Winter surfing on Lake Tahoe
Wind gusts in excess of 40 mph and bone-chilling water don’t seem like a recipe for a good day at Lake Tahoe.
But for a select group of outdoor enthusiasts, the conditions are ripe for rare winter surfing sessions on Big Blue, such as the outings that occurred during the 2016-17 winter season.
“This past winter, we had a pretty good window,” said Brennan Lagasse, a Lake Tahoe resident who has been surfing the lake for more than 10 years. “It’s hard to put it on quantitative sort of level … but we were able to surf multiple times.”
Lagasse, who holds a master’s degree in environment and community from Humboldt State and a bachelor’s degree in sociology and anthropology from Colgate University, said the more wind the better for winter surfing.
“Wind direction and intensity,” said the 37-year-old Lagasse, who is an adjunct professor at Sierra Nevada College in Incline Village. “We got gusts of 40 mph. Once you have gusts of 40-45 mph, there are waves to surf.”
He said riding the waves on the lake is similar to ocean surfing, except the water is a lot choppier, and surfers don’t have to worry about predators.
“You are out in the lake, so there are no sharks … never have to worry about it,” said Lagasse with a wry chuckle. “(Also), the buoyancy of the water … it’s a really different feeling. It’s not a groundswell, it’s a wind swell.”
Lagasse said another difference between lake and winter surfing is the repetitiveness of the waves, which come in one after other when it’s really pumping.
“It’s a different style of wave. It’s not like it breaks in the same spot all the time … when the next wave comes in, it might be a little to the left or to the right. It kind of keeps you on your toes,” he said.
Fellow winter surfer Scott Gaffney, who has been surfing the lake for about 17 years, agreed with the assessment.
“It’s typically very messy with peaks everywhere, and the energy of the waves are quite different (than the ocean),” said Gaffney, an Ithaca College graduate who grew up in northern New York and works as a producer for Matchstick Productions. “The ocean is kind of like a boat wake. It will peak in front of you, but if it peaks in front of you, it will recede and the next wave builds. People from the ocean will see the difference.”
Both veteran lake surfers also agreed that the best wind for lake surfing is south or south, southwest.
“The more south the better,” said Gaffney, who has surfed the lake a number of times with Lagasse over the years.
Gaffney said they keep a constant eye on the weather forecasts for the lake because when the conditions add up, it’s time to hit the water.
“This is not just a novelty; it’s a legitimate thing,” said the 48-year-old Gaffney, who Lagasse refers to as one of the best skiers he’s ever seen on the slopes.
Fellow skier and surfer Amie Engerbretson said she is waiting for a chance to get back on the lake after surfing the water body a few years ago.
“I did it once. It’s very fun, but very challenging. It’s super cold,” said the 29-year-old professional skier, who grew up in the Tahoe Basin and lives in Truckee.
Engerbretson, who surfed at Ski Beach in Incline Village or North Baldwin Beach in South Lake Tahoe, described the waves as “not smooth” but rideable. She said she lasted about an hour before the water temperature led her back to shore.
“Definitely something to try,” said Engerbretson, who holds a bachelor’s degree in media management from Columbia College.
Given the water temperature of the lake, which easily hovers in the low ‘40s during wintertime, the surfers said it’s imperative to wear the proper gear.
“I had a wetsuit since 2000. The water would flush through it like crazy,” said Gaffney, who said he once drove home “fairly hypothermic” after a session in the lake.
Gaffney said he has since traded up, and sports a 6/5 wetsuit along with a hood, glove and booties. The 6/5 represents the thickness of the wetsuit in millimeters.
The 6 represents the thickness of the neoprene in the torso portion of the wetsuit, while the 5 represents the thickness in the extremities, such as the arms and legs.
Lagasse said he used to go out in a 3/2 or a 4/3 wetsuit, but used a 5/4 wetsuit in winter 2016-17.
“It’s mandatory,” he said. “I’ve been out there when its dumping snow … pulling down the visor. It’s kind of a funny scene. You paddle, catch a wave … it’s dumping snow and you’ve got a wave.”
As for surfboards, the specifications are all over the place with some surfers partial to longer boards, while others prefer short boards.
“I’ve seen everything,” said Gaffney, who mainly rode a 6-foot, 8-inch board last winter while surfing at the lake.
As for Lagasse, he was less committed to one particular stick last winter.
“I would change boards all the time,” he said. “A (shorter) board, and then go back to a long board … get a little bit longer paddle, catch the wave, and make the drop.”
Conditions also play a role in determining what board to use, and can be quite different depending on the location of the break.
One of the more popular breaks during the wintertime is in the Agate Bay area on the California side of Lake Tahoe, whose surface area measures a little more than 122,00 acres or roughly 191 square miles.
“Years ago, I would be alone (or) with two or three other guys,” Gaffney said. “Now, there are times when it gets crowded at Agate Bay. Within 10 minutes you can have 20 people out in the water.
“There are days that are legit.”