Chicago native Tommy Shimenetto has found a love for surfing the icy waters of Lake Michigan off the coast of Sheboygan.
Just as the tailgate grills were lighting up around Lambeau Field’s “frozen tundra” Saturday, Tommy Shimenetto was zipping up his wetsuit and paddling his board out to catch a wave on Lake Michigan.
That’s right. Just an hour south of Green Bay, here in “the Malibu of the Midwest,’’ diehard winter surfers were happy about a southwest wind that rolled the waves all the way from Indiana to this city that juts out into the lake.
“Sheboygan was built to catch waves,’’ Shimenetto said. “As long as we’re ice-free, our waves are typically better in these months. The north swells have more power than a summer north swell. Colder, denser air has more push against the surface of the water. We can surf a south wind, a southwest wind—really anything except a west wind.”
The peak months for surfing Sheboygan are generally during the fall months of September through November, when the water is still warm (or at least Midwestern warm) and the big weather systems create waves that smash over the Sheboygan lighthouse. On those fall days, as many as 50 surfers may be gathered off the rocky breaks at North Point, or the sandbars at Blue Harbor Resort near where the Sheboygan River empties into the lake.
“We get nice left-hand waves that can break 400 feet long,” he said. As happened Saturday, Sheboygan often has a slight off-shore wind that “cleans up the wave so it breaks and peels.”
More surfers will start reappearing in the spring. But in the dead of winter, Shimenetto and others still surf, and sometimes paddleboard among icebergs as big as a car.
Shiminetto, a Chicago native, and his wife, Courtney, first heard about Sheboygan when they began surfing off Montrose Beach in Chicago.
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“We came up here and ended up surfing one of the better waves on the lake,’’ he said. They began to monitor the website of Sheboygan’s EOS surf store, and then jumped in the car to head north up Interstate 43 when the forecast looked promising. But sometimes by the time they reached Sheboygan, the winds had died down or shifted.
“We decided to move to Sheboygan for the waves and for the opportunity for our daughter to grow up next to the lake,’’ Shimenetto said. “Sheboygan captured our hearts. We fell in love with the town.”
Today, the family lives just a block from Lake Michigan, allowing for real-time monitoring of surf conditions. Another advantage is that the OGs of the Sheboygan surfing scene live nearby. Larry “Longboard” Williams and his twin, Lee ‘’Water Flea” Williams, helped start the surfing scene back in the 1960s.
“They don’t surf anymore, but they still like to talk,’’ said Shimenetto, who said his daughter enjoys going on visits to hear about surfing from the legends.
The Williams brothers also helped start the Dairyland Surf Classic, an annual Labor Day weekend event that brought in surfers from across the Great Lakes. The formal event lasted from 1988 until 2012. But surfers still show up every Labor Day for the unofficial kickoff to the fall surfing season.
Shimenetto is doing his part to raise the next generation of sweetwater surfers. His daughter Skyler, 8, is learning to surf and is nearly strong enough to paddle herself out to the waves. She’s been bringing school friends to the Deland Park beach, too.
“Now it’s more me pushing a bunch of second-graders in the waves,’’ he said of a typical warm-weather day. “Their parents are like, ‘We grew up here and had no idea this existed.’”
Shimenetto said the local surfers do their part for water safety, saving summer beachgoers whose inflatables get pulled out to sea by riptides and wind. They also offer advice about the safer places to learn.
“Surfing the point is not a good place for beginners,’’ he said. “If you don’t make the drop, you’re hitting the rocks. One guy dislocated his hip there last year.”
Freshwater surfers also face other obstacles, including being less buoyant than in saltwater and waves that break much closer together than in the ocean.
The biggest problem for winter surfing, he said, is getting through the slush ice to the waves.
“The slush ice doesn’t really hurt,’’ said Shimenetto, who is known for his giant ice beard. “But when those little slush balls connect with each other, they can weigh hundreds of pounds and can be as big as a car.”
Shimenetto says that wetsuit technology has improved so much that he’s probably warmer in the water than the fans are at Lambeau Field.
“I’d rather be surfing than catching a cold ball from any of those quarterbacks,’’ he said. “You’re warm when you’re in the water. As soon as you get out, that’s when you’re cold.”