Riding the Waves

The Great Lakes Surf Festival inspires the next generation of enthusiasts
Water sports enthusiasts can learn how to surf and paddleboard on Lake Michigan at the Great Lakes Surf Festival.
Photo courtesy of Leo Valdex.

Staring out over Lake Michigan from Muskegon’s expansive Pere Marquette Beach, Joe Bidawid recounts why, in 2018, he and his wife, Tammy, founded the Great Lakes Surf Festival — the first of its kind in Michigan.

Amid the waves at last August’s festival, he says, attendees were soaking up surfing and paddleboarding lessons from more than 20 instructors, many for the first time. When they emerged from the water, their facial expressions clearly revealed how the participants felt about the experience.

“That’s the best part of the day for me,” says Bidawid, a professional waterman who’s been riding Great Lakes waves since the late 1980s. “Seeing people in our lessons and how they’re glowing afterward is so rewarding. Some are just beaming, taking photos with instructors. That’s an amazing moment.”

Roger Dubuc of Grand Haven, the event’s surf team coach, experienced one of those memorable interactions last summer.

“This guy paddles up next to Roger and is like ‘Hey, Roger, you taught me how to surf at the Great Lakes Surf Festival in 2019,’ and expressed how thankful he was,” Bidawid recalls. “There are many more people like that whose love for surfing activities began at our event. It’s huge for people who haven’t had the opportunity to learn surfing or paddleboarding.”

The Bidawids and their nonprofit event’s staff of more than 100 volunteers eagerly await witnessing the impact this year’s Aug. 12 Great Lakes Surf Festival will have on attendees.

Lessons are available for the relatively new water sport of wingfoiling.
Photo courtesy of Leo Valdex.

Bidawid, who loves engaging in water sports on a 10-mile stretch of Lake Michigan between Muskegon and his Grand Haven home, is part of the first generation of Great Lakes surfers.

After getting his first taste of windsurfing at age 18, the Chicago native spent much of the 1990s competing in that discipline, as well as surfing and kiteboarding around the world while sponsored by Naish, one of the leading board sports equipment companies.

Bidawid became Naish’s Midwest kiteboarding representative after moving to Michigan for good in 1998, and discovered a love for introducing that sport and similar activities to people who likely had never even considered Great Lakes surfing a possibility.

“The Great Lakes Surf Festival is a family-friendly, high-energy event, and it’s wonderful seeing people of all ages learning how to surf,” says Liz Lanning, an event volunteer. “There’s something special about people trusting the surf instructors and becoming vulnerable in the water. The old adage that when you fall down, get back up, couldn’t be more fitting for learning to surf.”

In addition to surfing and paddleboarding lessons, festival attendees can learn about wingfoiling from Tyler Spence of St. Joseph-based Stoke Riders. Other activities include yoga on the beach, live music, shopping among dozens of vendors, food options, and what has become a legendary giveaway raffle.

Among this year’s prizes are surfboards, paddleboards, and a trip for two to the popular Witch’s Rock Surf Camp in Tamarindo, Costa Rica, which caters to all skill levels. Everyone who registers for the festival is automatically entered in the raffle.

The annual festival is a family-friendly instructional event that also features a raffle of surfboards, paddleboards, and more.
Photo courtesy of Leo Valdex.

Rain dampened last year’s festival, but more than 2,000 people registered for the 2021 event. About 500 of them were from outside Michigan, including from far-away places such as Australia, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Every festival has drawn more than 1,000 participants.

“Surfing, kiteboarding, and wingfoiling all involve a very direct connection to the water, and this festival is a celebration of that,” says Jake Mitchell, of MACkite Boardsports Center in Grand Haven. “A one-day event like this also creates excitement and camaraderie around those sports. We do our kiteboarding and wingfoiling lessons at Pere Marquette Beach, as well.”

In addition to Dubuc, surfing and paddleboard instructors include Larry Larsen of Muskegon, who in 1966 became one of the first people ever to surf Lake Michigan on a regular basis.

Other surfing teachers include Grand Haven’s Matt Smolenski, who is one of the great surfboard shapers in the region and the owner of the SRF MVMT surf shop in Grand Haven.

Muskegon’s Dan Bonner was the lead standup paddleboard instructor last year. In 2019, he and his wife, Anastasia, paddleboarded in all five Great Lakes on a single day. Spence will demonstrate wingfoiling, which involves riding a hydrofoil board while harnessing the wind’s power by holding an inflatable wing with both hands.

“I’m fortunate to have such a passionate group of volunteers and instructors to pull this event off or it wouldn’t happen,” Bidawid says. “To see someone like Larry Larsen — one of the original Great Lakes surfers, and a true legend — teaching and giving back to the sport is really nice.”

Plan it!

Great Lakes Surf Festival

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