Midwest surf book: Get on board for a wild ride

Lee and Larry Williams of Sheboygan, Wis., were instrumental in starting the Dairyland Surf Classic, which led to the Lake Michigan beach being called the
Lee (left) and Larry Williams of Sheboygan, Wis., were instrumental in starting the Dairyland Surf Classic, which led to their Lake Michigan beach being dubbed the “Malibu of the Midwest” and known worldwide.

The story of the Williams brothers, oft-told in the national media and touched on in the films “Step Into Liquid” and “Unsalted”, has largely been reported in sanitized, press-release fashion.

They first hopped on their surfboards in 1966 in the unlikely setting of Sheboygan, founded the Dairyland Surf Classic in 1988 and continue to embrace their favorite water sport today at age 56. End of story.

But hold on for a wild ride in “Some Like It Cold: A Sheboygan Surfin’ Safari.” The 198-page paperback, published by Clerisy Press of Cincinnati, Ohio, and written by Mequon native Bill Povletich, takes readers through the decidedly unsanitized lives of Larry “Longboard” Williams and his fraternal twin, Lee “Waterflea”.

As expected, Povletich borrows nuts and bolts from stories run in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, along with nuggets from articles published in Wisconsin newspapers.

We read that Sheboygan has become the No. 1 freshwater surfing site in the world, what with 22 breaks on its five-mile coast, a central location on Lake Michigan and the shoreline’s good fortune of jutting five miles into the lake, bringing waves from four directions.

Author Bill Povletich
Author Bill Povletich wrote the stirring “Some Like It Cold: A Sheboygan Surfin’ Safari,” which chronicles the rise of surfing in the Midwest, and the joys and hardships experienced by the Williams brothers.

Povletich (rhymes with ‘prosthetic’) expands on the seemingly innocent story of two Wisconsinites and their boarding buddies surfing year-round in the icy, frigid waters of Lake Michigan. What develops is a very adult story about love and loss — and the quest for renewal, through surfing.

“At first, you think you’re reading a lighthearted story about two teenagers who are looking for a rebellious outlet in the 1960s,” Povletich writes in an email from Los Angeles, where he is a television producer and author. “But as they grow up, you find their lives becoming more complicated with the realities of adulthood forcing them to rely on each other and their lifelong passion of surfing.”

While this is an affectionate take on the Williamses’ story, the author does not sugarcoat his portrayal. All of the surfers’ twists and turns, on the water and off, are covered in great detail, as Povletich obviously gained the brothers’ trust from the first day the author met them and scribbled his interview notes on a bar napkin.

Carousing, hopping railroad cars, blowing up toilets, skirting convention and the law, and clashing with an older, rival surf club also weigh heavily in this coming-of-age tale. The daredevil brothers, who grew up only three blocks from the lake, at 1415 S. 9th St., repeatedly escape great harm on the water, risking hypothermia or worse.

Povletich, for his part, gives equal time to their passions, demons and unimaginable despair.

In one of the book’s more poignant scenes, Larry hits an emotional low point shortly after the accidental death of his 14-year-old son, Tanner, who fell off the trunk of a moving car in 1994.

“I can’t make the pain stop,” Larry tells his brother through tears.

IMG_0097But Larry drags himself up from this alcohol-fueled crisis point at Brat Days and begins the next day channeling his energy into surfing with a greater fervor than ever.

A similar, emotional checkpoint is played out seven years later, when Lee loses his wife, Michele, to cancer at age 48. Eventually, each surfer fights through the pain and gains a measure of renewal through his passion for riding Lake Michigan’s waves.

As Larry says at the end of the book, “Through the years, our surfboards have carried us over the tallest waves and kept us afloat in the roughest waters.”

To which Lee replies, “It’s definitely been the ride of a lifetime.”

Only two years after Michele’s death, the brothers appeared in “Step Into Liquid,” which won Best Documentary at the 2003 Maui Film Festival and was called the best surfing documentary ever by Rolling Stone magazine. The 15-minute segment in which Sheboygan’s lakefront and the Williams brothers are featured made the twins instant celebrities.

“It’s amazing how the international surfing has gravitated toward Lee and Larry Williams. They never sought out attention for their unique lifestyle. The surfing world found them,” Povletich said. “Now they’re global superstars in the surfing community. Whenever they travel, they’re recognized by the biggest names in surfing at airports, restaurants and hotel lobbies.

“Think about it. Here are two guys who chose to stay and surf on their hometown beach instead of moving to Hawaii, Australia or San Diego in pursuit of bigger waves. That’s what makes their story so special,” Povletich continued. “Especially when you realize how prominent Sheboygan has become on the international surfing map. Lee, Larry and the entire Sheboygan surfing community have brought so much positive attention to the community by just focusing on what they love — surfing.”

(Published in The Sheboygan Press, 2010)