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Surf's Up as Summer Winds Down

With Labor Day fast approaching, most Michiganders hope to squeeze in one last, hot day at the beach before the weather cools and school begins. But when the throng of typical beach-goers heads home, a small, passionate group of surfers will begin their beach season in earnest right here in Lake Michigan.
Burly Surfboards owner Justin Bruursema of Grand Rapids knows that even lifelong Michigan residents are surprised to learn that there’s a local surf scene. “It’s because there’s a formula for surfing: cold wind over warm water. Typically, the wind kicks up and people leave the beach, so they never see the surfing happening. And our best time of the year is fall, after the summer crowds are gone. We’ll get a swell here and there in July, but September through November is when it’s good.” To those who are still skeptical that the swells of Lake Michigan are surf-worthy, he replies, “The [Great Lakes were] rough enough to sink the Edmund Fitzgerald, so it’s rough enough to surf.”
Bruursema, 35, is a GVSU graduate and Grand Rapids native who clued in to the lake’s potential while on a spring snowboarding trip to the East coast several years ago. The temperature skyrocketed, the snowboarding turned into a surf session, and Bruursema became hooked on the sport.
He returned to West Michigan determined to meld his interest in surfing with his artistic side and DIY nature. After learning the art of board-shaping from a Grand-Haven-based surfer, Bruursema made a rule for himself: If he wanted to buy a new board, he had to shape it for himself, and he couldn’t shape a new board until he’d learned everything he needed to know about the current one. He acquired a rack of wetsuits and he named his fledgling company with a word that epitomizes the tough, durable nature of both the board and the surfer.
Bruursema, a commercial photographer, didn’t quit his day job. But he did find that his custom-shaped, Rothko-inspired, resin-tinted boards got a positive reaction from the other surfers he knew, and soon enough he was shaping and selling boards for friends. Three years ago, he began selling Burly Surfboards in local surf shops; this summer, his unique boards have been displayed as art at Brewery Vivant and at Traverse City’s Inside Out Gallery.
In spite of Burly’s growth, Bruursema is determined to keep the company custom and small. He continues to shape and tint in studios in his garage and basement, and he relishes the intimacy of the local market. “Since it’s such a small community, it’s easy to build relationships with your customers. The other day, a friend bought a yellow fish board that I shaped. And it’s great because I’m going to go surfing with him and see him ride that board all the time, so I’m going to get instant feedback and see how my product performs.”
According to Third Coast Surf Shop owner Ryan Gerard, Burly Surfboards perform quite well. “Justin doesn’t do huge volume, but he has an innate knowledge and a creative touch that come together well in his surfboards. It’s not easy, but Justin is really passionate about it and his finished product comes out really nicely.” In addition to carrying Burly Surfboards, Third Coast sells paddle boards, skim boards, boogie boards, skate boards, clothing, sandals, sunglasses, novelties and memorabilia.
Gerard’s surf shop has also been a player in the sustained growth of the Lake Michigan surf scene. An Indiana native who came to lake surfing via stints in California and Northern Michigan University, he realized there was no place to get surfing equipment in the Great Lakes region. “I drew up my business plan and got laughed at by the banks, so my dad loaned me the money to open the first store in New Buffalo in 2005.” Since then, Third Coast Surf Shop sales have grown 20 percent a year, and Gerard opened a second store in St. Joseph last year as well as relocated the New Buffalo store to downtown this summer.
“I went from having two employees to having 20 people working for us at the height of summer,” says Gerard, 34, who lives with his wife and son in New Buffalo. He describes his customers, who hail from Chicago and the east side of Michigan in addition to local lake towns, as “hearty and passionate.”
“To be a surfer here, it takes dedication. We surf when it’s cold, and we depend on one another. It’s not as easy as driving down to the beach on a Saturday morning to go surfing. We’re online every day, checking the wind and wave models.” Third Coast Surf Shop has embraced technology to grow the surf community, using their website and online store to sell their products nationally as well as local message boards to rally surfers to the best surfing locations. The shop also uses Twitter (@ThirdCoastSurf) to tell its 1200 followers where the waves are.
Justin Bruursema says it’s this kind of community effort that makes the West Michigan surfing community so friendly. “The waves are fickle, so you become a meteorologist and have a network of guys you call to try to seize the moment when the waves are good.”
The sporadic nature of the waves and the challenge of surfing in 33-degree winter water have built a camaraderie that Bruursema thinks is an asset to West Michigan, too. “I would argue that the aloha spirit is more alive here than a lot of other places in the world. Which is funny, because it’s the place you’d least expect.”

Stephanie Doublestein writes and blogs about food, business, and parenting, among other things. She lives in East Grand Rapids with her husband and their two young daughters.

Photography by ADAM BIRD

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