Michigan Windsurfing

Windsurfing & Stand-Up Paddleboarding in Michigan

11-foot waves kick off fall in Chicago, a windsurfer's favorite season

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Finding his groove

When Gregory Page arrived at the beach Tuesday, the sky was a dreary gray, northerly winds flew flags straight and towering waves crashed near shore, stirring up white waters like a Jacuzzi.

It was perfect.

"The wind is really, really strong and the waves are some of the biggest I've seen in 10 years," said Page, 58, of Evanston. "It's really fun out there. I've been sailing 20 years, and this is my favorite place in the world. There's no sharks, no jellyfish. ...

"The problem with windsurfing in Chicago is you don't get a lot of days. In Hawaii, they'll sail 20 days a month, but here you might get 20 days a year."


With strong northeastern winds expected throughout the week, the onset of autumn is providing a week of those rare "epic" days, and Page said he wasn't about to miss out.

So the reconstructive dentist canceled work Tuesday and played hooky with several other members of the Evanston Windsurfing Association, who flocked to Greenwood Street Beach in Evanston for the first tall waves of fall. This is the club's favorite season, when Chicago generally sees giant waves generated by severe storms.

The National Weather Service issued a small craft advisory Tuesday as 40 mph gusts howled along the lakefront and waves swelled up to 11 feet in nearby Wilmette, according to meteorologist Kevin Donofrio. Generally, waves taller than 4 feet can capsize a small boat, Donofrio said. Powerful winds and the highest water levels since 1998 (about a foot above average) also prompted waves to wash onto the lakefront trail bike path from Fullerton to 63rd Street Beach.


11-foot waves signal fall in Chicago, a windsurfer's favorite season


"When you mention that we have waves on Lake Michigan to people around the world, they don't believe you," said Bob Bechstein, president of the club. "They're like, 'Well it's a lake. How can you get waves that big?' Well, when you see conditions like this and you see the equipment we break, you see how much power there is."

Bechstein said his nonsurfing friends think he's nuts, and his girlfriend, though worried, just asks that he not go alone.

The group met in the parking lot to discuss the best equipment to use. Most brought at least two boards and four or five sails. On days with high winds, they hoist smaller sails. And to sail faster, they ride a smaller board.

"There's definitely an adrenaline rush when you're getting ready," said Bechstein, who changed into his wetsuit in the parking lot.

"It's kind of gnarly out there today, but once you're used to these conditions it's not that bad. It takes experience to be comfortable in this kind of stuff.

"Ten feet, that's a sizable wave. I'm 5'10" and they're way over my head. When you get out there, some of the swells you're going down are huge troughs. ... It's similar to motocross on a dirt bike."

Last Halloween, members of the Wind Surfing Association headed out on the lake when waves as high as 21.7 feet were recorded at a National Weather Service buoy in the middle of southern Lake Michigan. Some members gathered the courage to hit the water, but others, like Uptown resident Mike Mooney, decided to sit out.

"I drove to the beach with all my equipment in the car, and I chickened out," Mooney said. "They were like mountains."

Though Mooney has been riding for five years, he considers himself a newbie. The experienced keelboat racer turned to windsurfing, and he's been intensely prepping for this year's fall waves.

"The first couple seasons I really struggled," Mooney said. "I ended up doing yoga to better my core to get stronger, and I worked out and that's really helped."

With his board and sail in hand, Bechstein plodded through the water until it reached his navel and then hoisted himself up with the handlebar. The most dangerous part is navigating through the first 200 yards of rough surf.

"Getting through the shore break takes a lot of skill and a lot of guts," Page said. "There've been guys here who've been here five years and never gotten out."

A windsurfer gets "hammered," "slammed" or "spun" when a wave throws him off his board. Regardless of the lingo, it's never fun.

"Once you get caught in that," Bechstein said, "you can't overpower that. When you get big waves, it'll drag you down and toss you around like a rag doll for five minutes."

Bechstein eventually dodges the surf and rides the wind far past the end of the breakwater. Windsurfers can go up to several miles offshore, however, the rule of thumb is simple: Don't go farther than you're willing to swim.

Earlier, Page also shot past the incoming waves to make it about a mile offshore. He circled back to the beach several times, catching a wave almost every 10 feet back to shore.

"It's like being at Great America on a roller coaster except you're in control and you're not tied in or anything," Page said. "The beauty of the water and the moving of the waves, it's kind of like skiing only the moguls are moving and coming at you."

After about 30 minutes on the lake, Page jumped over a wave and landed hard. He slowly rode back in.

"I just broke my board," he said, noting a roughly 3-inch crack in his 15-year-old board. "So, I'm just gonna have to get some new equipment and get back out there."

Page retrieved another board from his car and headed back to the lake.

tbriscoe@tribpub.com

Twitter @_Tonybriscoe

Copyright © 2015, Chicago Tribune

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