Thriving Chicago surf culture skirts the law

Thriving Chicago surf culture skirts the law
William Charles Rozier catches a wave on the coast of Lake Michigan. (Photo courtesy of Ian Jacobson.)
William Charles Rozier catches a wave on the coast of Lake Michigan. (Photo courtesy of Ian Jacobson.)

When people think of iconic surfing spots, Malibu, Hawaii and Costa Rica come to mind. But according to local surfers, beaches in Chicago and the suburbs along Lake Michigan belong up in the ranks of great places to surf, although they don’t want anyone to know it.

“I don’t want to give out exact specifics on surf spots because some surf buddies want to be ‘old school’ and protect secrets,” Dave Benjamin, a Chicago surfer said, although he does cite 57th St. Beach as one of his favorites in the city. He also noted Hammond, Indiana and Racine, Wisconsin as great surf spots.

Other Chicago surfers refer to beaches throughout Northern Cook County when they think of great surf locales.

While oceans are more notable for being popular surf spots, Benjamin says the main difference is in the surfing culture at each spot.

“On the ocean I’ve seen a few instances of surf-rage, where local surfers argue or fight with newbies or tourists over who had the right of way on a wave,” Benjamin said. “Oftentimes on the ocean there may be hundreds of surfers in the water, so you may be competing for each wave.”

Surfing culture at lakes is more of a laid back and friendly environment.

“Lake surfers are pretty chill,” Benjamin said, “especially since a crowded lineup may be only 20 surfers, or five to 10 in the winter.”

Chicago winters can be brutal, but as long as the water in Lake Michigan isn’t frozen, it’s still surfing season.

“In some seasons there may be a two to six week break when the lake is frozen over in December and January,” Benjamin said.

Surfer Magazine recommended buying a wetsuit that isn’t too thin, not going out alone, bringing warm clothes to change into afterwards and eating root vegetables two hours before surfing in cold water.

Benjamin also noted the differences in threats that ocean surfers and lake surfers face given the large difference between the two settings. In the ocean, major threats are mostly marine life, including dolphins, sea lions and sharks. The main threat that surfers face in Lake Michigan is pollution and the illegality of surfing certain beaches along Lake Michigan.

It’s only legal to surf at four beaches in Chicago — 57th St. Beach, Montrose Beach, Rainbow Beach and Osterman Beach, and they only became legal to surf at in 2009, which makes it understandable that surfers want to keep their locations secret. In addition to keeping crowds small, many surfers want to avoid arrest — except Rex Flodstrom, a Chicago surfer whose arrest in 2012 for surfing an illegal beach (Oak St. Beach) and breaking city ordinances made national headlines.

Flodstrom ended up taking a plea deal and serving 20 hours of community service, but the harsh reality that surfing is illegal in many spots can spook some away from the sport. Despite this, the surfers on Lake Michigan remain dedicated to their sport, even though the weather is not always on their side. Lake surfers have to depend upon the wind in order to create waves, which gives them less opportunity to surf than ocean surfers.

“You’re happy to get anything (while) lake surfing,” Ian Jacobson, a lake surfer from the Chicago area said. “All our waves are wind-generated swell. The time between the waves tends to be shorter in the lake, so the waves come in quicker succession, but typically have less power than an ocean wave.”

Lakes are significantly smaller than oceans, so the waves have less time to travel and come more frequently. Because of this, surfers normally have to paddle through waves in order to get out far enough to catch one, rather than wait in between waves. The water in lakes is also less buoyant than ocean water, creating more of a drag for lake surfers while they are paddling.

Although there are many differences between ocean and lake surfing, drowning is still a major threat to surfers, including Benjamin, who experienced a drowning accident while surfing in Lake Michigan.

“(The accident) really opened my eyes to how many people drown in the Great Lakes, as well as how many drown every day in the world,” Benjamin said.

Surviving his accident made Benjamin realize he wanted to dedicate the rest of his life to preventing further accidents and founded the Great Lakes Surf Project. The nonprofit corporation works to educate people of all ages about water safety.

Despite the scare, Benjamin, along with other lake surfers, still heads out whenever the weather is right.

“Surf season is whenever the winds blow and the water isn’t frozen,” Benjamin said. “Nothing else really matters (when you’re in the water). It’s a break from all the stresses in life, it’s a whole new kind of addiction.”

“The water is always changing, so no session is the same as another,” Jacobson said. “Every day’s a new experience — the only thing that remains the same is the stoke you feel from catching a solid wave.”

A struggle that Chicago surfers face is the lack of shops supporting the sport. Most Lake Michigan surfers agree that Third Coast Surf Shop in New Buffalo, Michigan is one of the best shops catered to surfers in the Midwest. Although the trek out to Michigan is not feasible for many Chicagoans, including college students, there are other options, including buying secondhand surfing items from Chicago surfers or purchasing items online.

While there are many different ways and places to surf, most surfers can agree on one thing — there’s nothing like catching a wave.

“My favorite thing about surfing is just catching that wave,” Benjamin said. “Waiting, maneuvering through the waves for the perfect spot, watching it peak up, paddling and popping up, then gliding down a glassy mound, hopefully with a little carving or a cutback and connecting it to the inside… and then starting all over again.”

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