More core than core, surfers on the Great Lakes don’t want your respect.
They brave sub-zero temperatures, snow on the ground, ice in the water, and howling winds for the chance to surf head-high slop in the Great Lakes of America.
Located on the border of the United States and Canada, taking in such famously declining towns as Detroit, the Great Lakes and their intermittent wind swells are a much needed source of joy for hardworking Americans marooned in land.
Whatever you might think of their waves or level of surfing (they have just mastered the aerial), the Great Lakes surfing community, epitomised by the likes of the Rockpile Gang, don’t really care.
“We know for ourselves this shit is fucking for real,” says Brian Tanis, a surfer from the Michigan area of the Great Lakes and publisher of the Great Lakes Surfers Journal. Here he gives us the brief but colourful history of surfing in the Lakes. Watch out for the full feature in our upcoming Travel Issue.
Tracks: Who was the first person to surf the Great Lakes?
Brian Tanis: If you look into the heart of it I would say that the initial people surfing were probably the natives.The Great Lakes were their waterway and if you’re on a boat or a canoe what’s the chances you’re going to innately understand the power of that wave is going to propel you forward? We haven’t confirmed it yet and I’d be interested to talk to some of the local tribes to see if we can figure it out.
After that, the first official surfing as we know it today, which we confirmed when we interviewed this man, was in 1955. His name was Doc Seibold and he lived in Hawaii for a couple of years. He was a dentist and he had come back from Hawaii on an internship and while he was there he got involved in the surfing culture, he built a board, and he actually met Duke Kahanomoku, and he got very involved in it.
He was an alternate on the Olympic Swimming team for the United States and that was his connection with Duke, who you might also know was an Olympic swimmer. He brought the board back on a sail boat from Hawaii to California and drove back from there to Michigan and that’s when he used the board. He’d always looked at those waves and he knew those waves were good enough.
Tracks: Who is the most talented modern day surfer to come out of the Great Lakes?
They’re all gonna kill me if I name someone…There’s a lot of them and there’s a lot of transplants that are here now for work or whatever and they’ve picked it up. They come from everywhere - Hawaii, Australia - they’re gonna surf when there here if the surf is there.
I’ll say this the people that were born-and-raised here and have learned to surf here, they are just now starting to perfect the aerial. That’s the level we’re on right now, which is difficult. It’s not like we can surf everyday, like, ‘Oh, is it two to four (foot) or five to seven (foot).’ It’s like, there’s surf next week, or this weekend, in three days, or eight days, or in two weeks it looks like their might be something coming. We don’t get the consistency on that level so it’s really difficult. We don’t have the power and the period of the swell is so much closer together. It’s really difficult. It’s almost more of a badge of honour than anywhere else in the world.
Tracks: Who’s a really quintessentially Great Lakes surfer then?
One guy is Matt Spolanski. He was born and raised in Grand Haven, Michigan, and that’s where he still surfs today. He has an alternate name, which is ‘Rockpile Gang,’ which is kind of the crew there but it’s essentially him.
He’s been surfing there since a child and his dad surfed and his brother surf and he’s very ‘Lake’ I would say. The Rockpile is basically a pier bounce. The swells come out of the south-west, the pier is sticking out into the water at a latitudinal direction, the wind and the waves come out of the south-west, it bounces off the pier and comes back into the shore with more size and shape and that’s what he surfs. He’s certainly in that crew of some of the best surfers on the lakes and any lakes surfer would agree.
Tracks: What about some of the most memorable swells of all time on the Great Lakes?
There’s a few. We always call them Purple Days - when the forecast is calling for a purple, which is over 22 or 24 feet. We don’t get Purple Days that often, maybe once every couple of years. They could be of any direction and any lake. Around (2012) I think it was, we got the residual from (Hurricane) Sandy and we got the north wind if you can believe this or not - we actually had a north wind on Lake Erie! The fetch there was 50-60 miles, in a 50 mile fetch. It was a purple forecast, so it was calling 24 feet. Can you believe that shit?!
Tracks: How big is that by the time it gets to shore?
In that situation it’s all about the bottom contour right - is anything in the way of that wave to take the energy out of it? The size of the waves that day were about head high, only because it was on Lake Erie and the bottom is too gradual. It’s not a very deep lake in relation.
It’s all about the shoreline, too. It doesn’t even have to be that deep of a lake as long as it’s deep near the shore. This one could not hold the size.
What you have to do on a severe wind swell, almost all wind swells, but on a severe wind swell, you have to find shelter and what’s gonna happen is that wave is going to wrap into whatever shelter that is and it did have the power to find some crevasses that have never lit up since.
I have another one from 2010 that was an amazing south wind that stretched all the way up the length of Lake Michigan and it was a Purple Day. I’ve never seen that since 2010 - a south wind on Lake Michigan and it was a purple forecast and it was just ripping! We surfed a wave we called Safety Wave that only works on those big swells and that was well overhead I’d say - overhead plus.
The problem is most places don’t hold their size. Because the bottom contour in relation to the ocean is not as steep, it’s way more gradual, so it loses a tonne of energy and you basically get a slop when it finally comes to sure.
Tracks: There’s always going to be critics and people who say that surfing on the Great Lakes is a novelty. What do you you say to them?
I say nothing. I let ‘em believe it because I’m kinda over the whole trying to gain respect shit. I’m more about, ‘fine, you don’t respect it, that’s fine. Someone else will.’ And we don’t even need it. We know for ourselves this shit is fucking for real.