Riding out the waves

Gold Coast surfer’s arrest could restart conversation on where it’s legal to carve

01/25/2012 10:00 PM

Contributing Reporter

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Photo by MICHAEL CALABRO Rex Flodstrom walks along the Lake Michigan shoreline after recently surfing. Rex was arrested Jan. 17 for surfing off of Oak Street Beach in Chicago.

For a life-long surfer who has dropped in on both coasts, Rex Flodstrom doesn’t hold much against the seasonal waves of Lake Michigan.

“I always say it’s pretty good, for a lake,” said Flodstrom, 40.

The breakers along Chicago’s waterfront vary in size and speed depending on where you paddle out, he said. The long, sandy shore on Montrose Beach doesn’t give up much in the way of rideable waves, which are more likely to jack up — especially around this time of year — over the steep drop offs at spots like Oak Street Beach.

That’s where Flodstrom headed with his board last Tuesday, Jan. 17, in the hopes of finding some good surf.

The Gold Coast resident had been out on the lake a handful of times this winter, riding the choppy, cold waters in preparation for a number of surfing competitions that he hopes to enter this year.

But this time, his session would be a short one.

Not long after Flodstrom took to the lake at around 3 p.m., a pair of police squad cars pulled up to the shore and began running their lights and sirens. Officers waved him in, and after catching a few last waves Flodstrom returned to the beach, at which point he was handcuffed and transported to an 18th District holding cell where he awaited release for hours, still in his wetsuit.

The charges against Flodstrom included violations for surfing over 50 yards from the shore, being unlawfully present at a closed beach and “jeopardizing the safety of others on the beach.” Surfing is allowed at only a few beaches under Chicago’s city code, and Oak Street Beach is not one of them.

At the time of his arrest, Flodstrom claimed he was unaware that Oak Street was a “no surfing” beach.

From a safety standpoint, the intervention, he said, was unnecessary.

“I’ve been a surfer for longer than I haven’t been, and I’ve experienced all kinds of conditions,” he said. Flodstrom’s court hearing was scheduled for Feb. 14.

News of the Flodstrom’s case quickly spread, and within a day narratives of his arrest had been painted by most media outlets in the city and throughout the electronic ether.

After catching wind of Flodstrom’s situation, professional surfer Kelly Slater took a stance on the arrest.

“Surfing is not a crime,” tweeted Slater, an 11-time surfing world champion, on Wednesday.

The next day, Slater told the Chicago Sun-Times that he didn’t see the point of Chicago’s laws against surfing at certain beaches.

“It makes no sense. … It sounds like a police state,” he told the paper. Slater said that he planned to attend Flodstrom’s trail to support the arraigned surfer.

Professional surfer and environmentalist James Pribram also hinted on his Facebook page that he may drop in on Flodstrom’s hearing.

At first glance, the backing of a world-renowned surfer like Slater may seem like an exciting prospect for changing the way the city looks at governing where and when surfers can paddle out.

But while the right to ride the waves in Chicago has so far been won through similar petitions, some within the ranks of Chicago’s surf scene hope to pace that discussion.

The city’s surfing regulations first came into question in 2008, after a surfer named Jack Flynn was arrested for surfing off a beach in Chicago. At the time, surfing was banned entirely in Chicago, as the sport fell under the city’s rules prohibiting the use of floatation devices in the water.

Surfing advocates in the city and elsewhere called foul on the Flynn’s arrest, and later that year a group of Chicago surfers went to city officials in attempt to reverse of the 20-year-old ban.

Once given an audience of Chicago Park District officials, the surfing delegates pushed for open access to all beaches, but settled when the city offered a handful of areas where surfers would be welcome.

“The city wanted to take more of a ‘wait and see’ approach, which we thought did make sense since it was something new after twenty years of no surfing at all,” said Todd Haugh, who was among the group that met with the district.

Under the new “water plan,” released in late 2009, the park district permitted surfing at Montrose Avenue Beach and 57th Street Beach during the summer, and allowed surfers to ride the waves at the Osterman, Montrose, 57th and Rainbow Beaches during the winter months.

Mitch McNeil is the vice chair of Chicago’s Surfrider Foundation, a group that advocates for surfing access and environmental initiatives across the country. The Chicago branch formed shortly after the 2009 agreement was reached.

Eventually, McNeil said, the day should come when the surf community and the city revisit the issue of expanded surfing accessibility along the lakefront, and the incident on Oak Street Beach may be a catalyst for that discussion.

“I’m hopeful that it will force all parties to want to sit down and communicate…and I think it will,” he said.

But with some of the surf bans now lifted, McNeil said he also wasn’t eager to try the city’s patience.

“If it gets out of hand, and the city gets embarrassed in some way, they could easily retract the peace offering they’ve made to the surfing community in the form of allowing the access to certain beaches,” he said.

As for Flodstrom, the aspiring pro surfer said that he was flattered to see big-name surfers going to bat for him.

“It shows that surfers truly are a global family, and that they’ll stick up for one of their own,” he said.

With his day in court less than a month out, Flodstrom said he hoped to see his charges dropped. With any luck, he said, this would be the last time that a surfer in Chicago would face a sentence for trying to catch a wave.

“Anybody who is a surfer — when they see it good on the lake, they’re going to want to go out,” he said.

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