One Man's Mission To Catch Lake Michigan Waves On Eco-Friendly Surfboards

Dec 31, 2019

You might be surprised to learn surfing is increasingly popular on the Great Lakes. In fact, some enthusiasts plunge into Lake Michigan any chance they get, any time of year.

Shorewood resident Ken Cole hopes to make a statement through the boards he makes and rides.

Cole’s introduction, and instant infatuation, with surfing did not swell out of Lake Michigan. It was in a place far, far away and long, long ago. "It was the mid '90s," he recalls. "I was in Hawaii doing an internship and writing my dissertation."

Cole found himself distracted by the sea. "So I eventually bought an old beater board that had a ton of duct tape and a lot of water stuck in there and just chipped away at learning it and found that the sport itself was life changing … the culture and the folks I surfed with."

Ken Cole in Lake Michigan.
Credit Andrew Feller

Cole’s career led him to Chicago,  and later Milwaukee. "I found that you can surf in Lake Michigan. Bought a board and eventually moved up here to Milwaukee back in the late '90s and found the culture was growing. Back then it seemed there were about 25 of us in the water then."

A poster for the 2013 Surf @Water event.
Credit Surf @Water

In 2013, he helped create an event to help attract more people to the sport he loves. Surf @Water now lures hundreds of people to tiptoe onto a board every summer.

READ: Lake Michigan Surfers Promote Great Lakes Protection

Cole’s personal mission has expanded to the board beneath his feet.

"Every single surfboard — approximately 400,000 are made each year and of those 99.999 are made out of foam and fiberglass and also toxic resins. And it’s going to go into the water and eventually break down," he explains.

So, Cole decided to try making his own in his garage about three years ago. "Much to my wife’s and my family’s chagrin because making surfboards as you can see is extremely dusty." Cole adds, "But that was the first time I used jute."

Jute is a vegetable fiber used to make coffee bags. Thanks to a local roaster, Cole stitches donated bags together. They cover the core hand-cut by Cole.

Wrapping the board in jute eliminated the need for fiberglass.

A local coffee roaster passes along bags to Cole. Beneath it are pieces of foam waiting to be used for Cole's next surfboards. He hopes to come up with an eco-friendly replacement for foam.
Credit Susan Bence

"So this board will have zero fiberglass whatsoever …. The process is a pretty long one because what I have to do is lay this jute down and pour bio-resin on it. All surfboards use resin of some sort — again an oil-based product," Cole says.

He opts instead for a plant-based resin. "So you pour the resin on this, it eventually cured and then you have to massage it in and then you have a solid surfboard."

His most nagging challenge is the material that currently forms his surfboard’s core. Although it’s fabricated only 60 miles north of here, the foam leaches toxic substances — like styrene and benzene.

Several mechanical engineers are helping Cole come up with an eco-friendly alternative. "Ideally within two or three years put out something that shows Milwaukee and, dare I say, the world you can actually surf on something that when the times for it to go away, it doesn’t destroy the environment but rather feed backs into it."

Ken Cole with one of his finished surfboards.
Credit Susan Bence

He has moved his experiment from his garage to a sun-drenched second floor space above a marina on the edge of Milwaukee’s harbor district.

And while crafting surfboards is a passion he hopes inspires others, Cole isn’t about to give up his day job as a psychologist.

"The best part is in the summer ...  I’ll get up here about about 5 in the morning and sometimes I’m shaping and sanding from 5 to 7:30 and then I’ll go into the phone booth and change into my suit," Cole says.

What about winter surfing on Lake Michigan? Cole catches waves as often as weather and his schedule permits, including last weekend.

He looks down at the 10 foot long, 24 inch wide creation he’s shaping at the moment. "As surfers I truly believe since we’re the ones in the environment all the time and loving it, we can be leaders in so many ways. So if I crank out 12 to 15 boards and it sends a message, then others might catch on that have the capacity to build a lot more," Cole says.

Ken Cole says Milwaukee is both a great place to surf and shape surfboards.
Credit Andrew Feller

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