Great Lakes offer refuge for surfers far from the coast

by Annabella Rosciglione

Freezing cold air, warm waters and just the right winds coming from the north or south, combined with a small city that juts out into Lake Michigan.


It’s the perfect recipe for Great Lakes surfing. 


Welcome to Sheboygan, Wisconsin, the “Malibu of the Midwest,” a term coined by Larry Williams, who was one of the first to bring mainstream surfing to the area. 

North Point Park
North Point Park, also known as The Elbow, juts out into Lake Michigan making this the perfect spot to catch the surf. Photography by Annabella Rosciglione.

Since the late 1960s, Sheboygan has grown into a small but notable surfing community. From 1988 to 2012, Sheboygan was home to the annual Dairyland Surf Classic, the largest freshwater surfing competition in the world. Despite the cold air temperatures, the best time to surf the area is in the fall and winter months with popular spots like North Point and a bend in North Pier known as “The Elbow.”  


Unlike the ocean, not all days on the lake are surfable. Surfers have to carefully watch wind and weather reports to dial in on the perfect few hours to catch the waves on any given day. Watching for incoming weather systems or low pressure masses are usually signs to area surfers that there will be a good moment to ride the waves. 


Sheboygan surfers thrive, even in the below freezing temperatures, riding the waves ignites their adrenaline response and gives them a sense of being alive. 

How it all got started

The Williams twins, Larry and Lee, got their surfing start in the 1960s. Growing up two blocks away from Lake Michigan, they spent every season near the water and eventually grew curious enough to try surfing for themselves. 


“Fifty eight years ago, I started surfing, and it was completely different. We didn’t have wetsuits and you could get a good board for 50 bucks,” Larry Williams says. “It was three or four of us that all started together, and that was it. We’re locked and loaded for the rest of our life.”


It took dedication, trial and error and advancements in wetsuits, boards and wax before Sheboygan eventually attracted a consistent surfing crowd.


“So many of our friends tried it because they saw the camaraderie and the fun,” Williams says. “But you really have to be super, super fit. You always have to push the limit of either your wave size or your ability to swim or endure the cold. I’ll tell you what, you could be freezing cold out there, and you catch just the right wave, the entire day is worth it just on that one wave.”


Surfing quickly became the Williams twins’ identity in town. Twins often share passions as they grow up together, Williams says, so the duo always had someone to surf — and compete — with in the water. 


“When you’re younger, you’re looking for an identity, especially if you’re a twin,” Williams says. “I remember the first time I was called a surfer, there’s a totally different mystique around that. You live off the grid. You live on the beach, you’re hardcore, you’re fit, you live for the wave.”


That competitive nature doesn’t seem to go away, even after maturing through the years. 


“He’s a better surfer than me. But I’ll surf bigger waves,” Williams says. 


Larry and Lee now have widespread recognition, not only in town but amongst other surfers, for their influence on the Sheboygan surfing community. The Williams brothers have been featured in books like “Some Like it Cold,” and documentaries like “Unsalted” and “Step into Liquid.”


“Some of the biggest names in the history of surfing will be on a beach, and they’ll find out that we’re down the beach,” Williams says. “And they’ll walk down and introduce themselves.” 

The future generation of Sheboygan surfing

After decades of riding the waves, the Williams’ brothers have been out of the water for some time now. Nevertheless surfing continues to thrive in Sheboygan. 


John Vallo, a 21-year-old from the Sheboygan area, first heard of surfing in Sheboygan from the 2007 animated movie, “Surf’s Up.” Chicken Joe, a character based on Larry Williams, proudly announces in the film that he learned to surf in the Midwest. Growing up, Vallo and his father frequently went out for coffee near the water in the fall and winter to watch surfers, which piqued his interest in the sport. 


“In Sheboygan when I was first out there, everyone was just excited to meet me and wanting to help me out,” Vallo says. “It’s kind of a combination of the Midwest being super friendly and also, just like [surfing’s] not a big thing, but also the more people that get into it, the cooler that is.” 


Jack Williams, another 21-year-old Sheboygan surfer (unrelated to Larry Williams), started with lessons at EOS Surf Shop a few years ago. He enjoyed his experience and was gifted his first surfboard on his 18th birthday.


Conditions on the water can get scary, especially in the winter with ice to watch out for. Surfers, however, are always looking out for each other. Jack Williams explained a moment when he fell between two rocks, worried that the water would come in and trap him. 



The Weather Center Cafe, owned by a former surfer, is a surf themed coffee shop on the Sheboygan Riverway. Photography by Charlie Hildebrand.

