Hanging ten on Lake Michigan

September 3, 2012

By Sara Stathas

As a photographer, I am inspired to make work about people who have an extreme passion and enthusiasm for something near and dear to them. I seek out the quirky interests that Americans, in particular, have intense love for and use that as inspiration for making photos. I moved back to Wisconsin, the place that I grew up, after being away for a decade, and I’m rediscovering and seeking out some of the passions unique to Midwesterners.

The draw of the largest freshwater surfing event in the country, the Dairyland Surf Classic, held in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, sounded right up my alley as a photo opportunity.

I headed up to Sheboygan on Saturday of the Labor Day weekend, the busiest day of surf and paddling competitions, according to their schedule. I rolled into sleepy downtown Sheboygan at about 8:30am, noticing a Honda Camry with a surfboard strapped to the roof following me east towards Lake Michigan. I parked along the bluff at Deland Park, near a group of dudes peeling off their wet suits after their early morning surf session.

As I walked towards the flurry of vendors setting up their tents for the event, it wasn’t long before I was introduced to the two men in charge: Larry “Longboard” Williams and his twin brother Lee “Waterflea” Williams, founders of the event 25 years ago and lifelong residents of Sheboygan. The two twins could, and probably have, taken their comedic banter on the road — Lee and Larry, 58 years old, are not identical, but are cut from the same cloth for sure. Within that first five minutes of meeting them, the brothers explained to me that Lee is 16 minutes older than Larry. Lee calls Larry “the afterbirth” and Larry said he got to watch Lee take his first tube ride (from the womb). The two of them have been surfing for 46 years.

For the next 45 minutes I wasn’t able to put my camera to my eye for a photo as both Larry and Lee (mostly Larry) rattled on and on: about the history of surfing in the Great Lakes, surf culture, and how they have come to run the largest fresh water surf gathering (okay, the largest freshwater surf PARTY) in the country. Pure Midwestern hospitality and an eagerness to share stories and facts and figures poured from them (mostly from Larry).

During my chat with the brothers, I learned some hardcore facts about Great Lake surfing:

– There are 22 breaks (waves) in the five miles of coastline along the beach in Sheboygan
– There are nearly 11,000 miles of coastline around the Great Lakes and over 22,000 miles of open water
– Labor Day weekend marks “opening season” for surfing on the Great Lakes, with autumn and winter being prime surf season

As I stood on the bluff of the park, chatting with the guys, surf enthusiasts and fans began to file in. Guys on their longboard skateboards rolled up and down the “strand” of the beach (that’s what they call the walkway in Manhattan Beach — really they were skateboarding up and down the path along side the bluff next to the main road). I felt transported to a sleepy little ocean surf community, where dudes with bronze skin and bleached blond hair began to gather for a day of riding the waves. And as the Miller High Life cans began to appear in the hands of many, everyone invited me to the evening potluck and party at the pavilion. (I’ll have to come next year when I’m not on deadline!) Everyone I photographed and talked with had a surf story to tell, all with strong Midwestern accents. Imagine the cast of Fargo in a surf movie.

The surfers I spoke with and photographed also had an overwhelming sense of pride and connection to the Midwest fresh water surf community — be it as a lifelong local, or as a transplanted surfer. I chatted with Burton Hathaway, 35, a surfer originally from Huntington Beach, CA, current resident of Racine, WI. He brought his love of surfing from the west coast to the Midwest and started a company called nosaltsurf.com, (his surf board with the “No Salt” logo caught my eye along the rows of boards lined up on the park bluff) and posts the only online surf report for Lake Michigan. He also participates in surf contests all over the Great Lakes. It goes to show you how strong is the need to surf. If there’s a will there’s a way, even if it means donning a full wet suit and braving winter air temperatures well below zero to catch a wave.

Where else could one meet a father of two boys, Bertoldo Moritz, originally from Brazil, who showed up with his homemade surf board, sporting a Milwaukee Brewers shirt, and hanging out with his dog, Farvy (pronounced “Far-vey) named after Green Bay Packer great, Brett Favre?

Yes, this is the Dairyland Surf Classic.

The surfers I met and photographed had found their wave here in the Midwest, and they all wear their surf culture with pride. From the “Surf Wisconsin” surf shirts sold at the local surf shop to the Milwaukee artist selling hand carved wall hangings of Lake Michigan with surfers engraved into it. It was an enriching day of meeting surfers with unmistakable Midwestern hospitality who have a passion for surfing that rivals any Pacific coastal surf community. And with this celebration signaling summer coming to an end, surf is up for these dudes in the months ahead.

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