Mitch McNeil
Surfrider Foundation Chicago Chapter
Artem Abakumov, Hammond. Photo: Mike Killion/Surfrider Chicago

The headline “Surfer Arrested At Chicago Beach” sent a jolt through cyberspace. Putting those words together did not make sense. Photo: Killion/Surfrider Chicago


The Inertia

Chicago Winter. Put the words together and what comes to mind? Cold? Wind? Ice? The mountain of salt? Oh yeah, the snowstorm that paralyzed the city last year, and left stranded motorists buried on Lake Shore Drive – the singularly famous image that looked like something from a Roland Emmerich film. Yup that’s a Chicago winter.

We all find comfort in these well-worn certainties of place and season. Which is why the January headline “Surfer Arrested At Chicago Beach” sent a jolt through cyberspace. Putting those words together did not make sense to a lot of folks. Excitement and curiosity ensued. Media jumped to attention, one following the other, on cue. Amid the predictability of another Chicago winter, here was something from left field to liven up the eleven o’clock news. Something the anchors and reporters could knowingly smile and wink over (“Brrrr! He’s crazy! Can you really surf in a LAKE!?”). How exactly did we get to this place, where a lone surfer clad in a survival 6mm wetsuit, bobbing around in stormy gray seas, just a couple hundred yards from the mecca of retail glitz and glitter that is Michigan Avenue, could grab the jaded attention of an entire city? In January.

To understand all this, it helps to have survived Chicago and its feverish spirit of regulation. For surfers (or swimmers), the experience for many years has been the feeling of dread at any city beach, where lifeguards are poised with their piercing whistles, ready to pounce if you’re in deeper than your pectorals. In a city of millions, where a significant percentage of the populace cannot swim, there is a somewhat understandable, but oppressive, dumbing down of the rules to ensure “NO ONE DROWNS – GOT THAT? NOBODY!” To take this spirit a step further, a ban on all “flotation devices” made the act of showing up at a beach with a board tantamount to a tort. Surfers quietly devised workarounds to these restrictions, mostly by hunting down the sweeter swell of the offseason (fall/winter) on deserted shores … unnoticed, with extreme stealth. But with the arrest of a surfer back in 2008, forces were gathering to enact necessary change and reform.

In 2009, a group of local surfers, watermen, and assorted activists, many of whom had never met, sat down with the City of Chicago and the Chicago Park District and hammered out a temporary agreement to enhance recreational opportunities by lifting a 20-year ban on surfing at selected city beaches along Lake Michigan (Osterman, Montrose, 57th Street and Rainbow are open during the offseason, and only Montrose and 57th Street are open from Memorial Day to Labor Day. ).  In the process, the Surfrider Foundation Chicago Chapter was born.

For the past three years, the experiment has gone off without a hitch. Surfers have carefully picked their spots to do what they do, keeping out of the way of the multitudes of swimmers. Meanwhile, the City, whether it knows or not, has enjoyed increased prestige among the surfing community AND the presence of a legion of unofficial lifeguards, patrolling the perimeter during stormy conditions.

The recent Oak St. Beach arrest (this particular beach was not on the list of accessible breaks), and the subsequent response from surfers across the country, has shown us there is still a need for the Chicago Chapter and the City of Chicago to continue working together to communicate which beaches are open for surfing and paddling, while at the same time working to expand opportunities for surfers in the region.  From our perspective, it’s a win-win if the Chicago Police Department never again has to worry themselves about what’s happening a hundred yards offshore in the middle of a storm. Surfers take full responsibility for their own safety. That’s the deal.

To support this growth, we are calling on our members to help educate the community about when and where surfing is currently permitted. For residents not yet involved with the Chapter visit our website and learn about ways to connect.

  • Lazyeddy57

    Getting arrested for surfing is nothing new . Here in Long Beach , NY it used to happen all the time . Yes , last September we hosted the Quiksilver Pro NY here with excellent waves and a red carpet welcome for the surfers . Not always so . Back in the sixties it was illegal to surf here . Back in 1968 I was caught surfing by the police along with about 10 other people . Those 16 and over received summonses . My two friends and I , all 13 years old were taken to police headquarters along with our surfboards . Only my mom was available (the other 2 worked – a rarity at the time ) . Needless to say she was pretty upset – with the police ! How dare you arrest these kids for surfing ! Don’t you have some REAL crime to stop ? Would you prefer they hang out on the corner and steal hubcaps ? She gave them a nice big piece of her mind . They were like ” please take these kids and leave ” . But my mom had to have her say . Shortly after that we had petitions circulating to legalize surfing . This is just one story from back then . There are plenty more involving chase scenes , guerilla warfare with lifeguards and of course numerous people rescued by people surfing illegally who would have otherwise drowned .

