As sunlight cracked the horizon, fog began to lift off the cool water.  The village had yet to awaken, but inside the Weather Center Café a few blocks from shore, a lone utility light glowed, indicating the town’s first sign of life that day.  The uneven light created shadows as the café’s owner, Teek Phippen, fumbled in the darkness for his cell phone.  The determination of a man in his mid-forties awake at 5:30 in the morning wasn’t going to be denied.  He soon found his phone under a row of tipped-over paper cups, dialed a number, and waited for the groggy greeting on the other end. 

“Waves,” Teek whispered into the phone.  “Let the rest of the gang know.  We’ve got waves.”  The phone tree had been activated, and soon Teek would find himself among friends.

Moments later, the snow-covered grass of Deland Park crunched under his feet as he walked from his parked car along Broughton Drive to the shoreline, a mere hundred yards away.  He cautiously navigated his way across the ice-covered embankments, further jeopardizing his uncertain balance with a longboard under his arm.  Standing a solid six feet tall and weighing over two-hundred pounds, he conceded that the gusting winds made carrying his ten-foot longboard feel like “wrestling a giant lizard.''

The winds howling at twenty-five miles-an-hour seemed to freeze what moisture he had in his pores but also generated the waves he hoped to surf, which were crashing violently ashore only a few yards in front of him.  Cresting at five feet and then seven, the rolling waves kept growling and multiplying. The water spilling onto the sand resembled the foam of a freshly poured beer.  At thirty-four degrees Fahrenheit, the water seemed comfortable compared to the air temperature of two-below zero.  For Teek and the handful of surfers already surveying the conditions at the water’s edge, it was an ideal day to surf.

“Riding is best when the weather’s the meanest,” Teek thought.  “And these waves can be just as fierce as anywhere in the world.”

Surfable waves during that time of year were rare on Lake Michigan.  The window of opportunity to ride them was even smaller.  With a warm front scheduled to arrive later that afternoon, the ideal surfing conditions would soon disappear.

“We ain’t getting any younger, boys, and these waves aren’t getting any smaller,” said Jaime Ziegler, the thirty-something youngster in the group.

Alongside Teek and Jaime stood some of the area’s finest surfers, all of whom answered the call to adventure while wriggling into their tight, black wetsuits.  Australian Grant Davey, who has often been considered the area’s most talented surfer, knew he only had an hour before the responsibilities as the head greenskeeper at the locally owned, world-famous golf course would pull him out of the water.  Jim Gardner, adjusting the knit cap on his shaved head, held his camera tightly, knowing the day’s conditions would produce some phenomenal photos.  Kevin Groh, whose salt-and-pepper sideburns were the only sign he was approaching fifty-something, slipped into his stretched-out, vintage wetsuit, long past its prime.  “Comfort over style,” he always preached.

Knowing their knees, ankles, and hands would go numb under the fierce conditions in about an hour, the surfers were more determined than ever to race the clock of opportunity.  As the last of them tossed their boards into the slush-filled waters, the unofficial patriarchs of the group, Lee and Larry Williams, arrived, pulling their cars alongside the Broughton Drive curb. 

Stepping out first was Larry, who looked the part of a lifelong surfer with his Hawaiian print shirt, tiger tattoos wrapped around his arm, and a shark tooth hanging from his neck.  A shade under six feet tall, Larry was built like a surfer and remained in good shape though he’d been surfing for more than forty years. As his thinning blond hair whipped into his eyes, he surmised, “It’s never a bad day if you’re at the beach.”

Lee got out of the car and surveyed the scene. He was a good five inches shorter than his brother, and his baggy black Team Blatz jacket gave little indication he was still hovering around his high school weight of one hundred and fifty pounds. After chugging the last of his beer and adjusting his eyeglasses, Lee slipped the cumbersome wetsuit gloves onto his hands and trudged toward the churning water. He wondered if surfing had been like this in California in the 1940s—not cold, of course, but a pastime embraced by a fairly small group of dedicated folks following their passion.

Within moments, the six grown men in black wetsuits were bobbing on the breaks a quarter-mile from shore, poised to ride the right wave when it presented itself.  One by one, they climbed onto their ten-foot boards, balancing themselves by leaning in, arching back and standing tall while the torrential surf propelled them toward shore.

After nearly two hours of ripping up and thrashing through the quagmire of ice-filled waves, the surfers finally succumbed to the early indications of hypothermia and headed in to shore—their limbs frozen and immobile. Out of the water, they needed to generate heat as quickly as possible, before their core body temperatures dipped below ninety-five degrees.  It was November, and the gales had arrived on the Great Lakes with wicked gusts upward of fifty miles an hour.  As the sun slid over the horizon, the surfers stabbed their boards into a nearby snowbank, standing them upright and evenly apart like soldiers at attention.  The boards looked like the ones on postcards from a sunny Hawaiian beach, except with snow instead of sand, pine trees instead of palm trees, and a sign that read, “Welcome to Sheboygan, Wisconsin.” 

While America’s Dairyland usually conjures images of cows, cheese, and bratwurst, it is also home to a small but fiercely dedicated surfing culture more than two thousand miles away from the Pacific Ocean.  It has become a Mecca to a different breed of surfer—one who prefers the perils of frostbite and icebergs to the unpredictability of shark attacks and turf wars.  Thanks to the notoriety generated by the area’s elder surfing statesmen, Lee and Larry Williams, the fifty thousand residents of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, have begun to realize surfing on the Great Lakes is feasible and more or less reasonable—especially since their beaches are considered by many to be the number one freshwater surfing destination in the world, affectionately known as the Malibu of the Midwest.

Refusing to succumb to the elements, the surfers huddled around a freshly built bonfire that was already radiating plenty of heat.  As the flames’ warmth melted away the lake’s slush from their wetsuits, they began peeling away the soggy layers and replacing them with dry sweatshirts and jackets. Chattering teeth soon gave way to hearty smiles, especially when Lee reached into a nearby snow bank and said, “What’s a bonfire without beer, boys?”  Pulling a case of beer from beneath a mound of fresh snow, Lee started tossing cans to his friends, happy to take advantage of Mother Nature’s cooler.

Within moments, the group fell into their routine of swapping all-too-familiar surfing stories—tales that, thanks in large part to the beer, had grown into mythic tales of adventure and comedy.  Always bringing perspective to the conversations was the group’s consummate storyteller, Larry Williams, who couldn’t help but express his affection for his hometown surfing scene.

“How can you not love surfing here?” he asked the group, somewhat rhetorially.  With a dramatic pause, he caressed the tip of his Mako shark tooth necklace.  “It definitely wasn’t nicknamed The Malibu of the Midwest for its sunshine and bikini babes.”

“Who are you kidding?” Lee said.  “They’re here for the beer.” He toasted with his beer can turned upside down, signifying he needed another.  The guys all laughed.

As the sun glistened off the Lake Michigan waters in the bright but still cold November morning, Jaime, youngest of the Sheboygan surfers, asked, “What exactly inspired you guys to surf the Lakes?”

Lee and Larry smiled at each other.  Without missing a beat, Larry said, “Have we got a story for you.”


Book Excerpt