By Rick Coates
A typical Stand Up Paddle Board race. Photos courtesy of Todd Mackey.
Todd Mackey rides the wild surf of Lake Michigan near Leland.
Surf´s up on Lake Michigan? For that matter, all of the Great Lakes have become a surfers’ paradise in recent years. While these salt-free waters may not get the big waves enjoyed by surfers off the California, Hawaiian and Australian coasts, one must not forget that the waves of the Great Lakes have sunk hundreds of large ships.
Part of the surging surf scene in Northern Michigan is due to the growing popularity of Stand-Up-Paddle-Boarding (SUP). This Saturday, August 20 at the Open Space Bayshore Park in Traverse City the first ever TC Waterman Stand Up Paddle and Expo will take place.
The event is being organized by Todd and Michelle Mackey and is open to anyone.
“We have been a surfing family up here for a number of years,” said Todd Mackey. “SUP is the fastest growing water sport in the world. A SUP board is essentially a long surf board. They have the same design features as surf boards; both sports are rooted back some 2,000 years ago in Polynesian history. SUP boards being longer than surf boards -- typically 10 to 14 feet in length and you have a paddle. But you can surf using a SUP board.”
3.5 & 9-MILE COURSES
The TC Waterman is both a competitive and recreational event, allowing those new to the sport an opportunity to learn more about SUP.
“From a competitive perspective there are two main events with a 3.5-mile recreational course right off the Open Space,” said Mackey. “The premier event -- the one where we have competitors coming in as far away as Hawaii -- is the 9-mile Downwinder. If the winds are in our favor we will go from Bowers Harbor to downtown. if the winds are from the south we will go in the other direction.”
Mackey and Larry Bordine of the Beach Nut Surf Shop in Frankfort tested the Downwinder course on a day with perfect conditions.
“We were able to get from Bowers Harbor to Traverse City in about 75 minutes, but we expect that the best competitors under average conditions will be able to finish in 90 minutes,” said Mackey. “We are also excited that our event is sanctioned by the World Paddle Association (WPA), the sanctioning body for the competitive end of this sport. We have $2,500 in prize money for the first year. We will wrap up the day with a Luau awards party.”
The TC Waterman event evolved out of Mackey contacting the WPA looking to find some events to participate in when it suggested that he start one in Traverse City.
“I was looking to compete, now I am organizing a competition,” said Mackey. “Everyone has been great from the City of Traverse City to the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau to numerous local businesses who have jumped on board as sponsors. We expect this event to grow each year and hope to see the World Championships here someday.”
Todd’s wife Michelle is quick to point out that there are non-competitive options as well at the TC Waterman.
“We are going to have an expo with several vendors coming in from all over the country, there will be opportunities to try SUP,” she said. “Plus, we will have free kids races and free relay races for those wanting to try the competitive end out.”
The Mackey’s have five children who are all into SUP and surfing and they see it as a great family activity.
“We go for a whole day and do this. I am not as into the surfing end of it as much as Todd and some of our children. I find it very relaxing and this is a sport that everyone can do regardless of your age,” said Michelle. “This is a fun sport that is easy and very healthy. You can get a great core body workout from this as well. You will feel it in your stomach muscles the next day.”
Todd agrees: “This sport is fun and it appeals to anyone who likes board sports, skiing and kayaking,” said Mackey. “You can paddle any body of water with these boards and on wavy days you can surf. You simply paddle yourself out and hold onto the paddle and surf back in.”
ROOTS OF SUP
Surfing and SUP were essentially developed simultaneously. In the ’50s when the surfing craze hit the U.S. paddleboards were used by instructors to teach new surfers.
“There has been a resurgence in the sport of SUP over the past 10 years. In the Traverse City area there were two shops carrying SUP boards three years ago and now there are over 15 stores selling them, including a handful of surf specialty shops,” said Mackey.
“Here in the Great Lakes SUP and surfing are both taking off because a long board catches smaller waves better than a typical surfboard and a small wave you can ride for 50 yards. A few weeks ago we had six-footers out on the bay and we had 40 surfers and a dozen SUP out there for eight
hours. I have surfed all over, from Hawaii, California and Florida, and it was some of the best surfing I have ever experienced.”
Rip currents or undertows have been in the news recently, but Mackey says understanding the currents makes the sport more enjoyable and the experience safe.
“We look for those rip currents; it is our version of a chairlift. One thing is they only last about 20 yards and they are usually only 20 or so feet wide. So you don’t panic and let it take you; then you swim parallel to the beach ‘til you get out of it,” said Mackey.
“I have seen people panic but the surfing community has been active in learning safety awareness. A few weeks back Larry Bordine hosted a class on how surfers can save people in the water. In fact Larry saved a person last year in Frankfort who got caught in an undertow. Larry was able to pull him onto his board.”
The popularity of surfing and SUP on the Great Lakes appears to be growing. Websites that report on surf conditions around the world now include the Great Lakes. A great way to learn more about the sport will be this Saturday, Aug. 20, at the TC Waterman Stand Up Paddle & Expo. Volunteers are encouraged to contact the Mackey’s at 231- 360-1806. To register and more info, check out www.tcwaterman.com or find them on Facebook.