The Wake Surfing Problem: Big Waves and Big Controversy Are Coming to a Lake Near You

by Vern Evans

The growing popularity of wake surfing is making waves of its own, splitting lake associations and pitting neighbors against each other as some lake country residents call for bans and states from Minnesota to Vermont to South Carolina consider, pass, and shoot down new regulations. 

“Wake boats are probably the single biggest divisive issue to lakes, and that’s not good,” says Joe Shneider, president of the Minnesota Coalition of Lake Associations. “You have a lake place, and you want to think of this wonderful existence, whatever that is in your mind, [but] you’re ticked off at your neighbor because they either do or don’t support wake surfing.

“It’s almost like the politics of today. You don’t see how it’s going to end.”

Lake users from bass fishermen to kayakers say the waves created by these slow-moving and massive wake boats make for dangerous conditions on lakes. They say the power created stirs up lake bottoms pulling nutrients into the water column aiding harmful algal blooms. And a recent study out of the University of Minnesota shows that some of these concerns may have merit.

Understanding Wake Surfing and Wake Boats

Wake boats are popular all over the country. In the West you’ll see them running around massive reservoirs with rocky shorelines. But wake surfing is the most controversial in the Midwest, where there are innumerable lakes of all sizes. 

A wake surfer rides waves made by a large boat often with its ballast filled with up to 3,000 or even 5,000 pounds of water sucked up from the lake. The boat runs relatively slowly, about 11 mph, to create 2- to 3-foot waves. A new top-end wake boat can cost as much as a half-million dollars. 

The surfers do tricks, flipping their boards around and catching air like pros off the coast of southern California. Only the waves aren’t rising and crashing like they do in the Pacific Ocean, they’re rolling on and on. As riders keep surfing down the lake, the waves also keep rolling, too, where people say they smash into docks and shorelines, eroding delicate ecosystems and knocking fishermen out of their boats.

Wake surfers like Jason Lybeck counter that the sport is a family-friendly, safe way to get people on the water. Concerns about docks and shorelines are overblown, proponents say, the result of only a few irresponsible boat owners.

The Wake Boat Problem 

A video by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that’s viewed thousands of times on YouTube shows a section of lake bottom in Wisconsin’s Big Cedar Lake in 2014 (before wake boats became popular). Plants sway in the current and fish dart back and forth. Almost a decade later, in 2023, little remains but sediment, the plants and other aquatic life were scoured from the bottom. Boats with heavy ballasts force water down to make waves, blasting river and lake bottoms in areas that aren’t deep enough. As sediment fills water columns, it adds more nutrients to the lake and can create harmful algal blooms.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources released a report in July 2023 reviewing literature about wake boats or potential environmental impacts of wake boats. The report describes wake boats as “an emerging threat to natural resources in inland lakes,” citing concerns about resuspending lake bottom sediment and the “dramatic increase in risk for transporting Dreissenid mussels and other aquatic invasive species.”

“The cumulative negative effects of wake boats on natural resources has the potential to lead to loss of habitat, resulting in the decline of aquatic ecosystems and angling opportunity,” the report states. 

Shneider says damage from constant waves against shorelines also motivates homeowners to reinforce edges with riprap or even seawalls. Those changes further damage plant and animal life that thrive in the buffer between water and land and degrade lake quality. 

However, according to Michigan’s DNR report: “These concerns can be mitigated by operating farther from shore to allow waves to dissipate before reaching shore, operating in deeper water to prevent bottom scour and resuspension of sediments, and disinfecting ballast tanks.”

The Wake Boat Study

The University of Minnesota’s St. Anthony Falls Laboratory is where scientists, engineers, and researchers solve problems with water. So it made sense that panicked cabin and boat owners would turn to a university in lake country to see what the science says about wake boat waves.

The lab, in turn, went to the public to crowd source its funding for the project. It raised more than $100,000 from hundreds of people in a few months, says Andy Riesgraf, the project’s lead researcher. The project has two phases, and researchers recently completed the first one. Results aren’t damning for wake boats, but they also aren’t great. 

The study analyzed the difference in wave size, strength and power between boats used for water skiing, tubing and general recreation against boats used while wake surfing. Typical operation for most common boats at higher speeds — roughly 20 mph — lifts the boats higher on the water creating smaller waves. Wake boats, on the other hand, are heavy and typically fill their ballasts with water, sinking them farther into the water. They are designed to create the biggest waves ideal for surfing. 

But those waves, the study showed, end up being two to three times larger, with six to nine times more energy and six to 12 times more power than those from other boats operated at their quicker speeds. 

