In my normal life, on a chilly April day like today, when it’s 41 degrees outside and 37 in the water, surfing wouldn’t even be an option. I’d be sitting on the couch with a latte watching The Real Housewives of Wherever—not getting ready to paddle out. But Matt and his buddies are amped to get on the water. It’s been one of the coldest winters in recorded history. The Great Lakes were, at one point, 92 percent frozen over, making surfing, or paddling of any kind somewhat difficult, if not impossible. So, if for no other reason than because we can, I follow Matt as he steps off the ice shelf, and we work our way through the slushy maze of ice obstacles out into the lineup. It didn’t take long to realize that surfing the Great Lakes is different than surfing in the ocean. The energy required to create waves here comes exclusively from nearby storms, giving everything a “victory-at-sea,” feel. My 7mm gloves make it hard to grip the paddle and my thick booties make it impossible to feel the board under my feet, which moves differently without the buoyancy of the saltwater that I’m used to. After I’ve made it through the relentless whitewater rushing towards the shore, I’m met by a smiling Rob Patton, a good friend of Matt’s and a member of the BlkBox team. Rob had paddled out just before we did and was enjoying his first surf of the year despite the less-than-stellar conditions.
Rob yells excitedly and throws me a shaka as I fumble my way into one of my first waves. I manage a bottom turn but then take a digger as my board hits a bump on its way down the line, getting an instant ice cream headache as my face (the only part of my body not covered in neoprene) hits the water. I regain my breath as I climb back up on my board, and promise myself that I just need three legitimate waves before I can call it a win and go warm up in the van. Meanwhile, despite the conditions, Matt and Rob are scoring wave after wave, taking full advantage of the fact that they were able to make it out to breaking water.
Rob had explained earlier that the past few months were spent monitoring the Lake Michigan shoreline for breaks in the ice. The first real break didn’t happen until mid-March, when a channel large enough to do interval training on race boards began to open up. “I had a great time training in that channel; I always do,” he told me. “For the first time in a long time you could feel the heave of the swell so the water felt a little bigger—a little bit more alive, even though I was contained.” Both Rob and Matt are avid racers in the Midwest standup paddleboard scene, so any water time at all for them right now is a chance to knock off the cobwebs and prepare for the upcoming season.
An hour has gone by since I caught my three pseudo-waves and braved the iceberg minefield on my way back to the van to warm up. By now, even Rob has become content with his wave count and is making his way back in, but Matt is still going strong. Not wanting to waste an opportunity, he won’t stop until he has reached his 40-wave quota. This year, he has committed to the graveyard race at Wilmington, N.C.’s Carolina Cup as a season starter, and the weather hasn’t exactly made training easy, so he is keen to improvise. If nothing else, paddling in and out through the choppy surf is good balance training and he is going to get it while he can. Nothing puts your own wimpiness in perspective like watching your friend tough it out in rough conditions while hiding in the car.