Some Like It Cold: Sheboygan Surfing
“From countless hours of reading surf magazines, he realized for the first time that Sheboygan was in the best location for surfing anywhere on the Great Lakes. Understanding that surfers are only restricted by geographic necessity (a coastline that generates sizable waves), he no longer saw a series of river mouths, rocky outcroppings, piers, jetties, sandbars and a reef one mile offshore, but rather twenty-two different breaks over a five-mile stretch that with a surfboard could be conquered like never before.”
Those words are from the 2010 book “Some Like it Cold: A Sheboygan Surfin’ Safari” by William Povletich. It’s an entertaining and informative read about Larry and Lee Williams. The twin brothers started surfing during the late 1960s in a town that eventually became the most popular surf spot on the west coast of Lake Michigan. I question the book’s contention that Sheboygan is the “best” surfing location on the entire Great Lakes. Prevailing winds more often produce surfable waves on the Michigan side. But, on those rare and very special days when the wind god decides to blow westward, Sheboygan is where it’s at for Midwest’s surfers.
This past Saturday was one of those days. NOAA’s forecast called for waves on the west coast of Lake Michigan as high as 8 feet early in the morning. One problem: the waves would diminish throughout the morning and cease to exist by the afternoon. Catching waves on this day would require arriving in Sheboygan before the sun does. But that’s what you do when you’ve been waiting all summer to ride waves that make their annual appearance in October and during the infamous Gales of November.
Each time I go to Sheboygan, I’m the odd duck on the water because I’m in a kayak. It’s usually just me and the board surfers. You often hear about belligerent and downright nasty surfers in places such as Malibu and Hawaii but at Sheboygan the surfers have always been friendly to me. I like to think it’s because I respect the “lanes” and demonstrate good spacing and boat control.
Arriving in Deland Park just before 7 a.m., I quickly realized I wasn’t the only one who was watching the wave forecast. Despite the pouring rain, half a dozen board surfers were donning wet suits and waxing their boards in the pre-dawn darkness. As the overcast sky grew brighter, I popped my head through my drysuit neck gasket and carried my boat out along the breakwater wall.
The water was cold, the air was warm and the waves were excellent; perfect for kayak surfing. Most waves were of the 3- to 5-foot variety with occasional sets rolling in at 6 and larger. Within half an hour after hitting the water I had already surfed my Liquid Logic XP10 kayak from the bend in the pier known as “The Elbow” to the beach three times. And soon nearly 20 board surfers joined me on the water, patiently waiting for the largest sets that offered the best rides.
After an hour of play I took a brief onshore break. There on the sidelines I met up with whitewater kayaker buddy Phil “Memphis” Lutey. He was talking to a guy sporting a Blatz Beer cap and wielding a long-lens camera. I immediately recognized the photographer as surfing legend Larry Williams, subject of the “Some Like It Cold” book. Quoting from Travel Wisconsin’s website:
“Larry ‘Longboard’ Williams has been a life long resident of Sheboygan and along with his twin brother, Lee ‘Water Flea’ Williams has helped pioneer the Great Lakes surfing ‘stoke’. With 46 years of surfing behind him, he’s more well known in East and West Coast surfing hotspots than in his own hometown. After appearing in the award-winning surf film, Step into Liquid, and the Great Lakes surfing documentary Unsalted, even Sony Pictures caught on and modeled Surf’s Up’s Chicken Joe, an animated surfing chicken, after him and his brother. Sheboygan’s fame as a player in the world of surfing had come to fruition.”
Larry no longer surfs as much as he used to but when the waves attract surfers to Sheboygan’s lakefront, you’ll likely find Larry there too, always willing to share stories from his nearly 50 years of surfing Sheboygan and the world.
A clip from one of my runs at Sheboygan this past Saturday:
And for additional fun, here’s an interview with the Williams brothers: