curling" and "breaking" on the shore to get a ride. Swell just won't do. Swell has the opposite shape of breaking waves. Swell is convex, while breaking waves are concave. Swell has no lip, no curl, and no steepness. Breaking waves have a green spot, a pocket, and white water. This is what a surfer needs. A surfer cannot paddle into swell.
Windsurfers: This is my sport. For me, the Google definition is the ONLY definition. Swell is NOT a wave. It just doesn't count as a wave in my book. Only a long body of water "curling" and "breaking" on the shore is a wave for me. I am always seeking the lip to hit frontside and backside, and the steepness and curl to drop in to. Swell has no lip to hit, and no curl or steepness. Swell is round and gentle, while a breaking wave is steep with greater push. A breaking wave on the Great Lakes is sweet candy waiting to be eaten. But, a few windsurfers also consider swell to be a wave. Some love to unhook on the outside and ride down a gentle rolling swell. Competition wave windsurfing is all about breaking waves, not swell. Wave moves cannot be performed on swell. In order to perform backside turns, frontside turns, and proper aerials, a windsurfer needs a lip. Swell just does not work, and so most windsurfers do not consider it a wave.
Kitesurfers: I also kitesurf, but I would not consider myself as an authority on the sport. I pretty much suck. Instead, I look to the many kitesurfers I know who literally SLAY the wave. From what I have witnessed and discussed with the many, many kitesurfers I know, kitesurfers enjoy both swell and long bodies of water curling and breaking on the shore, with HEAVY emphasis on long bodies of water curling and breaking on the shore. This is similar to windsurfers. When a kitesurfer is on the outside you may see them enjoy a ride down a rolling swell. But, a kitesurfer on the inside can literally SLAY a wave, crushing it into droplets of spray that I then inhale when I come in behind them on my windsurf rig. Kitesurfers go frontside, then backside, then frontside, then backside, over and over and over, countless times, seemingly effortless. A breaking wave on the Great Lakes is heaven for them. Swell can be fun, but, again, real wave moves cannot be performed on swell.
Windfoilers and Kitefoilers: These riders give a glorious description of all waves ridden with a foil. From what I interpret, these riders give almost equal value to curling/breaking waves and swell. The presence of the foil makes the experience of even small swell much more 'wavy' than with traditional gear. Both windfoilers and kitefoilers on the Great Lakes describe glorious experiences on both the inside and outside with a foil.
SUP Surfers and SUP Foilers: I only know a few of each of these, so my sample of evidence is not as vast in this category of rider. However, SUP surfers seem to prefer breaking waves while SUP foilers seem to get as much enjoyment from swell as they do from breaking waves. Most of these riders that I am familiar with are not in the WNY area, but rather on Lake Huron as are many of the windfoilers. Conditions are similar, however, in both locations. As with other foilers, SUP foilers seem to find that the foil gives them a more 'wavy' feeling on swell that allows more enjoyment on swell compared to pure board sports.
In conclusion, we see that traditional board riders generally consider curling/breaking bodies of water to be a wave, not swell. Foilers generally consider both to be a wave.