With the ideal weather conditions, Lake Michigan’s breaking waves are said to be similar to those of popular surf beaches in California, Hawaii, and Australia. While surfing is actually quite popular around the lake, Chicago’s code has unfortunately prevented surfers from taking advantage of the great waves. All this is changing, and Vince Deur, along with his friends and fellow surfers, Mike Urban, Todd Haugh, Jack Flynn, James Pribram, and David Vanderveen amongst others, have been the driving force behind the positive change. In a few months, surf boards and Hawaiian Tropic models will start crossing Lake Shore Drive and laying the foundation of Chicago’s reputation as the next great surfing destination. We sit down with Vince Deur, Michigan native, surfer, environmentalist, and filmmaker, and see the world through his eyes and understand his love for water and Chicago.
F: Sounds like you have the best job in the world, surfer and filmmaker. How did you get started in surfing?
V: Well, I grew up by the Grand River, in Michigan, and from that early stage, would just always be around water. I used to stare at the lapping of the waves in a nearby beach and just be fixated on the waves. The plain sight of the waves started it all, because I was in Michigan, not Hawaii. I didn’t have Surfer magazine delivered to my home, never saw surfers out, or never really saw anyone in the water. Then I turned 13, traveled to Florida, saw a surfer, and took home a board one day. It was quite hard to learn on the lake, but I was determined to figure it out.
F: Is being a filmmaker and surfer as awesome as it sounds?
V: It’s been great. Because of it, I’ve been able to travel the world, Japan, New Zealand, Chile, and Europe. I am actually in Laguna Beach right now, wrapping up the post-production of my latest film, Eco-Warriors. Some times I wake up and say, wow, this is a dream come true. However, it has always been a struggle, finding money, finding time, and finding resources to bring something together but it is still a challenge I enjoy.
F: You started out with Unsalted, what did you set out to do with that film?
V: Unsalted is about being passionate about something, sharing that passion with others, and living life to your fullest. The film has really created a niche following and a favorite among surfers around the world. If you watch the whole story, you will start to feel the passion of the surfers and what drives them. You start to see surfers outside of their stereotype and from a different perspective. However, while the focus of the movie is on surfing, it is used as a metaphor for appreciating everything in life. Whether you are in California, Hawaii, or Idaho, there is beauty all around you if you open your eyes.
Here is a clip of Unsalted (requires plugin to view)
F: What about Eco-Warriors, still surfing but different message?
V: Yes definitely. This film is all about taking ownership in your own backyard and making a difference. Through the main character, James Pribram, we follow his journey to these places and his efforts to learn from and support others from around the world. He has really inspired me to believe we can actually make a difference as he does for others along the way and that is what I set out to capture on film. He is a great example of people making an impact in their own way. He’s not an MIT grad, he’s not a CEO, but he is a surfer, passionate, and focused who is able to mold the world around him. He is a role model like many of the people you meet in the story.
F: Lake Michigan ice water surfer vs. Californian fair weather surfer, what is different?
V: The typical Huntington Beach surfer, sorry, I hate stereotyping people, there are actually lot of great HB surfers, but there are those who are completely self obsessed, wave hogs, and slang talkers. Maybe it’s the age, and testosterone too bringing that out. Then you have the Lake Michigan surfer who, in general, truly appreciate and respect that they have the chance to do this. I believe it is the circumstances that develop the personality. A place like the Great Lakes doesn’t have year round waves, so you learn to appreciate what you have. If it is just raining money you can’t really be grateful for the next $20 bill.
F: Surfing isn’t allowed in Chicago’s beaches. Now that’s changed. Can you talk to us more about the changes?
V: Things are starting to unfold as we speak! The City of Chicago is working on it and is as committed as we are, but the official changes will occur during the Board of Commissioners meeting on June 10th. The current state of it is that multiple beaches will be open for surfing from Labor Day to Memorial Day, and one beach year round. So the good news is that we will be surfing by the fall, although I would love it to have been sooner.
F: This has changed because of you. How did it happen?
V: Our effort to open up access in Chicago really felt like a David vs Goliath story that at the onset was seemingly overwhelming. We had a surfer thrown in jail for surfing, people tried for years to get this done and we are now 90 percent there. We still have naysayers telling us no, but we’re starting to see changes. Seeing it play out was very inspiring.
We actually tried a lot of different doors to get this done, online petitions, open letters, then finally got help from a kiteboarder, Mike Urban, who had success in Montrose beach. We were introduced to a very progressive Chicago Park District member who was in favor of more skate parks, and more action sports related activities. I believe that the city understands that the more people that get to interact with the lake, the more value and ownership they will take with our lake.
F: If I were a beginner going out with a board, what would your advice be?
V: First off, get a lesson. You can go to New Buffalo Michigan and get surfing lessons there or find someone with experience. Part of what would happen now though is that by allowing surfing in Chicago, we’re expecting a few surf shops to open and provide lessons. Also for beginners, go out on a warm day and be prepared. If you are cold, or tired, you can get hurt.
F: Surfing etiquette for beginners?
V: Oh yeah, there’s a whole book on that. I guess most importantly, don’t drop in to anybody. If someone catches a wave, don’t go interrupt them. Its like jumping into someone else’s golf game. Also, don’t paddle where other guys are surfing. Wait your turn, be respectful, and keep your eyes open, otherwise, people will call you out on it.
F: Message for everyone else out here?
V: We have one lake, we all surf the same wave. We are surfing the same molecules of water so respect it because it is valuable and beautiful. I just want to remind people how great it is, and that we need to give back and be involved in the community to protect the lake.
F: You seem to travel frequently to Chicago, what do you do when you are out here?
V: I just love Chicago. Every since I was a little boy, I would go to the Shedd Aquarium and all the museums. I visit friends, try to go to events like Lollapalooza, or play volleyball in North Ave beach. It is my adopted big city home, not Detroit. This is why I am so determined to bring surfing there. It represents what I love about the Midwest in a big international city.
I enjoy going to Blue Water Grill. What? It’s gone? Who canceled their lease? I guess the next time I’m back it will be Gino’s Pizza, the Oak St. Bistro or Indian food at Devon Ave!
F: How can locals get involved in protecting the lakes?
V: You can become a member of the Surfrider Foundation! We will be establishing a Chicago chapter soon so watch out. Also, attend a beach cleanup, if there are water quality issues, talk to your city council. Look, I live in Grand Haven, MI and we used to be the most polluted river and we changed that, but the point is it could happen anywhere if the vigilance goes away. I actually used to get tampons floating down the river into my backyard. I would pick them up as I thought they were shotgun shells and had this special box of shotgun shells. Then I discovered what they were and got a shiver down my spine! Are you going to tell this to everyone?