Issue #189, Oct. 27, 2011

Articles

Goin’ Surfin’ ... in Wisconsin

yes, we have a freshwater surfing scene – thanks to the Great Lakes

by Heidi Kraemer

Above: A beach along Lake Michigan in Sheboygan, WI plays host to the annual freshwater surfing event The Dairyland Surf Classic, as well as providing regular “breaks” for surfers.
 
A beach along Lake Michigan in Sheboygan, WI plays host to the annual freshwater surfing event The Dairyland Surf Classic, as well as providing regular “breaks” for surfers.

When you think of surfing, what comes to mind? Perhaps white-sand beaches, swaying palm trees, tropical flowers, huge ocean swells, and Point Break? How about potlucks, Cheeseheads, and the chilly, freshwater shores of our very own Lake Michigan? Thought you had to buy a plane ticket or move cross-country to be a surfer? Well you thought wrong. I was just as shocked as anyone to learn that we have our very own growing surf culture right here in Wisconsin: the so- called, “Malibu of the Midwest.”

Lake Michigan stretches out at 310 miles long and 110 miles wide, holding 22,440 square miles of fresh water and lots of waves. That’s not just a lake: that’s an inland ocean (minus the sharks and jellyfish). Surfers have been boarding the waves of Lake Michigan, but in 1988 Larry “Longboard” Williams and his twin brother Lee “Waterflea” Williams brought the sport into the public eye by creating The Dairyland Surf Classic. This annual Labor Day weekend event offers paddle relays, competitions, and, of course, lots of freshwater surfing.

The event takes place at Lake Michigan’s premier place to surf: Sheboygan, land of the bratwurst. Sheboygan County juts out five miles into Lake Michigan with average winds of about 15-25 miles per hour. The wind acts like ocean tides, sculpting waves along Sheboygan’s five-mile stretch of premier surfing beach with 22 “breaks” (permanent obstruction in the water like a sandbar that causes waves to break). There is one infamous break thats difficulty has earned it the name “the Mount Everest of freshwater surfing.” 

Surfers don’t get bored here. Wind conditions can whip up waves and flatten them within minutes. Storms kick up open water swells around 24 feet or more. On top of that, freshwater is much less buoyant than saltwater which poses new challenges. These conditions attract surfers from all over the world, along with the beer and cheese.