Catching a Wave on Lake Michigan: First Timers in Sheboygan, Wisconsin

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Rachel Stankovich Visit Sheboygan Lake Michigan surfing Wisconsin
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In Sheboygan, Wisconsin there is a dedicated group of stoked out surfers who have discovered the excitement and freedom that comes with surfing the waves on Lake Michigan. Learning to surf on a fresh water lake is quite a different experience than in the salty ocean. Even more so when the surf season runs from September to May along Wisconsin’s windy lakeshore. You gotta have grit to surf Sheboygan. We respect that. Here is one gal’s story of trying on the adventure and deciding it sticks.

Visit Sheboygan surfing Lake Michigan
Rachel Stankevich paddles out towards her first waves on Lake Michigan’s windy swells off Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Photo: @visitsheboygan

Surfing Sheboygan:  Midwinter Malibu of the Midwest?

Phil Edwards said, “The best surfer out there is the one having the most fun.”

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, Wisconsin has grown exponentially over the past 70 years earning Sheboygan the nickname, Malibu of the Midwest.

Surfing Visit Sheboygan Wisconsin
Surfing on Lake Michigan is a popular activity around Sheboygan. Surf season officially kicks off on Labor Day and runs all through winter! Photo by: @visitsheboygan

Over the past few years, I’ve heard a multitude of waterlogged 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?

Other things to do in Sheboygan?
Check out: Four Seasons of Possibility

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 is the best option? How do I pick out a wetsuit? In a stroke of genius, I realize my best option is to visit Sheboygan’s local surf shop located in the downtown area. 

EOS Surf and Skate Sheboygan Wisconsin
EOS Surf & Skate shop in downtown Sheboygan has everything a person needs to get on the water on Lake Michigan pronto. Experienced instructors give guidance and lessons to maximize the fun. Photo: @visitsheboygan

Getting Your Gnar on in Sheboygan:  EOS Surf & Skate

EOS Surf Shop offers surf lessons and rentals for any brave soul who is willing to take up this thrilling sport. The staff regularly surfs on Lake Michigan and provides expert guidance as enthusiastic surfers.

However, there are slight differences to remember 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; therefore, you are less buoyant. For that reason alone, the proper board is required. Using a shortboard, which is under seven feet in length, is rather difficult for beginners. They are harder to paddle because they are small and contain less foam. Dropping into a wave is easier on a longboard, which is typically at least 9 feet in length. Longboards are also easier to paddle, more forgiving, and steady, allowing beginners the stability needed to learn how to balance on a surfboard.

Surfing crew Sheboygan Wisconsin
The surf scene starts in September in Sheboygan. Not for the feint of heart, this hard core caliber crew surfs the lake when the North winds blow catching up to 15 foot swells in formidable conditions.

Now that I understand what board I will be using, it’s time for the grueling task at hand:  getting into my first wetsuit. Yes, you will need and quite honestly want a wetsuit. Lake Michigan’s waters are cold even in summer. Oddly enough, you won’t be surfing in summer. Did I forget to mention, the surf 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 long fetch 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  need to bundle up.

Rachel Stankovich Visit Sheboygan surfing Lake Michigan
Arriving in the parking lot after some trauma experienced in trying on a wetsuit for the first time, Rachel is ready to hit the waves. Photo: @visitsheboygan

The Unforgiven:  Wetsuits are a Necessity in Sheboygan

Fortunately for us, EOS Surf Shop simply asks you for your normal clothing size and hands you an 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. However, they’ve accomplished this sneaky task a hundred times and make it sound easier than it is in reality. My main piece of advice  here is: “Take your time”. A properly fitted wetsuit should feel unpleasantly snug against your entire body with no looseness or gaps. It should adhere to your body like a second layer of skin with no wrinkles across the major areas of the suit (torso, length of arms, thighs) and 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 to pull and wiggle 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.

Rachel Stankovich Visit Sheboygan
Preparation on land is key for success in the waves. Rachel practices her pop ups, paddling and foot stance on the sand. Photo: @visitsheboygan

Learning the Basics: Paddle, Pop Up & Foot Stance

The most popular place to surf in Sheboygan, Wisconsin 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 you will need to do. Surfboard wax is essential as it gives a surfer a grip on the fiberglass 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 to 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 – they say – it is 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.

Rachel Stankovich Visit Sheboygan surfing Lake Michigan Wisconsin
After completing her training on land with an instructor, Rachel is ready to shred the gnar in Sheboygan. Photo: @visitsheboygan

Paddling for Your First Wave: Sheboygan Offers the Dream

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 whirly bird 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 … well,  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. 

Rachel Stankovich Visit Sheboygan Lake Michigan surfing Wisconsin
Putting it all together on moving mountains of water (OK, maybe not mountains 😉 is harder than it looks. A lot of practice, patience and perseverance is needed. Photo: @visitsheboygan

Hooked:  Another Surfer Falls Prey to Endless Stoke

After a great deal of trial and error, there is a split second when your movements reach 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.

Rachel Stankovich Visit Sheboygan Lake Michigan surfing Wisconsin
If the best surfer is the one having the most fun, then Rachel wins by a smile. Photo: @visitsheboygan

Today, 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.  Thanks, Phil!

Written by Rachel Stankevich
www.visitsheboygan.com

More Articles about Sheboygan, Wisconsin:

Four Seasons of Fun in Sheboygan
The Malibu of the Midwest:  Sheboygan, Wisconsin

And, check out Standup Journal’s full feature article on “Winter Surfing in Sheboygan” in our FALL21 print magazine!

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Rachel Stankevich, Marketing Manager at Visit Sheboygan, is originally from Northern Wisconsin, but spent her college years in Sheboygan playing basketball at Lakeland University. She is a year-round outdoorswoman and keeps herself busy with traveling, kayaking, hiking, and is starting to take a liking to other sports such as surfing, sailing, and kiteboarding. Her love for travel has inspired her blogs, videos, and advertising campaigns. Her future plans include seeking certification in scuba diving after exploring a shipwreck just off Sheboygan’s shoreline. Rachel almost always has a camera with her to capture her adventures and share them with future visitors. She is constantly visiting new places around Sheboygan to share the area she fell in love with. You can find her most days with camera in hand, hiking trails, savoring the local cuisine, or out on the water.