Wisconsin March 15, 2019
The Wisconsin City That’s Actually A Surfing Mecca
I once pulled an in-flight magazine out of the back pocket of the seat in front of me and settled in to read about some exotic spots while I flew off to a boring work event. Imagine my surprise and how loud I laughed when I turned the page to see an ad touting Sheboygan as “The Malibu of the Midwest.” The picture featured surfers on what was meant to be Lake Michigan, but my eyes really couldn’t believe what they were seeing.
It turns out that this blue-collar, industrial town about an hour north of Milwaukee wasn’t joking around. The Bratwurst Capital of the World is also home to a surfing culture that’s been growing and thriving for 50 years. Its unique location on the lake and two brothers who embraced the idea of Great Lakes surfing have put Sheboygan on the map. Now it’s a bucket-list destination for surfers from all over the world.
Back in the 1960s, local Sheboygan kids who were obsessed with surf culture but couldn't afford to travel to California, Hawaii and beyond realized that there were surfable waves right here in their backyard. These days, run into surfers most anywhere in the world and they'll not only have heard of Sheboygan, but it's on their bucket list as a place they want to surf before they die. For locals, seeing a blue-collar spot like Sheboygan touted as the Malibu of the Midwest is laughable. But the folks who love to surf Lake Michigan and call this area home have helped cultivate a totally unique and amazing mystique out of the idea of surfing in Wisconsin.
Sure, there won't be 40-foot swells like you might find in places much further south, but the waves here aren't just tiny little kid-friendly ones, either. Surfing itself comes with a series of risks, but surfing Lake Michigan can be particularly brutal and those not familiar with the way the lake acts and reacts have to be careful. Beginners should swim in the summer, when waves are smaller and the water is warmer. There are dangerous rip tides, and swells can get higher than 10 feet. The unsalted water makes it less buoyant and the waves can be more unpredictable.
This part of the state juts out into Lake Michigan just a bit, exposing it to so much more of the elements. As such, Sheboygan gets winds from pretty much all directions. They say there are 22 breaks right here in this area. The ideal surfing conditions happen to be the coldest because that cold air meets with the warmer water to create the best waves. October to April tends to bring the best swells.
That means you're likely to find folks surfing while there's snow on the ground, which will totally mess with your mind. Surfers have full body suits that even cover their heads and ears as they head out into some icy cold waters to catch some waves. Surfing Sheboygan has become so popular there's actually a surf shop in town (that also doubles as a ski shop, because Wisconsin) and they can give all kinds of advice for how to keep warm.
Two local brothers, Larry "Longboard" Williams and his twin Lee "Water Flea" Williams, are responsible for putting Great Lakes surfing on the map. Featured in a book called "Some Like it Cold: A Sheboygan Surfin’ Safari" and in surfing films "Step into Liquid" and "Unsalted," these two are legends among surfing communities across the world. Now you can mention those two to most any surfer and they'll instantly light up talking about the idea of surfing Sheboygan. There's now a Wisconsin surfing contest - the Dairyland Surf Classic - every September. Those who are willing to brave the cold make a pilgrimage to Sheboygan to cross another iconic surfing venue off their personal bucket list.
Most Wisconsinites wouldn't go near the waters of Lake Michigan any time in the fall or winter, except maybe to take a quick dunk with a New Year's Polar Bear Plunge. The idea of this blue-collar town an hour north of Milwaukee drawing in beach bums, especially in the colder months, is truly mind-boggling, but it doesn't make it any less true.
In warmer months, you'll find plenty of people on surfboards, longboards, paddle boards, and more filling up the waters here in Sheboygan. The smaller waves make it the perfect place for young folks to learn the basics of surfing. The less hearty world-wide surfers who want to say they've surfed Sheboygan come during this time of year, as well. Surfers like to say they've surfed all the corners of the world, but savvy surfers ask if they've been to Sheboygan.
You'll find surfers of all kind of abilities on Lake Michigan's waves and that's part of the fun. Who thought growing up in Wisconsin that surfing was a thing you could learn and learn to love? We're a thousand miles from the coasts, but we're not landlocked and we here in Wisconsin know how to take advantage of what we have at hand.
You probably never thought much of surfing unless you were headed to Hawaii or somewhere else tropical, but it turns out we've got some pretty amazing waves right here on Lake MIchigan. Our small hamlet attracts folks from around the Globe to come meet the Williams brothers, try surfing in a spot they'd never imagined, and fall in love with the idea of a quirky, seemingly impossible sport finding a home in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.
There have been a number of articles written about surfing in Sheboygan and a quick Google will bring you all kinds of information. Travel Wisconsin has a bit about this
unique Midwestern activity, as well.
Did you know that Lake Michigan is also home to a truly staggering amount of shipwrecks?
Read more about this tragic history and how you can see some of the wrecks here.