“The unlike is joined together, and from differences results the most beautiful harmony.” — Heraclitus
The sky is gray and Lake Michigan looks angry on an icy March morning. The surf is up in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.
Thanks to the Dairyland Surf Classic, Sheboygan’s surf scene has appeared in national media like the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, and even on film. The 2007 animated movie Surf’s Up includes a character named Chicken Joe, who hails from Sheboygan.
“A lot of people thought I was crazy,” Chicken Joe says about surfing in Lake Michigan. “But I’m used to it.”
The inspiration for Chicken Joe is almost certainly Larry “Longboard” Williams, godfather of Wisconsin’s surf scene. Williams is what you get if you connect California with Wisconsin. He is a Buddhist who waxes spiritual about the life cycle of a wave. His day job is driving heavy construction equipment.
When he’s not riding the waves on his home turf, Williams takes several surfing trips a year and acts as an ambassador for freshwater surfing. He recently returned from one such trip to California.
“In Lake Michigan,” he’s fond of telling out-of-state surfers, “there’s never been a reported shark attack.”
Sheboygan’s surfers are also showcased in the 2001 documentary Step Into Liquid, a sequel to the seminal surfing movie Endless Summer. The film follows diverse surfing cultures all over the world, from Malibu to Ireland to Wisconsin. Williams has surfing friends in Honolulu who told him people there parroted the Wisconsin surfer accent after seeing the film.
“They say, ‘Aloha Bruddah,’ but we say, ‘Hey dere, come here once,’” Williams says. “They love the Sheboygan speak.”
There’s a scene in Step Into Liquid showcasing unathletic Wisconsinites surfing ungracefully. There’s a shot of a Chris Farley look-alike charging into tiny waves and subsequently wiping out. On the surface, these characters don’t exactly embody surfer archetypes. But surfers know that what powers a wave can’t be seen on the surface.
“I wouldn’t put me in a national contest,” veteran Sheboygan surfer Robert “Doc” Beaton tells the camera. “But I have as much fun as anyone else and I like it as much.”
That’s why, every year, big-wave surfers from as far away as Hawaii and Australia flock to the Dairyland Surf Classic. It’s the unofficial kick-off to the Great Lakes surf season, when low-pressure systems and high winds usher in big waves. There are competitions and trophies and custom surfboards awarded, but for half the weekend there are no events scheduled except “just hangin’ at the beach.” As always, it ends with an intimate invite-only potluck dinner. Williams revels in it. “I’m not sure which I love to do more,” he says, “surfing or meeting people.”
The tight-knit Sheboygan surfing community comes from all walks of life. There’s an Australian native and golf course maintenance manager who cut his teeth on ocean swell. There’s a retired schoolteacher everyone calls “the Bear” due to his paddling power. One of the youngest is a sixteen-year-old who got his start three years ago when Lee Williams gave him his first surfboard and wetsuit.
Now, the regulars are noticing even more new faces. “Five years ago we knew every single person on the water,” Williams says. “Now there’s just tons of people coming out.”
But it’s hard to see what is fun about diving into near-freezing water when snow covers the ground. Borrowing a suit and board from Williams, I intend to find out. Virtually my entire body is covered, including a hood, boots, and gloves, but I still shiver, shake, and feel my feet going numb.
At least I’m not the only one crazy enough to try this. By now, the sun is up and a few wetsuit-clad surfers jump off the rocks to ride what appear to be four- or five-foot waves. Williams and I take a less intense route by paddling out from the sandy beach. Turns out, it’s not so bad in the water.
Because the water is warmer than the air temperature, wading through its currents actually warms me up — for a little while, anyway. An icy wave smacking me in the face — the only exposed skin on my body — suddenly jolts me back to reality. Sprays of water seep under the edges of my suit and pool in my boots and against my back. The icy shock takes my breath away.
Then something surprising happens. My body heat warms the water trapped in my suit and forms a protective layer. I feel like I’m floating in a bubble. I bob on my board while watching the rising sun reflect off the lake. I hear nothing but the sounds of flowing water. It’s Zen-like, and it makes sense that Williams is a practicing Buddhist. I can see how surfing can be seen as a spiritual and creative experience.
“The wave is a life source,” he says. “Its energy isn’t lost; it’s reborn again. We don’t challenge the waves, we work with them.”
I’m not an expert surfer, but this experience teaches me how to connect to the elements around me, even on a cold Wisconsin day in March.
Creativity is making unlikely connections and seeing what others overlook — like a surf community in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.
Williams’s animated antics fade in the water as he instructs me. His tone is fatherly. I realize I’m far from the first newbie he’s taken out here. He’s even taught his daughter how to surf. Her middle name is Lake, and he says she has a better wetsuit than he does.
I’ve surfed only once before, under the guidance of an instructor in Costa Rica. In some ways, this is more difficult. The waves may be smaller, but they come at you faster. I quickly tire myself out trying to paddle to the breaks. I never make it out to the big waves. I also never stand up on my board.
I’m in the water just long enough to gain an appreciation for the difficulty — but also the serenity — of surfing Lake Michigan. The real activity seems to be back on dry land, anyway. A group of about a half dozen surfing regulars has gathered in the parking lot.
“You can surf for five hours and then swap stories for five hours,” Williams explains. “Generally, there’s a lot of beer involved. I just won’t have any beer before I surf. Not even one, no matter how thirsty I am.”
This fellowship is just as much part of the culture as gliding over a wave. It’s a small-scale version of what Williams calls “the gathering of the tribes.” For some, this has become a way of life.
Suddenly, the scene doesn’t seem unusual despite the pack of surfers standing around in the snow. In Sheboygan, community takes the form of surfing. In the waves, they make connections.
“What else are you going to do,” Williams asks, “on a winter day in Sheboygan?”