Living the inland search: Sup Surfing the Great Lakes

Ian Jacobson Chicago Sup great lakes surfing
Ian Jacobson, owner/founder of Chicago Sup, finding a little wave wake surfing in his home state.
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If you gotta go, you GOTTA go.  That’s how Ian Jacobson views his passion for surfing.  Starting at the age of  14, Ian found the freedom and joy that only riding moving bodies of water can bring.  That bought him to paddleboarding which brought him to  sup surfing in the Great Lakes region of where he lives in Chicago, IL.  In the meanwhile, he’s established an inland standup paddle business, Chicago Sup, which has hosted the World Sup Tour, continues to thrive and put people on the water every day.  Check out Ian’s exclusive blog on learning and managing Great Lake surfing here at Standup Journal online!

Ian Jacobson, owner /founder of Chicago Sup wakesurfing on Lake Michigan.  Photo by: Mike Killion

Not for your average beauty queen

“Surfing the Great Lakes isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.  Most of our sessions on Lake Michigan and the surrounding area aren’t blessed with sunshine, bikinis and board shorts.  In fact, it’s the opposite.”  – Ian Jacobson

Surf season on the Great Lakes technically goes from August until the Lake freezes over.  While we do get those occasional balmy summer days, we’re lucky if we get in boardshorts more than twice a year.  The Great Lake’s surf season consists mainly of fall and winter, but this isn’t the North Shore of Oahu.

The North gales are what drive the waves on the Great Lakes, especially in the Chicago area.  The drop in air temperature combined with the water temp exceeding that of the air help drive the power. In winter, low pressure systems bring bitter cold conditions that leave a lot of hardy folks staying indoors in front of a fire.  Great Lake surfers meanwhile pull on their 6 millimeter  wetsuits, 7millimeter mittens and boots and hop into ice filled freezing waters.

But this is what we live for.

Ian Jacobson Chicago SUP great lakes surfing
Ian with his eye on the prize. Cold water surf is something you accommodate to do what you love.

Risk, Rewards and Timing

We know that with great risk comes great reward.  We may not always have the best waves on the Great Lakes but there is a core group of like-minded souls that don’t think that what we do is so crazy.

For Great Lakes surfing shelter is the name of the game. While many spots we surf are amidst factories and refineries, it’s the carved coastline that gives us the jetties and structures that shape our waves.  To surf the Great Lakes, you need to be an amateur meteorologist of sorts.  As our waves are short in duration and wind generated, in order to be in the right place at the right time when the swell hits, we need to watch the weather constantly.  Often the swell window lasts only a few hours so timing is everything.

Ian Jacobson Chicago SUP surf great lakes
Proving grounds: Ian’s infiltration into the Great Lakes’ surf community has been a journey of respect and making room for himself, one swell at a time. Photo by: Tommy Shimenetto

The Great Lakes Surf Community

Nowadays, it’s easier to be in the loop as my buddies and I have our Surf Text.  You better believe that thread is blowing up at the slightest hint of waves in the forecast.  It wasn’t always like that.  It took years to figure out the right spots on the right wind and direction.  There was a lot of trial and error.  Many times, we were skunked on a four hour road trip that we had head out on ambitious and full of hope.  Back then, there was nobody who could give you a head’s up on current conditions in the neighboring state.  Today, we have a better network, but the search still continues.

“There are plenty of times we would roll up to a spot and wonder if we were in the right place because there was nobody out.  Over time, we realized we WERE in the right place, but it was a Tuesday afternoon at one o’clock in the afternoon in November.  That, and it was twenty degrees outside.”

Out of the twenty or so guys that MIGHT go out in conditions like that, Eli and I were the only ones who got out of work.

Ian Jacobson Chicago Sup Great Lakes Surfing
Arriving in the right place at the right time for the wind swell wave action that is Great Lakes surfing takes commitment, technology and a little bit of luck. Photo by: Tommy Shimentto

A ‘Middle America’ Surf Town

In the fifteen years I’ve been surfing the Great Lakes, the surf community has grown.  In these days of social media and better wetsuit technology, it is rare to have a spot all to yourself.  At most spots, I’m still the only one out on a sup,, but because I’ve been out there battling the elements longer than most, plus the fact that I’m not a complete kook (at least, that’s what I tell myself) the surfers show respect.  Some are fearful that as my clients learn to sup and begin to progress, the standup paddle crew on the waves may start to cause a ruckus.  However, so far, everyone has remained civil.

“We know that with great risk comes great reward.”

In winter, most folks know their limits and the extreme elements weed out the ones that aren’t seriously dedicated.  But in a place like Sheboygan, Wisconsin, a regular surf town which gained notoriety from a feature in Step into Liquid and coined the “Malibu of the Midwest”, you could see a dozen standup surfers out there on any given swell.  Sheboygan actually has billboards now advertising surfing in several states which is not what you’d expect from a town in the middle of America.

Mike Killion

It all depends how much you want it

There are so many different kinds of waves on the Lakes.  One day, I’ll be in Wisconsin and the next I’ll be in Indiana depending on the wind, weather and waves.  While it’s not as simple as heading to the beach and seeing what’s up, the geography of the Lake means that on any given wind direction, you’re never more than a few hours from surf.

It all depends on how much you want it.

— Ian Jacobson


Ian Jacobson Chicago Sup
Ian Jacobson, one of Chicago’s sup pioneers

Ian Jacobson grew up in the Northern suburbs of Chicago along the shores of Lake Michigan. Ian has been snowboarding for over 25 years, surfing for over 15 years, and had his first taste of standup paddling (albeit it was on a kneeboard with a raft paddle) back in 1990! Being from the Midwest these sports were not always readily accessible and he was somewhat of a pioneer of these activities in this region. Most people still think it’s crazy that he “surfs” on a lake! A relentless entrepreneurial spirit, he grew his passion for the water and boardsports into Chicago’s original and the Midwest’s premiere Standup Paddle Boarding outfitter, Chicago SUP!  A firm believer in doing what you love, Ian spends his winters dividing time between preparing for the next standup paddling season along with focusing on his career in Real Estate, while also chasing surf and snow and playing hockey as much as possible.  He has found a balance between work and pursuing his passion and is honored at the opportunity to share his love of paddling with the city of Chicago! If you’re in Chicago stop by and say what’SUP to Ian down at North Avenue Beach!


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Evelyn O'Doherty, editor & publisher of the new Standup Journal 2.0 is a former school teacher gone rogue. She left her career as a teacher in order to spend more time near or on the water after learning to surf turned her life around (upsidedown?). She is a year-round surfer and paddler living on the eastern tip of Long Island in NY who is a certified SUP instructor, seasoned SUP racer and avid longboard surfer. Evelyn was hired as Online Editor to Standup Journal in 2016. Her passion for the project quickly led to her success and eventually taking over the mag herself in Oct. 2018. Today, as editor, publisher and chief bottle washer at Standup Journal, Evelyn keeps her toes wet writing, traveling, paddling, surfing, and learning to foil. You can find her most days paddling out on Gardiner's Bay or surfing Ditch Plains in Montauk, NY.