Dean Williams is probably the only shaper in the Motor City. Under the label Up North Great Lakes Surfboards, Williams produces boards in Warren, Michigan a suburb of Detroit.
In a region where most people think there are little, if no waves, Williams is seeing his surfboard production increase each year. Four years ago he produced twelve boards, doubled the next year to 24, then grew to 40, and approximately 50 last year.
He’s also seeing a higher number of surfers hitting the water at the more popular spots. Where there were eight to ten surfers at one break, now it’s become a “crowded” 25 to 30. Williams estimates there are around 200 to 300 surfers on the Michigan side of the lakes and 200 to 300 in states such as Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin.
There’s a history to surfing in the area that goes back to the 50s when a navy doctor returning to Grand Haven, Michigan from Hawai’i planted a surfing seed with the boards he had brought back. That seed eventually became the Great Lakes Surfing Association.
Williams was taught to surf by a draft dodger who surfed along the Canadian shores of the Great Lakes during the Vietnam war, riding the consistent freighter wakes of Lake St. Clair (a 400-square-mile body of water situated between Lake Erie and Lake Huron, east of Detroit, Michigan).
Once he got serious about surfing, Williams’ journeys took him through various surfboard factories in Hawai’i, California, and Florida. He eventually came back to Michigan for family reasons and stayed.
Believe it or not, the Great Lakes’ waves get good, says Williams. Spring and fall are the best times of the year, with fall getting five to seven days per week of surfable waves compared to one or two in the summer.
The surfers of the area depend on storm fronts, wind patterns, and wind directions to guess what the waves will do next. The water can go from the high 60s in the summer to frozen solid. “Because we’re desperate, we surf it until it freezes,” says Williams.
Like other areas, boards are shaped according to the local conditions. The fresh water of the lakes takes about twenty percent of the buoyancy away. The waves are usually sloshy windchop, so the boards need a lot of volume.
Williams started making longboards, then three years later–Giant Fish–7’8″ fun boards with full noses and more maneuverability. He’s also started to make 6’0″ twin-fin fish that are so wide he barely skims the blank. “They don’t look like your Kelly Slater ‘cool guy’ board,” says Williams.
Of course, most Great Lakes surfers aren’t kidding themselves when it comes to surfing like Kelly Slater. They just want get in the water and enjoy the ride, and that’s what Williams is going to help them with.