Surfing in the “Malibu of the Midwest”
Phil Edwards said, “the best surfer out there is the one having the most fun.” Then again, being new to Sheboygan, who would have ever believed surfing the Great Lakes was a popular sport, let alone even possible? When you create this beautiful image in your head of surfers gliding atop the perfect wave, places such as California and Hawaii usually come to mind. But you don’t have to journey to Malibu to experience “hanging ten.” The expanding surf community in Sheboygan has grown exponentially over the past 70 years earning Sheboygan the nickname, Malibu of the Midwest.
Over the past few years, I’ve heard a multitude of stories and photographed many of Sheboygan’s local surfers as I’ve stood idly by on the sand. Only so much time can pass before you begin to grow anxious and slightly jealous seeing everyone enjoy the lively waters. I wondered what rush of emotions I’d encounter if I tried it myself. But there is one question that always lingers in my mind when I think of surfing here. What’s the first step to surfing Sheboygan? Surely, I could buy all the equipment, but then again, what if I’m not entirely convinced this sport is for me nor do I have any prior knowledge about this sport. What type of board would be the best option? How do I pick out a wetsuit? In a stroke of genius, I believe my best option is to visit Sheboygan’s local surf shop located and rentals in the downtown area. EOS Surf Shop offers surf lessons for any brave soul who is willing to take up this thrilling sport. The staff regularly surfs and provides guidance as enthusiastic surfers.
There are slight differences that I must bear in mind before surfing The Great Lakes. First and foremost, I’ll be surfing in freshwater. Unlike surfing on the coast, freshwater is less dense in comparison to saltwater, hence you’ll be less buoyant. For that reason, the proper board is required. Using a shortboard, which is under 7 feet in length, is rather difficult for beginners. They are harder to paddle, as they are small and contain less foam. Dropping in on a wave will prove less tricky on a longboard, which is typically at least 9 feet in length. Longboards are easier to paddle, more forgiving, and steady, allowing beginners the stability needed to learn how to balance on a surfboard.
Now that I know what board I will be using, it’s time for the grueling task at hand, getting into my wetsuit. Yes, you will need and quite honestly want a wetsuit. Lake Michigan’s waters can be cold even in summer. Oddly enough, you won’t be surfing in summer. Did I forget to mention, surfing season in Sheboygan transpires during the fall and winter months, when the waves are most consistent? The best waves in Sheboygan form from southeastern winds. As the wind blows across the surface of the lake, the continual disturbance creates rows of waves that almost imitate a freshly plowed field in our little bay which we refer to as “the elbow.” It goes without saying that I’ll need to bundle up.
Fortunately for us, EOS Surf Shop simply asks you for your normal clothing size and hands you the appropriate wetsuit. There is no guessing or trying on several suits for the proper fit. They walk you through how to get the suit on swiftly and effectively. On the contrary, they’ve done it a hundred times and make it sound easier than reality. My main piece of advice is taking your time. A properly fitted wetsuit should feel unpleasantly snug against your entire body with no looseness or gaps. It should condense to your body like a second layer of skin with little to no wrinkles across the major areas of the suit (torso, length of arms, thighs) and little to no gathering in the underarms or crotch areas. I recommend wearing something underneath this suffocating contraption. For women, I’d wear a sports bra, some sort of compression shorts, or a one-piece swimsuit.
It may take you about 5 to 10 minutes of shimmying and squirming until you successfully squeeze yourself in. But, if you are anything like me and forget that the zipper is supposed to be in the back, it’ll take twice as long for obvious reasons: you need to gather your second wind to do your pull and wiggle movements all over again. By now, I’ve done a full squat and bicep workout and I haven’t even stepped foot in the water yet. Stay with me though. I am equipped with a board and wetsuit, now it’s time to head to the beach with the instructor.
The most popular place to surf in Sheboygan is North Beach on Broughton Drive. My instructor prepared my board with a generous amount of wax. Wax? Do I need to apply wax to my board? Unless the board was bought for show, that’s exactly what I need to do. Surfboard wax is essential as it gives a surfer a tight grip and creates traction for your feet on the board. The wax also stops you from slipping off when you’re paddling out to the waves.
This is the moment! Time to rush down to the water’s edge like a kid on Christmas morning. Amidst turning myself into a human torpedo, I came to a screeching halt realizing I don’t know the proper movements I’ll perform while in the water: paddling, popping up, or balancing. I learned that it’s best to walk through these techniques while planted on solid ground. Correctly positioning your body on a surfboard is a critical foundation to master, even as a beginner. You won’t get it at first, but in time it’ll be like riding a bike. While on the board lay straight down the middle of the board, keeping your legs and feet together, and allowing space for an imaginary soccer ball under your chest while you paddle. A soccer ball, why? What I mean by this is, your shoulders, chin, and chest are in a floating-like state above your board. ALWAYS maintain this position. If the nose of your board is sinking, slide back slightly. If the nose of your board is aiming skyward, slide forward.
I can honestly say, I was horrible with how I positioned myself on the board. If I didn’t have a wetsuit on to hide my embarrassment, I would have been the perfect depiction of a drowned rat. I was sunk and rolled off my board over and over and over again. But how could I let that stop me when I’ve come so far in the story? With my sights set on a perfect wave building off on the horizon, it was time to paddle like crazy. I was paddling with such enthusiasm I could have given one of those whirlybird garden spinners a run for their money. Just before the wave was about to roll over, I placed my hands flat on the board beneath my chest, and in one spring-to-action motion, I lifted my torso using my hands (essentially an explosive push-up), twisted my body from my hips, moved into a low bent knee position and as my eyes widened with the anticipation of fully standing… I fell. Seriously? All that work for nothing. For a while, you’re going to be snapped off your surfboard. Don’t get discouraged; each time you go out into the water you’re perfecting a craft. It’s a normal part of the learning curve.
After a great deal of trial and error, there is a split second when your movements have perfect fluidity. And as if it was second nature to you, you’re finally standing. In that instant, everything begins to transpire in slow motion. It’s like you’re having an out-of-body experience. The rest of the world vanishes. Your mind is clear, and adrenaline, serotonin, endorphins, and dopamine are all mixed into one enticing cocktail of emotions. It’s joy, fear, and accomplishment all rolled into one. All the frustration you harbored is released. You even forget that your arms feel like limp noodles. Because at that moment it’s already too late, you’re hooked on surfing, and despite being physically drained you’ll want to feel that sensation over and over again. I no longer have to sit idly by on the sand and wonder what surfing in Sheboygan is like. I still need a lot of practice and I am not the best surfer by any means, but according to Phil Edwards, I am because I was having the most fun.
About the Author
I am originally from Northern Wisconsin but spent my college years in Sheboygan. I love exploring new places around Sheboygan and I want you to fall in love with the area just as I did. I always have my camera on me in order to capture my adventures and share them on the blog. Follow along with me as I give you insider tips on some of my favorite places to eat and drink, the best ways to experience Lake Michigan, and so much more.
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