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Surfing, that sexy sport of washboard abs and bleach-blond hair, sunny blue skies and palm trees, has gotten the proverbial makeunder. Picture instead a head-to-toe Neoprene wetsuit and cloudy gray skies, and you've got the picture of Great Lakes surfing.
Michigan, having the nation's second-longest coastline after Alaska, seems a natural place for fresh water surfing to take hold. There are nearly 6,000 people registered at thirdcoastsurfshop.com, a forum for Great Lakes surfers.
Although people have been surfing Lake Michigan since the 1960s, it's still a secret in many ways — the average person doesn't tend to hang out on a beach when the conditions are right for Midwestern surfing. The best waves are in late fall and early winter, and storms can help.
Here's the deal with freshwater surfing: Because there's less buoyancy than in saltwater, paddling the board out to the break is more difficult. Add the temperature of the water, and you've got yourself a hardcore sport.
There are tricks to the trade, like wearing a wetsuit that includes a hood, applying Vaseline on exposed skin to prevent chafing and adding salt to board wax to keep it from freezing. But, let's face it, the luster that adorns tropical surfing just isn't there. In other words, Great Lakes surfers are definitely doing it for the love of the wave, not to attract worshipful gazes from bikini bods.
Scott Ray's history with board sports began as a skateboarding youth living in Milford. Aunts in California taught him to surf as a teen, but his true calling was snowboarding. He translated his skills on the icy slopes of Michigan into sponsorships and rode out West for eight years. Although he enjoyed the mountains, he felt culturally isolated and returned home to Michigan.
Shortly after moving back to Michigan five years ago, a friend took Ray surfing on Lake Erie near Cedar Point, and he was hooked. "The waves were 7 to 9 feet," he says. "I was scared to even get in the water." Fresh water waves are much different than those in the ocean, Ray says. "They come at you faster and possess a different kind of power."
Preparation for Great Lakes surfing begins the day before, with hawkish Internet weather-watching. "You watch for the spot where the wind is coming to shore," says Ray. "Hopefully, there is a break there."
Surfers will drive hours to find the perfect convergence of wind and land, checking various potential spots before settling on one. "You can't just go and have it," says Ray. "You can't get spoiled — you've really got to be dedicated to do it."
Ray, 36, currently lives in Waterford. He and his cohorts mostly surf nearby lakes Erie and Huron, but all Great Lakes are surfable — Lake Michigan being considered the "mecca" by many. Frankfort, Benton Harbor and St. Joseph's are all popular spots for west mitten jaunts.
While much of the surf season is freezing cold, with water temperatures in the 30s and 40s necessitating wetsuits, balmy August through October can mean catching waves in board shorts.
In colder temperatures, the guys employ a buddy system, since hypothermia can sneak up on the most careful of riders. "You could be having so much fun and your suit starts to fail," says Ray. "You'll see your buddy's lips turning blue or they're starting to slur and mumble their speech. That's when you have to say, 'Hey, man! You gotta get out of the water!'"
Cold is not enough of a deterrent for Ray and his ilk. "It's the biggest rally," he says. "I'm 12 years old again every time I go — it's like that."
A few years ago, Ray began to search for the right board but came up empty-handed. "We wanted boards wider and flatter for the mushy, softer waves on the Great Lakes," he says. So Ray and his friend Jeff Frazier decided to make their own boards in Ray's Waterford garage.
Blueroom Surfboards has now produced around 35 surf, wake and paddle boards that start at $500. Each is handmade and custom-crafted with an eye to the rider's body type, ability, style and personality. Even the graphics are one-of-a-kind.
On average, Ray and Frazier have produced a board a month for the last two years and are already booked solid two months ahead. It's not yet a money-making operation, so day jobs leave only evenings and weekends to devote to the business. Each board takes approximately three weeks to craft, but the partners are continually streamlining the process.
Making a board is an exacting process. Ray starts by designing the basic shape of the board with a CAD (computer-aided design) program. The design is sent to a "foam guy" in Grand Rapids who molds EPS (expanded polystyrene) to those exact specifications. Ray ends up with two halves of foam that he then joins together with a basswood support stringer — it looks like a brown stripe running lengthwise down the board.
All of this is done in the garage, but the next step takes place in a small shed in the back yard dubbed "The Blueroom" (yes, it's painted blue). That's where the board gets shaped: The foam is scraped to obsessively measured specifications with a device that looks like a cheese grater.
Then it's back to the garage to a sealed-off room. The most time-consuming part of the operation takes place here: Seven layers of fiberglass are applied and smoothed and each left to dry for 24 hours. The graphics are next. These can be as simple as a color wash or as intricate as a camouflage silhouette of the Great Lakes.
When all is said and done, the boards can run upward of $1,200, depending on the intricacy of the graphics and the size of the board. A paddleboard can be double the size (hence, double the materials) of a surfboard.
A poster hanging on the wall of the Blueroom explains much of their drive. It's a family tree of famous shapers — the granddaddy is Hawaiian Duke Kahanamoku, a champion Olympic swimmer who shaped a wooden board that was used to introduce surfing to Australia in 1914.
"One day, I'd like to be up there," Ray says.
He was thrown into the world of modern master shapers in October when he traveled to the Sacred Craft Surfboard Expo in California to compete in a shape-off for the best replica of a classic 1968 Michael Diffenderfer board, one that revolutionized the sport with its foam core and smaller size.
Ray asked to be included in the competition to ensure that the Midwest was represented. Although he was very nervous, the experience turned out positive. "It was awesome to be thrown into that group and be accepted as a Great Lakes shaper," he says.
Ray hopes to get to point where Blueroom becomes his full-time gig. Currently his day job is doing quality control for Comcast, which leaves only evenings and weekends free for his passion. "I don't want a boss, I don't want to work for anyone," he says. "And this is happening — we're growing at such a fast rate, it's kind of scary."
Part of the reason Ray moved back to Michigan was the water. "There is a niche here in water sports," he says. "I'm into making this as a Great Lakes industry."
For more information about Blueroom Surfboards, visit www.blueroomsurfboards.com. To learn more about Great Lakes surfing, check out www.thirdcoastsurfshop.com. A trailer for Unsalted, a DVD on the subject, can be seen at unsalted.tv.
Kelli B. Kavanaugh is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.