Superstorm Sandy summons Chicago surfers

Surf's up on Lake Michigan – much higher than normal.

October 30, 2012

(WBEZ/Greta Johnsen)

As the city experiences the residual effects of the now-downgraded Hurricane Sandy, Lake Michigan is about the last place most Chicagoans want to be today.

Unless you're part of the city's small but hardy band of surfers.

This morning as tall, white-crested waves crashed up and down Chicago's lakeshore, WBEZ found about a half dozen surfers at 57th Street Beach on the South Side. A few managed to paddle out and ride the gray waves, ending up on the concrete landing. Jason Gilbert said he surfed for two hours this morning, and the conditions were some of the best he's ever seen.  

"It was good. It was awesome, actually," Gilbert said, laughing. "Probably one of the best days I've surfed out on the lake, for sure. Super, super fun."

The National Oceranic and Atmospheric Association's weather data-tracking buoy at the south end of Lake Michigan listed winds at almost 45 miles per hour and waves reaching 19 feet. The surfers said waves nearer the shore were probably closer to 7 or 8 feet.

Gary Schenkel, who heads the city’s Office of Emergency Management, singled out surfing in particular when he warned people to avoid the lake.

“We don’t want to endanger the first responders who have to go rescue a person if they decide to make this a surfing event or go running along the path and get swept away if they’re told not to," Schenkel said yesterday. "This could be a very dangerous situation, so we just tell people to stay away.”  

But another surfer at 57th Street Beach said they're taking necessary precautions.

"That's the whole deal," Mike Calabro said. "Everyone's all, 'oh, it's so crazy.' But if you're smart and you have experience, it's not crazy at all."

Fellow surfer Mike Killion agreed, pointing to a man jogging nearby in the cold morning air as the one who was 'crazy.'  "It's like 20 degree windchill, I'm going to go in some shorts and go running," he said sarcastically.

In fact, the same NOAA buoy reported Lake Michigan's water temperature at 53 degrees, a full 20 degrees warmer than the outside air. 

But not every surfer was so quick to take the plunge.

Dave Benjamin hung out at the beach for a couple of hours, trying to decide if he should jump in.  Benjamin, who also runs a water safety awareness nonprofit, is acutely aware of the risks surfing in this weather. He was hoping for "cleaner conditions, where it's not so blown out, not such a washing machine."

"But I mean, definitely once you get out there, it's fun," Benjamin said. "I'll be like, what was I thinking, waiting so long?"