“There were a lot of people out there surfing as well,” Jack Williams says. “Some people just saw me fall and just dropped what they’re doing and came over, and they’re [making] sure that I was OK.”


Larry Williams still makes it out to the beach, just enjoying watching the younger generation fill his shoes. 


“Our heroes are the kids again, the kids that are the young, middle teenagers that are so excited about surfing, and do all these silly things in the water,” Williams says. “And we look back and they remind us of when we were young and what we did.”

Sheboygan as a surfing community

A map of the Great Lakes reigon is on display at the Weather Center Cafe. Photography by Annabella Rosciglione.

EOS Surf Shop, located in downtown Sheboygan, has been one of Wisconsin’s primary surf shops since 2004. Offering lessons, wintertime equipment and community support, the shop is a crutch to many area surfers. 


According to EOS owner Mike Miller, new surfers can start their journey with lessons, but many prefer to just put themselves out there in the water and try it out. 


“There’s always some of us out there willing to give you some tips or whatever, but he’s got to do it,” Miller says. “You’ve got to be ready for it. And like I said, you gotta be a little bit more committed to be a lake surfer.”



With the cold temperatures that make the fall and winter the best time to surf, different equipment is needed. Wetsuits are measured by millimeters of thickness. In Southern California, the average surfer would need a wetsuit of about 3 to 4 millimeters. In Sheboygan, the conditions require somewhere between 5 to 6 millimeters for the fall and 7 to 8 millimeters in the winter — about as thick as four nickels stacked together. A hood, boots and gloves are also necessary for the colder months. 


By the time your knees get wet, your ankles are numb,” Williams says. 


Despite this sounding unappealing to those outside the surfing community, there is something in the frigid water that keeps the surfers going.


“It’s pretty gnarly. But it’s a really good time and all the people are just so cool and so friendly and helpful. Always,” Vallo says.


“I’ll always just have, like a hot thermos of tea or coffee waiting for me. You’ve got to sit in your car for a while before you can get feeling back and actually drive,” Vallo says. “You kind of just suffer through it for a little bit, but it’s like the adrenaline.”

Jack Williams still advises people to “listen to your body” when the temperature is especially frigid to avoid frostbite or hypothermia.

Surfing is mostly a solo sport, similar to skateboarding or snowboarding. Despite this, it never seems to get lonely on land or in the water. Miller highlighted barriers of entry into other team sports, like access to fields and teammates, noting that individual sports are somewhat easier for children to pick up and keep up. 

“You give a kid a skateboard, they can go anywhere with it,” Miller says. “It is the ultimate thing that a kid can do. And like, just express himself and stay active and have fun. It’s always been that way. And I think it’s always going to be.”

Great Lakes surfing is fundamentally different from surfing in the ocean. Freshwater has a much lower buoyancy than salt water, meaning it’s harder to balance and stay afloat. 

“In an ocean, it’s a lot easier just to catch the waves because they move a lot faster, and they’re stronger. In the Great Lakes, it’s harder to paddle because water is less buoyant, and the waves aren’t as fast,” Vallo says. 

There is an uplifting community surrounding surfing in Sheboygan, unlike the coasts where surfing on the ocean can feel competitive, with many other surfers all trying to catch the same wave.

“It’s kind of different than California, Hawaii. The breaks [there] get really busy and people can be kind of competitive and don’t like when people that aren’t locals are checking it out,” Vallo says.

Come on grow up, it’s water … just share it,” Williams says. “It’s not a place for hatred and anger and localism or any of that stuff.”

Perhaps it’s the Midwestern nice seeping into the sport or truly the nature of Sheboygan surfers, but the overall sentiment still stands that fresh water surfers have a different attitude than salt water.


“[Great Lakes surfers] are the friendliest surfers on the planet, and I’ve been told that many, many, many times,” Williams says. “We’re also the most dialed in because there can be just a prime window of a few hours where you get just the best waves and we know exactly when that is. We have to be on top of it.”


“The surfing community is like really friendly and really tight. We’re always looking out for each other,” Jack Williams says. “We all know that bad things can happen at anytime.”


Freshwater surfing is gaining popularity in other places too. Other cities situated on the Great Lakes like Milwaukee, Chicago and Toronto now have local organizations to build up communal support around freshwater surfing. Sheboygan, however, still seems to be the place to check it all out.


“I pinch myself — Sheboygan, Wisconsin surfing?” Williams says. “Who would have thought?”

Photo essay by Charlie Hildebrand and Annabella Rosciglione. Featured photo by Annabella Rosciglione.