The Reality of Surfing in Chicago
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.