The Inertia for Good Editor

The Inertia

Brian Tanis has never lived near the ocean. He did visit his sister in Seal Beach, California once as a teenager, though, and the surf bug bit him hard enough during that trip that he’s never looked back — even living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Wolverines football and the glory days of the Fab Five have a much deeper history than that of Great Lakes surfing.

Still, it was enough for him to fall in love with surfing. He now runs the Great Lakes Surfers Journal, where he documents the growth of today’s local scene while also digging into its roots.

“I came back (from California) and you know, I had heard of surfing on the Great Lakes,” he says. But in the years since that trip, he admits the scene hasn’t exploded but it’s definitely grown. “It’s not ‘blowing up’ when it was like four people and now it’s, I don’t know, but it’s a lot more than four people.”

Our whole conversation was really sparked by one picture Tanis took last month that stood out to me: a small, glassy A-frame I’d have guessed had broken across a soft Central American sandbar before I thought of the Great Lakes. It just so happens that day was as good as that single image had advertised, and our one conversation evolved into what it’s like to chase waves around this part of the world — a unique hunt Great Lakes surfers embark on when they know there’s swell. For a guy who sits about two hours from three very large lakes, making the right call feels like it could just as easily be left to flipping a coin and hoping the surf gods are in a good mood when you wake up before dawn.

Has your entire surfing life been spent living on the Great Lakes? 

I’m in Ann Arbor, Michigan, it’s just a college town. But it’s cool. They call it the Berkeley of the Midwest. That’s the vibe here. It’s not on the water but that’s also an advantage too because it’s two hours from three different lakes. I can be at Superior in like five hours. It sounds like a lot but that’s what you have to do here. It might be waist-high in Lake Michigan but overhead on Lake Superior or something. Or it could be, you know, the west side versus the east side. We get the prevailing westerlies, so we get northwests a lot, which we’ve had several recently. I call them kind of inverse islands. On an island, if you have a swell and a wind direction, voila, there’s gonna be waves somewhere on the island. You can always go leeward of whatever’s happening. This is inverse of an island because the land is obviously surrounding the water. So you could even be on the water and on the eastern side of Lake Michigan and it’s just onshore garbage. But on the other side, that’s gonna flip to offshore.

Following swells is obviously a totally different experience for me living in California, for example. I’ve lived in Southern California for 15 years now and it’s not that tough to get places dialed, especially with the level of resources we have for forecasting. I’ve always wondered how accurate forecasts are for you guys, or how much lead time you even get when chasing waves. 

Yeah, you guys have the advantage on that. The storm is sitting out there in the Arctic or something and they know, even when they can’t be super specific (about conditions). If there’s a system moving south or whatever, you know you’re going to get wet. But for us, it’s just a little more delicate. We do use the same stuff you guys use. We use NOAA, we use all the different models, and just sort of interpolate between all of them to see what we can figure out. It’s certainly more of a science, of course, because we end up having to do a lot of our own forecasting from that. Plus, we’re a smaller area geographically. So if something shifts a little bit, it can change everything for us.

So how did this particular day go down, for example? How long were you keeping an eye on that spot? And on top of that, the conditions were so good. It’s glassy, there are barrels, it’s all kind of picture-perfect. How much of that was still a surprise to you. 

Of course, (a day that good is) always a surprise. There’s no question. We know the places that really hold these types of waves and have this setup but it can all be really delicate. It can be finicky. And there isn’t a lot of history or data, so it’s not like we have data sheets with tons of information. We’re all still kind of learning.

There’s a hunch that it could be (good). You’re always calling people asking “What does it look like? Is anyone there? Who’s there? Who’s got eyes on it?”

But then how long can you expect it to last? When you show up in the morning and it looks like that do you just think you’re gonna get it for an hour and then it’ll just disappear?

Yeah, you’re nailing a point right now. We’re pushing it to the last minute. We don’t know if the wind is gonna shift, if everything is going to change.

I would be so paralyzed by that. I’m like a lot of other surfers. If there are good waves, I’ll check a place  expecting it to be great but inevitably end up driving four hours checking other waves only to end up back at the very first spot where I started. I would miss every window doing that if I was a Great Lakes surfer. 

You can get two-day swells, you know, and you can get something out of that. But usually, conditions will change a lot during that time because it’s all wind generated. I’ve seen a lot of good days but, for example, somewhere else is the sweet spot on the entire Great Lakes that day. There’s probably one little zone, or whatever you want to call it, that’s going to be the best.

So you have to roll the dice and hope you end up at that spot? Or by the time you drive somewhere else, it’s gonna all be gone anyway?

There is a window. It certainly is a window. And the window of being that good is usually short. That was probably like a half a day.

There’s definitely some magic to it then. Just that you ended up at the right place, at the right time to even be there at all.

Yeah, and that just comes from experience. Honestly, there are still places that are not even figured out here. There are still spots that are probably undiscovered, for sure.


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