Surfing in Michigan thrives amid changing weather, equipment

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

One can leave work in Metro Detroit and be surfing in an hour.

The travel time to Malibu and Waikiki remains the same, of course. But there are places to surf on the northeast shore of Lake Erie and southern Lake Huron, along the outside of the Thumb.

Farther away, hot spots also line the eastern shore of Lake Michigan.

More ambitious guys and gals with boards — who aspire constantly to decipher the 10 or 12 days a month when wind direction and geography combine to create surfable waves — say the area around Manistique, in the Upper Peninsula, is a special place.

Brian LeFeve, a veteran surfer, said an area off M-25 around the harbor in Lexington, about 60 minutes north of the line between Wayne and Macomb counties, is a desired venue in Lake Huron.

 “That spot is just so perfect for surfing, because we have that protection from the break wall. It smooths out the waves, makes them really clean,” said LeFeve, who owns Great Lakes Surf Shop in St. Clair Shores.

Established in Michigan after World War II, supercharged by the early 1960s, the Beach Boys, surfing music and movies, the sport is thriving.

A recent development in the equipment of the sport is driving more interest and increasing the number of surfable days.

Hydrofoil surfboards, a board atop a short stand that extends into the water, are increasingly seen on the lakes over the past few years. The foil board may move through the water with less resistance than a regular surf board, making surfing possible with smaller waves.

“I did it a few times and, I mean, it was really good,” said Nicholas Tocco of Grosse Pointe Woods. “I loved it.

“I lived in California for 10 years, and I surfed there. But this is like a whole other experience, just getting up on it and actually gliding over the water."

Surf foiling comes in multiple varieties, explained LeFeve, who is teaching Tocco by towing him behind a boat off Metro Beach in Lake St. Clair Metropark.

“There’s surf foiling, there’s sub-surf foiling, there’s wind foiling, there’s kite foiling and there’s wake foiling behind the boat,” LeFeve said.

After growing up water skiing, surfing a bit on vacations to Hawaii and Nicaragua, and paddle-boarding for about a decade, Jules Miller, of Harrison Township, said she latched on to surf foiling.

“To me, it was kind of the perfect combination of watersport and something that was new and different,” said Miller, who has easy access to Metropolitan Beach. “You’re kind of like flying a little bit and surfing at the same time. So, just a lot of fun.

Jake Tasker of Buffalo, NY attempts wake surfing for the first time on Lake Michigan.

Summer is, of course, a good time for surfing in Michigan. But spring and autumn, and even winter, with gusty winds and brisk-moving weather fronts, is usually better.

Advances in materials have made divers’ wet suits, standard equipment for colder weather surfers, warmer, more flexible and more durable, adding to the ease of bigger wave surfing.

The changing climate and moister weather are bringing more water to the Great Lakes, with record high levels posted this summer.

“Wave-wise, it affects us because where the waves are normally breaking in the shallows around the sandbars is in deeper water,” said Sam Hill of Berrien Springs, who surfs often near St. Joseph, and has been at it for about five years.

“So we have actually had worse wave conditions because the sandbars and different spots where the waves would normally break are in deeper water.”

For many in love with surfing, sensations drive the desire. The brisk skimming across the surface of water, propelled by waves, is addictive.

“I had a background in skateboarding and snowboarding,” said Ryan Gerard, who has been surfing for more than 25 years and owns the Third Coast Surf Shop in St. Joseph and New Buffalo. “I played all the traditional sports growing up as well.

“One day, I saw some guys with a surfboard at the beach and they let me lie down on it. And they told me, next time there’s northwest winds 15 to 25 miles an hour, go down to Michigan City, Indiana.

“And I did that about a week later and I fell in with crew of surfers and bought my first used board.”

Gerard had body-boarded before, on a boogie board.

Standing up on a surfboard was utterly different, he said.

“I just remember dropping into this wave and turning to the left, and looking up at the wave kind of breaking down behind me and winding up in front of me. And it was just this incredible feeling, you know?

“It was like a high.

“And that was it,” Gerard said. “That was the hook.

“We’re kind of like junkies. We’re always looking for that high again.”

Especially with the new and improved wet suits, they are prepared to do it well outside of the summer months.

“Spring, autumn and winter are going to be you best months, generally,” Hill said.

“In St. Joe last winter, we were surfing until Jan. 6 this year. Even into a little bit of the snow season, we are usually pretty solid.

“For our area, it works a little better with a north wind,” he said.

“So as soon as the weather changes in fall, we’ll get a lot more consistency to our waves.”