Ten years ago, I had never picked up a surfboard. Today, however, there’s a wetsuit drying in my basement and a quiver of custom surfboards in my garage just waiting for the next time the waves show promise.
But don’t get the wrong idea. I’m not a real surfer—I’m more of a surfer by marriage.
My husband, Ryan, was the first person I ever met who surfed, let alone surfed on Lake Michigan. When he described his love of surfing over our first date at the Stray Dog in New Buffalo, I pictured it as a hobby kind of like golf, something you could just show up and do at your preferred time and place. What I didn’t understand then was that surfing wasn’t a hobby, but an adventure—a search to find the right conditions, with the right board, at the right time. And it’s been nothing short of an adventure for Ryan and me as we’ve grown a business around the idea that, yes, you can surf on the lake.
It started in early 2005. Although he had spent time in California immersed in the surf culture, Ryan had returned home to Michigan a few years earlier to finish his degree at Northern Michigan University and be closer to family. Being away had given him a fresh appreciation of the surf scene on Lake Michigan, the place where he learned to catch his first waves as a teen spending the summers on Silver Beach in St. Joseph. Seeing the potential for surfing to grow here the way it had on the West Coast in the mid-twentieth century, Ryan didn’t think it was such a strange idea to turn a craftsman-style cottage tucked away on a side street in New Buffalo into Third Coast Surf Shop, the first store of its kind on the Great Lakes.
The next few months were a crash course in setting up a retail business—everything from securing funding and contacting vendors to unpacking merchandise and setting up the point-of-sale system—before the store opened its doors. In that first year, there were challenges, such as the grueling schedule in the summer and lean months in the winter, but they were outweighed by benefits like helping local kids catch their first waves and meeting customers who would become lifelong friends. Soon, people from all over the world took surf lessons with us on Lake Michigan, and New Buffalo even earned recognition from Outside magazine as one of the North America’s best places to learn to surf. We later added kayak and stand-up paddleboard rentals at the Galien River and New Buffalo City Beach in New Buffalo and at the Paw Paw River and Jean Klock Park in Benton Harbor. And when opportunity arose, we added a new shop location in a 120-year-old storefront in downtown St. Joseph, just steps from the beach where Ryan discovered his passion for surfing.
Much has changed since the store opened its doors eight years ago. Ryan and I got married, added a few stamps to our passports, and added to our family—first with a Wheaten terrier named Grover, then with a son named Oliver. In the midst of all of that, our connection to Lake Michigan through the shop has been a constant, and we can’t wait to see where it takes us next.