State of the Beach/Perspectives/Chicago Surfing

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No Ocean, but Chicago Moves to Legalize Surfing

By Steven Gray

June 13, 2009

The Windy City is one of America's sports meccas: home to the Bears and the Bulls, the Sox and the Cubs, and, Chicagoans are only recently willing to admit, the Blackhawks. But can it become Surf City, U.S.A.?

This week, Chicago Park District's governing board empowered the city superintendent to lift a decades-old ban on the use of flotation devices like boogie boards on the city's waterways. (The ordinance was established to prevent accidental drownings; government officials were chiefly concerned about liability and the prospect that novice swimmers, imitating highly skilled surfers, might leap into Lake Michigan, especially in harsh winter conditions.) The move will effectively legalize surfing in the heart of the Midwest and make Chicago an unlikely beachfront in the war to extend surfing's influence across the country.

At first, the idea of surfers riding waves within view of Chicago's iconic skyline may seem bizarre. But this city has long had robust beaches. This spring, Chicago opened its newest beach, on the South Side, and a former resident of the South Side — the city's favorite adopted son, Hawaiian-born President Barack Obama — is a surfer, although it's hard to imagine him ever taking to the shores of Lake Michigan. The city's beaches have more than a century's worth of history. In the 1890s, a group of prominent Chicagoans, including doctors and businessmen, lobbied for the creation of public beaches along Lake Michigan, in part so working-class residents would have access to clean bathing water. In 1913 the beaches became the site of controversy when women's rights activists used them to protest the legally mandated but voluminous "swimming costumes" — one woman stripped down to her bloomers to swim because it was impossible, she said, to swim in the required skirt. A judge ruled that her attire was not indecent.

Surfing, for its part, is not an alien sport to Chicagoans. At Ryan Gerard's Third Coast Surf Shop in New Buffalo, Mich., many of his growing base of customers make the 90-minute drive from Chicago to purchase their gear. "There's no reason we shouldn't be allowed to surf," Gerard says. "We see ourselves as an asset to local communities." But given the risk of being ticketed and fined $500, Chicago surfers have typically gone elsewhere in the Great Lakes, the world's largest body of fresh water. Still, aficionados continued to sneak into the water, and after one ticket too many, a group of surfers last December sent Chicago's Park District a proposal asking that surfing be allowed at four of the city's beaches during the traditional beach season, Memorial Day to Labor Day, as well as year-round at a fifth beach. Officials are still sorting through various details of regulating surfing, such as whether there should be an age requirement and what, exactly, signs along beaches should say (for example, "Surf at Your Own Risk"?).

Midwestern surfers prefer Labor Day through Memorial Day, particularly November onward, when the waves are especially choppy. The water, experts say, is warmer than the air's temperature and creates an "unstable boundary layer" near the water's surface — hence more waves. Waves during a storm may reach 20 ft. and appear roughly every six to eight seconds. How do they compare to the surf in Hawaii and California? Pacific waves tend to be stronger and longer than those in the Midwest because they gain momentum from crossing thousands of miles from Asia. They may be twice as tall and appear every 10 to 12 seconds during a storm.

Those differences, however, don't matter much to Midwestern surfers. Last December, Vince Deur, co-chair of the Surfrider Foundation's chapter here, (also see the new Chicago Chapter) took a group of friends to the southern shore of Lake Michigan. The air temperature was about 25 degrees. A winter storm covered much of the lake, sending fierce winds from the north to create waves nearly 2 ft. above Deur's head. "The waves," he recalls, "had some nice shape and power." "But look," he continues, "we know that in the world of great surfing, as far as quality goes, we're at the bottom. We're in it for the fun." Anticipating the arrival of surfing on Lake Michigan, Deur said Wednesday, "We understand and respect the city's small-step approach to opening these beaches. And we consider this a victory."

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