Forget swimming and jet skiing. Give the yacht a break. There’s a new way to take on the tempestuous waters of Lake Michigan. It’s not exactly surfing or kayaking. It’s not exactly propelling a gondola, but it’s a hybrid of all three of those. It’s called “Stand up paddleboarding.”
“It’s been around for 1,000 years as a Polynesian method of transportation of goods. They would go island to island,” said Ian Jacobson, the proprietor of the Great Lakes Board Company. “In the past few years, a whole industry has sprung up around it.”
Already popular on the east and west coasts, the sport has just started to make waves with beach-goers on the third coast.
“It’s definitely something where you can get out there and it’s a full body workout, whereas you’re only getting an upper body workout in the kayak,” said Jacobson.
Wave-seeker Pat Noyes agrees.
“The surface is constantly moving so it’s a constant struggle to keep your balance, and that’s what gives you the workout,” he said.
“You’re using muscles you never even knew existed,” said Jacobson.
Two years ago, Ian Jacobson began the Great Lakes Board Company on Glencoe Beach — renting out boards and giving lessons to beginners. The shop has now moved to North Avenue Beach in Chicago, directly south of Castaways Bar and Grill.
Jacobson says it’s a perfect summer sport for Chicago because the winds tend to come from the south, causing calmer waters.
“This is a north wind right now, that’s what we usually get in the fall and winter, and so this north wind when it comes over the lake, it’s called fetch, the distance it travels, so it has all that distance to travel and that’s what builds up the waves,” he said.
My only experience on a board-like contraption in the water came in Huntington Beach several years ago. I remember it vividly. The tide was high. The beach bodies were tanned and lotioned. Frankie and Annette were rocking the beach blanket bingo. Never having touched a surfboard before, I decided I was ready to swim out to the crest and see what the sea had in store for me. I lost that battle and almost lost my life.
Miraculously, I was towed back to shore, humbled and appalled at my recklessness. Frankie and Annette kept rocking.
I was ready to try it again in the somewhat calmer waters of Lake Michigan on a windy summer day. Jacobson gave me a quick crash course. I figured it was appropriate since I would probably mostly be crashing.
“You gotta get going and get past the initial waves,” he explained. “If you’re mulling around on this inside part, you are gonna get rocked.”
“If I get stranded way out there, can I turn the motor on?” I asked. (My lame attempt at a joke to diffuse my nervous energy. No, of course there is no motor.)
The first challenge to the sport of Stand up Paddleboarding is… standing up. You will have to watch the accompanying video to witness how this round of man vs. water went.
Of course, if you’re not willing to be thrashed around, you may need to wait until Lake Michigan is in a better mood.
I tried again on a calm day with no tide. The sensation is as if you are walking on water, which is why Jacobson says the sport will catch on quickly.
I paddled due east for about 10 minutes, turned around and looked upon yonder (north) shore. The beach bums were ants. The mansions were still gigantic.
“Once they see people walking on water, it’s just going to blow up,” said Jacobson.
Great Lakes offers lessons, board rentals, and even yoga instruction out on the water. It’s a peaceful way to enjoy Chicago’s greatest natural resource. But be forewarned: when the tempest stirs, the lake will have her revenge.