  • MI Guest

    I guarantee that if anything bad happens on the water to a surfer here (God forbid), it will be guaranteed that NO ONE will be able to surf the lake here, no matter the time of year.  Policies and regulations for water recreation in general will also become stricter.  I’m all for surfing anywhere you please, but it can’t be ignored that the actions of surfers here effect more than just those in their sport.  And as far as the city, they don’t care about prestige in the surfing world; they want law-abiding citizens who spend lots of money in their town.  Unfortunately, it’s amazing that surfing has survived thus far in the Windy City.

    • Al Baydough

      The biggest problem with laws in this nation is that they do more to serve the the fears of tepid souls than they do to encourage adventurous spirits. 

       Implied risk. Informed consent. Anything more than this is a waste of everyone’s time and money. 

       This statement makes no sense: “as far as the city, they don’t care about prestige in the surfing world; they want law-abiding citizens who spend lots of money in their town.”Surfing is a proven revenue generator. Laws that restrict surfing restrict financial growth and opportunity, and in times like these that makes as much sense as stuffing corks in swiss cheese. Instead of defending obsolete and obtuse legislation perhaps you should mount a counter-argument and give strength to the movement.  I once visited Navy Pier and saw a sweet little chest high wedge ripping down the break wall. No one allowed to surf what is one of the most scening urban breaks I have ever seen. Plus, the more access surfers have to these breaks and beaches the more likely they will grow the movement to get the lake cleaned up. Win/win.

  • Ian

    We need to appreciate the fact that the Chicago Park District atleast “recognizes” surfing.  It’s kinda bogus that it is “illegal” at places, but there is DEFINITELY a need for regulation.  Everyone is praising Rex Flodstrom as a crusader, a Rosa Parks of surfing so to speak, yet people seem to overlook the fact that he did indeed violate VERY CLEAR regulations, and put in jeopardy all the efforts Surfrider foundation has put into getting us to this point, and potentially negatively affected the Lake Surfing community as a whole…
        Running an SUP business in this area, I see first hand the type of unknowledgeable, inexperienced people that want to get into surfing around here, and opening the beaches as a free for all is a recipe for disaster!  There are a lot of people around here with the resources to purchase equipment and get into lake surfing.  But Johnny no-experience who buys his suit and board and decides to stroll down to Oak St. beach because he sees waves, not being aware, or in most cases even knowing the type of rip currents and hazards that exist at this and many other spots. 
        Surfers from the coasts look at surfing regulations in Chicago as being unjust and crazy, but lets take another Lake crusader Dave Benjamin, head of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project.  He regularly tracks drowning statistics in the Great Lakes.  Last year there was 76, this year the number was 80+!  80+, I bet the surfers from the coast probably think that is crazy too!  This goes to show that people around here do not understand or respect the water!  There needs to be some sort of organized regulation in this area as there are just too many people, and too many “sketchy” spots along the coastline…
       Finally, anyone who knows the scene around here, knows that the spots in Chicago proper are 95% of the time far inferior to spots just a few miles out of town.  Even of the spots “legalized”, only 57th street would EVER be frequented by a surfer who had any idea of the breaks in the area.  Yea, Oak St. is a lot closer than say Northern Indiana or the North Shore, but I say, if people really want to get into surfing around here, they do it just like everyone else around here.  Go to the “right” spots, known spots that break given certain conditions, talk to people, watch others, follow the forum, LEARN, etc.  While Rex is an accomplished surfer and obviously knew the conditions he was entering, opening up a free for all on the Chicago shoreline is inevitably going to end up with undesirable consequences…

  • Brandi

    You straight-edge activists just don’t get how it works in Chicago, do you? You want something changed, you show the right person the money… Duh!

    • Al Baydough

      Like I said above, surfing is a proven revenue generator. The more support surfing gets in the Great Lakes the more money will come into the coastal regions of that area. Surfers patronize far more than just surf shops; we eat breakfasts, lunches and dinners; we buy tools; we build things; we drive – a lot; many of us buy clothes made by anyone other than a surf brand; we explore locally/regionally as well as globally… and so much more. On the surface we may look like slackers but we’re some of the most committed and driven people you’ll find anywhere and some of us (not including myself) make  A LOT of money. We’re happy to be liberated from it if it’s worth the investment – and an even mediocre lineup for the wave-starved is ALWAYS worth the investment.

    • Mike Mantalos

      Unfortunately, Brandi is correct. I travel for work and that includes Chicago and I factor in bribes as part of my proposals… even list them as such although I euphenise the term into “tips”. 

      The reality is, the surf is better nearby than it is downtown, but freedom should apply everywhere. Not that I would know first hand, I don’t take my boards with me to Chicago and am surprised that they have a Surfrider chapter.

    • david plumb

      is this a sort of comic sterotype or are bribes needed to oh say start a business?
      just aking….

  • Eric

    The snake in that pic is the one who shoulda been arrested.

    Just another example of the government trying to own you.