All of this means that it takes a wave from a wake boat about 500 feet to become the same size as a wave from a non-wake boat at 200 feet. In other words, if lake rules say recreational boats need to stay about 200 feet from shore at high speeds, wake boats should stay more than 500 feet.

The study also showed that how a boat operates matters. Wake boats with full ballasts are particularly good at producing big waves, but non-wakesurf boats can also produce bigger waves if modified with after-market wake-altering technology like wake shapers or wake wedges that pull a boat’s stern into the water.

“It’s not that we’re for or against [wake surfing], it’s that we need data,” Riesgraf says. “It’s a clear issue because we hear about it daily, and our goal is to provide unbiased research. Lake associations or state legislatures can then take our data and report and make their decisions on what they feel is best going forward.”

A Rise in Regulations

The findings are now circulating, being used in places like Vermont and Wisconsin to justify new regulations.

In 2022, Oregon banned wake surfing altogether in a popular stretch of the Willamette River. Two years later, Vermont passed some of the strictest wake boat rules yet, containing wake boats to designated wake boat zones on most waters. Those zones are at least 500 feet from shore, more than 20 feet deep and more than 200 feet wide. The state also requires any boat be decontaminated when moving between waters to try and prevent spreading invasive species. 

Both Michigan and Wisconsin killed bills that aimed to pass broad wake surfing regulations. And South Carolina passed a law in 2021 backed by the wake boating industry that restricts wake boats to more than 200 feet from docks, a person in the water, or an anchored boat. 

Shneider and many others finally convinced Minnesota lawmakers to pass a bill requiring nearly all boaters take an education class and receive a boater education card, which will at least regulate who can drive the boats and what they need to know before turning the key. It will go into effect in 2025. Now Shneider and others are working on establishing best practices, like how to use a wake boat responsibly. The Minnesota DNR approved wake boat restrictions recently on Caribou Lake, the first individual lake in Minnesota to see such restrictions publicized. The rules mandate boats stay in at least 20 feet of water and stay 500 feet from shorelines.

The Backlash

Unsurprisingly, many in the wake boat community dispute the results of the University of Minnesota study, pointing instead to a separate study backed by the boating industry that shows wake boats only need to be 200 feet from shore and in 10 feet of water to prevent ecological damage.

Jeremy Whalberg, who grew one of the biggest wake surfing contests in the Midwest, blames the controversy on a lack of education. Bans aren’t necessary, he says and likely won’t work.

“People spend a lot of money on these boats, $200,000 to $500,000. When you spend that much money on a boat, you expect to use it, and they are pissing off a lot of people,” Whalberg says. “It will take some time for dust to settle, and states that do ban them will get blowback.”

Meanwhile, wakesurfing is only becoming more popular. The $100 billion industry could grow by another $50 billion by the end of 2030, driven by an increase in disposable income and interest in water sports.

For Lybeck, all the fuss comes down to personal responsibility. 

“I think a lot of those people are talking about emotions and not talking about science-based facts,” he says. “But I also couldn’t agree more that people do dumb things.”

That’s why when Lybeck sells someone a boat, he takes the new owner out into the lake and explains not just how the $200,000 to $300,000 machine works, but also how to use it without causing trouble. 

Wake boat drivers need to be in water deeper than 20 feet — to create the best waves and to minimize habitat damage — and they need to stay away from other boats. They also shouldn’t make wild turns. Drivers should start at one end and motor at 11 to 12 mph in a straight line to the other end where they power down, turn, and make a return trip on the same line. If a surfer falls down, the boat shouldn’t whip around, creating erratic waves peeling off in every direction. They should, again, power down and turn back to help. 

But the problem, Lybeck and Whalberg say, is a combination of some sellers who either don’t understand what they’re offering or aren’t willing to provide the necessary tutorial, and some buyers who either aren’t aware or don’t care about the repercussions. They’ve both noticed that some wake boat owners let their kids take out the boats without enough instruction. 

“I’ve had to chastise some of my customers’ kids because they’re doing stupid stuff and I’ve lost customers because of it, but I take it very seriously,” Lybeck says. “I don’t want to see more regulations.”

The Future

The controversy over where, how, and when wake surfing is allowed has become so polarized that Shneider thinks some states will likely never pass regulations. In many places, it will be up to local governments to pass regulations (or not). 

Meanwhile, now that Riesgraf and his team know how big the waves behave on the surface, they’re going to focus on phase 2 to better understand what’s going on under water. That information could help natural resource departments determine the effects wake boats have on lake bottoms and ecosystems. 

Shneider and others look forward to those results, hoping they can lead to more education, if not also regulation. 

“We want to get the science first and let that influence public policy,” he says. “Whatever that is.”

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