Catch a wave and you're sitting on top of the world! That's what the Beach Boys sing from the speakers on our summer deck. But we live in the Midwest – how do we satisfy a craving for surf culture?
If you are parenting an aspiring surfer, don't fret. Even though we are far from the ocean, there are plenty of opportunities to catch a wave without catching a flight. With wave technology, you can boogie board at a water park. Or, head to Sheboygan and surf Lake Michigan. There are even ways to practice surfing at home.
Surf the lake
Larry Williams has been surfing the Great Lakes for 49 years. Living in Sheboygan, Williams is part of a community of surfers who enjoy the 22 'breaks' (the coastal terrain causing waves along the coast of Sheboygan).
'Safety is number one, so you have to be fit and know how to swim,' says Williams. 'And Great Lakes surfing involves equipment. You need wetsuits, to keep your body heat at a safe temperature. Of course, if a child is learning to surf, there needs to be an adult within arms length as well.'
The water temperature isn't the only thing that makes surfing Lake Michigan different from ocean surfing. Fresh water is 10% less buoyant. Also, since fresh water waves are created by wind rather than ocean tides, they occur more frequently. Typically, Lake Michigan waves are coming every 9 seconds while ocean waves come in every 21 seconds.
But when asked if surfing is hard, Williams is quick to explain that it's similar to when you start riding a two-wheel bicycle, 'There comes a time when the most important thing in learning is the you-got-to-want-it factor. Then, just like when you ride a bike for the first time on your own, there is a wow moment. Once you are up on the board and realize you've done it…Wow! You want to do it again and again.'
Riding waves is so much fun, it stands to reason someone invented a way to do it at any time, no matter the location. These wave pools—swimming pools that create reasonably large waves, mimicking those of the ocean—come in a variety of forms. Artificial wave technology is popular in surf parks and resorts and typically people prefer one company's product to another.
One of these inventions is the FlowRider. On a FlowRider, the participant rides on artificial waves created by pumps. These pumps push out a three-inch layer of water at variety
speeds designed to perform like ocean waves. It 'is similar to surfing due to the fact that you are using the same types of movements that you use when surfing, particularly when you are standing on the board,' says Meredith Jenkins, director of fun at Westin Kierland, a resort in Scottsdale. 'And you definitely need to develop the same sort of balance to stand on a flowboard. The difference is the continuous wave that you get with the FlowRider, the movement is constant.'
An advantage of wave technology is it provides surf conditions anywhere in the country on a predictable timetable. Of course, surfers often prefer natural waves, but as wave technology has grown, so have the athletes. In the world of flowriders, for example, there is now an annual FlowBoarding World Championship and other competitive events held around the globe.
Practice at home
'In many ways, the beach lifestyle reflects a state of mind as much as a location,' continues Jenkins. 'With that in mind, there are ways to bring surf culture into your daily life, even when you aren't at the beach!'
Feeling sporty? Grab a skateboard and start practicing. The balance and skill of riding a skateboard can mirror some of the skills you'll need to turn a surfboard in the water. And speaking of water, obviously an aspiring surfer needs to be a strong swimmer. Improving your swim strokes will increase your fitness level, tone muscles, and get you ready to paddle out against the waves.
Feeling passive? That's alright, there are activities that can pave the way to surfing that don't require physical training. Watching others surf, either by watching feature length surf movies or short videos online, can give surfers insights into how to handle different types of waves. And don't dismiss still images either, surf magazines and books geared toward surfers can provide many informative tips and give up-and-coming surfers ideas on how to get started, and how to progress more quickly.
If you want to learn to surf, you can make it happen. Even in Wisconsin, miles and miles away from ocean waves. Williams says, 'Now when I go to the beach, the kids are my heroes. Their energy and excitement about learning to surf is the best part.'■
Mali Anderson spent part of her 20s living near the ocean. While she now lives with her 9-year-old daughter and husband in the Midwest, she still heads to the local beach whenever she can.
How to Get Started
Watch surf films such as the animated film Surf's Up! (Fun fact: the character Chicken Joe in this movie is based on Sheboygan surfer Larry Williams). Williams is also in Step into Liquid, a documentary about surfing that includes surfing footage from around the globe, including Sheboygan and the beaches of Vietnam.
Some Like it Cold: A Sheboygan Surfin' Safari, by William Povletich, is a biography of Larry Williams and his twin brother's experience as fresh-water surfers. It is not a kid book, but parents can read it and share local surfer knowledge with the whole family.
EOS Surf is a surf shop located in Sheboygan right along Lake Michigan's shoreline. They offer a large variety of surfboard and stand up paddleboard rentals. Private surf lessons are also available.
Locate a FlowRider, there are plenty around the country. There is one at the Kalahari Waterpark located in the Wisconsin Dells.