He caught the wave....and can't let go

Surfer Shawn Knitt, who rides freshwater waves year ‘round, introduced his daughters Ava and Molly to surfing on Lake Michigan off Port Washington’s south beach
By 
MITCH MAERSCH
Ozaukee Press staff

Shawn Knitt paddled out on Lake Michigan in May 2020, waiting for the water to do its thing.

Then, he caught it.

The Port Washington resident got onto his surfboard and stood up, riding his first wave.

It only lasted five or six seconds, but his life would never be the same.

“There’s no feeling like it. You catch that first wave, and man, it’s sort of like part roller coaster, part Zen meditation,” he said.

“It all comes together and you’re standing on a wave, not a boat. It’s Mother Nature propelling you across the water.”

Knitt was hooked, and it turns out that was good for his physical and mental health.

Originally from the Eagle River area where a hockey game on a homemade pond is never far away, Knitt, who has lived in Port for 15 years, had often enjoyed the sport. But hockey is not as popular in the southern part of the state, and the Covid-19 pandemic figuratively put his skates on ice when rinks closed.

“I was going out of my mind,” Knitt said.

He knew Wisconsin has a surfing subculture, and was encouraged to try the sport when he was hanging out at the lake just north of Port one day.

A man who lived on the lake drove his golf cart down and posed a question.

“‘You catch anything?’” he asked.

“No, I’m not fishing,” Knitt replied.

Knitt later learned the man was talking about waves.

Knitt became interested and and bought a used board from EOS Surf Shop in Sheboygan. The city, he said, is known as the Malibu of the Midwest to surfers.

Knitt taught himself to surf. Since he used to enjoy skateboarding, hockey and riding a unicycle in a Fourth of July parade, he had some skill in balancing. But that was on solid ground.

Balancing on a moving surface was one of a few challenges.

“When they said it’s the hardest thing you’re ever going to do, they meant it,” Knitt said.

“It’s a full-body workout. I could barely move my arms for two days.”

He quickly shared his newfound passion with his daughters Ava, 10, and Molly, 6.

“It’s morphed into a family activity,” he said.

Part of Knitt’s education about the sport is having the right equipment.

“The bigger the board, the easier it is to learn on,” he said.

After starting with a shorter board that wasn’t as buoyant, Knitt upgraded to an eco-friendly, NSP 10-foot board that is “built to take abuse.” He hopes to eventually go back to a shorter board, 9 to 9-1/2 feet, which are easier to turn.

Material also matters.

“If anybody’s going to learn, get a soft-top board. You won’t lose your front teeth,” Knitt said.

Surfboards, he said, are measured in length, width and liters of displacement. The higher the displacement, the more buoyant they are.

Surfing on the lake, Knitt said, is different than on the ocean because freshwater is not as buoyant as saltwater. But there is one advantage. “The thing about the lakes is the waves are closer together,” Knitt said.

Waves can be as big as some on oceans. On the shores of Stoney Point in Minnesota, waves can reach 20 feet high.

Knitt has ridden four to six-foot waves, which is the maximum his board is designed to handle.

Lakes, however, don’t usually offer as long a ride as oceans. Surfers in Skeleton Bay in Namibia, Africa, can provide rides of 30 minutes. Surfers in the British Isles measure waves in miles, not minutes.

Closer to home, the shores off of Two Rivers, Knitt said, can yield rides of three to four minutes.

Most rides Knitt takes run from 10 to 30 seconds before he tries to catch another one.

“When the wind blows, there’s no shortage,” he said of Lake Michigan, adding ocean waves can be 20 minutes apart.

But knowing the lake is important. Rip currents, while deadly to some, carry surfers to where they want to be, letting them paddle a quarter as hard, he said.

“We’ve learned how to use them,” Knitt said.

Knitt knows what kind of waves to expect through his National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration app, which he said is spot-on in predicting wave height.

“I wake up with the weather and go to sleep with the weather,” he said, adding Ava has also taken to watching the forecast.

While surfing can be done year round, summers don’t provide consistent wind.

“Winter is the ultimate time,” he said.

That means wearing the proper wetsuits. Knitt and his daughters have ones for warm and cold conditions.

Knitt has a 6/7-millimeter suit for winter and wore a 5/4mm one on Saturday.  The first number, he said, is the thickness around the core and the next is around the limbs.

“You can find inexpensive wetsuits,” he said. “Buy the best you can afford.”

While Wisconsin doesn’t have a climate many think would be suitable for surfing, Knitt is not alone in his love for the activity. “People don’t know there is that subculture in Port Washington,” Knitt said.

The state has a strong connection to the sport.

Famed surfer Burton Hathaway learned to surf in his native state of California, continued his hobby after moving to Racine and helped grow the sport’s popularity in the area.

Thomas Edward Blake, who was born in Milwaukee in 1902 and later lived in California and Hawaii, became a surfing legend through winning competitions, innovating surfboard designs and lifesaving equipment.

One of the pioneers in the surfing life, he is buried in Washburn, Wis., where he spent much of his childhood.

“People in Wisconsin have no idea that someone like that changed the sport worldwide,” Knitt said.

Knitt, whose job in construction excavating allows time on weekends to surf, only wishes he would have picked up the hobby earlier.

“I love it. I wish I would have done this 10 years ago. That’s my biggest regret,” he said.

Knitt goes back to the exhilaration of catching that first wave.

“The only thing I can compare it to is the birth of my children,” he said.

“If anybody’s looking to try it, give it a whirl. I don’t think anybody’s going to be disappointed. Like me, if you catch that first one, you’re going to be hooked.”

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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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