Coast-to-coast on skis

Dodging a freighter and dealing with choppy conditions, longtime friends waterski 62 miles across Lake Michigan

HAVING ALTERED COURSE to avoid a freighter in the middle of Lake Michigan, waterskiers Madelyn Hendrikse and Braden Dirkse (being towed by the boat behind her) raced toward Michigan Saturday.
By 
BILL SCHANEN IV
Ozaukee Press staff

About 20 minutes into it, Madelyn Hendrikse’s dream adventure seemed a lot like a nightmare.

“The first 10 miles were awful,” she said.

A choppy lake sent spray flying over the boats and punished Madelyn and her longtime friend Braden Dirkse, who despite years of experience couldn’t have imagined the physical strength and level of concentration it would take to stay on their feet.

“It was a lot harder than I thought it would be,” Braden said. “But eventually we saw the Michigan coast and I thought, ‘Let’s lock it in and get this done.’”

That’s exactly what they did. On Saturday, Aug. 10, 18-year-old Madelyn and 17-year-old Braden waterskied across Lake Michigan from the beach near their homes in Oostburg to Little Sable Point in Michigan, dodging commercial fishing nets and a freighter in the process. 

Skiing at 25 to 28 mph, they completed the 62-mile marathon in just two-and-a-half hours.

“It was hard but so cool,” Madelyn said.

A veteran waterskier who is not averse to taking a few risks, Madelyn floated the idea of a Lake Michigan crossing two years ago.

“For years I’ve looked across the lake and couldn’t see anything, so I decided I wanted to cross it,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to do big things.”

Madelyn’s father Terry, also a veteran waterskier, wants no credit for the idea.

“This was definitely all my daughter’s idea,” he said. “She’s pretty adventurous.

“I kind of downplayed it for a year, but it was obvious she wasn’t going to quit. So I told her, ‘If you’re serious about this, you have to organize it.’”

That started with finding a partner, and Braden was an obvious choice. The two have waterskied together since they can remember and taught the sport at a camp started by Madelyn’s father and Braden’s dad Greg, who have also been friends since childhood.

“Braden and I are very similar,” Madelyn said. “He’s always up for a crazy adventure.”

Then there was training. Madelyn waterskis every day the weather allows in summer but added some long-distance runs to her routine in an effort to prepare for the trans-Lake Michigan mission.

“I did some 30-mile trips, but it was really calm, nothing like the middle of the lake,” she said.

Most important was finding the right weather window for their adventure. Watching forecasts closely, Madelyn and Braden had penciled in Monday or Tuesday of this week, but then a high pressure system brought light northwest winds to the region earlier than expected. It was an opportunity they couldn’t miss.

“On Friday night at about 7, we decided to pull the trigger on Saturday,” Terry said.

Before sunrise the next day, the skiers and a support team that consisted of their fathers and siblings gathered on the beach in Oostburg and launched two boats — 18 and 20 feet long — that were driven by Terry and Greg.

At first light, their fathers hit the throttles, and the waterskiers were off, screaming toward Michigan on a glassy-calm lake.

“It was critical to be on the water at first light,” Terry said, noting that in addition to taking advantage of the calmest part of the day an early start ensured more daylight to deal with any problems they encountered.

The flat-calm conditions didn’t last long. After navigating around a set of commercial fishing nets not far from shore, Madelyn and Braden got their first taste of open-water skiing.

“A foot to foot-and-a-half chop doesn’t sound like much, but when you’re going 28 mph for two-and-a-half hours, it seems pretty big,” Terry said. 

Even for two athletes — Madelyn competed in cross-county and track and field before graduating from Oostburg High School in spring and Braden, who will be a senior at the school, plays soccer and basketball — open-water skiing proved to be a physical test.

With lake temperatures in the 60s near shore and 70s off shore, the skiers wore wet suits and life jackets and used radio headsets to communicate with each other and their fathers.

“About 10 miles into it, I radioed Braden and said, ‘How warm are you? I’m sweating like crazy,’” Madelyn said. 

The skiers also wore kite-boarding harnesses that allowed them to clip into their towropes to rest their arms and hands.

But because of the choppy conditions, there wasn’t a lot of resting to be done.

“You had to constantly concentrate,” Braden said.

Madelyn said, “The mental aspect was definitely the most challenging part of this for me. This was a lot harder than running a half-marathon. I constantly had to tell myself that I can do this.”

In addition to the chop, the skiers and their team had to contend with a freighter in the middle of the lake.

“We were literally on a head-on collision course with the freighter,” Terry said. “We probably had to go a half-mile out of our way to avoid it.”

For Braden, the freighter was a welcome sight.

“It gets a little eerie not being able to see anything in the middle of the lake, so it was nice to see the freighter,” he said.

Not long after that encounter, the Michigan shore appeared on the horizon.

“It was great to see land, but it was also a little deceiving because it was still a long way away,” Braden said. “For awhile, it didn’t seem like we were getting any closer.”

At 8 a.m., Madelyn and Braden made landfall at Little Sable Point, completing the 62-mile trek without falling or stopping.

“There was actually a yoga class on the beach watching us come flying in and cheering,” Terry said.

Water-skiing across Lake Michigan proved to be no small feat, he said.

“One of the surprises for me was how challenging this was for the kids,” Terry said. “Braden is a top athlete and Madelyn is mentally rock solid. If she sets her mind to something, she’s going to do it. 

“Both these kids are at the top of their games and this was still a challenge for them.”

After exploring the Michigan shore, Madelyn and Braden stowed their skis and joined their families on the boats for the trip back to Oostburg.

As the Wisconsin shore came into view, Madelyn noticed something odd on the beach. There on the sand were her mother Nicole and Braden’s mom Robin along with a cast of relatives and friends with a large sign congratulating the teenagers on their successful trans-Lake Michigan adventure.

“The fact they accomplished this and that their family and friends were waiting for them on the beach brought tears to my eyes,” Terry said.

For Madelyn and Braden, the adventure was a great way to end the summer. On Friday, Madelyn leaves for Phoenix, where she will attend Grand Canyon University, and not long after that Braden will return to classes.

“This was the last hurrah for them,” Terry said. “And they went out with a bang.”

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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