Surfers suffer for their sport
Wichita's surfing community knows, more than most, how to deal with disappointment. While surfers in other areas enjoy tremendous swells and world-record breaking runs on famed beaches, Wichita is in Kansas and is entirely landlocked and has not seen any waves whatsoever during any point in human history. However, Jim Wilkerson, president of the Wichita Surfing Association, has big plans for the future of the sport in the city.
"We're going to have a vastly increased presence at this year's Riverfest," Wilkerson explained during our first meeting at the Vagabond Cafe, where he is a regular. "After all, water is our natural habitat. You're going to see us hanging ten all over town."
The WSA has existed since the late 1950s when it was inexplicably founded as an offshoot of the civil rights movement. WSA founder Ernie Clatch had never seen the ocean and formed the WSA in protest of Kansas' landlocked existence. "Every citizen of this country has the right to surf," Clatch is quoted in the WSA credo, "and to live closer to the beach so that he may do so."
Originally, the primary function of the WSA was to provide funds for members to move to places where they could surf. "We got taken a few times," says longtime member Paul Yardsboro. "People who had no interest in surfing would join just to get bus fare to someplace, and then would never report back about surf conditions. In many cases, I honestly don't know if they ever cared about surfing."
The WSA Clubhouse occupies prime real estate downtown on the river, just south of the Drury hotel, and is lined with well-maintained longboards and photos of surfing champions. A poster for the movie "Endless Summer" hangs on the wall next to a bar unit adorned with tiki-themed decor and a Jimmy Buffet-branded frozen drink blender. There are no windows.
While membership in the WSA ranges well into the hundreds, active members number much fewer. "Maybe twenty of us, any given week, will actually suit up and go to the river with our boards," says Wilkerson. "I wish we'd get more involvement, but we have a lot of legacies — people who are members because their fathers were members. If we could get more involvement, maybe the city would be more interested in making things happen for us."
We consulted Janet Leight, Oceanologist and Geology fellow at Kansas State University. "The only circumstances which would produce a waterflow, much less any sort of wave, which could theoretically be surfed in the Arkansas River would be catastrophic and possibly decimating to the area as a whole. Earthquakes. Perhaps — and a big perhaps — some tsunami which somehow occurred in the Gulf of Mexico would… no, still no. After the next ice age, perhaps."
Wichita Surfers scoff at such naysayers, most insisting that they've seen the wind whip up some "pretty big swells" on El Dorado Lake and that they've got a good handle on what times a year make for the best surfing in the area.
When asked what their favorite locations to actively surf while they waited for Wichita's surfing community to grow, the members we spoke to all indicated that they've meant for years to get to a beach, but none have actually seen an ocean.
One of them had been to Chicago, and asked if that big lake counted as an ocean. It does not.
"It's a lifestyle thing, you've got to understand," offered Wilkerson. "We take it easy. We say things like, 'gnarly' and 'chill,' and we wear comfortable clothes. We don't listen to the man, man…. Oh, and we call people 'man.' We also do that. I mean, when we aren't at work."
Despite the WSA's insistence that they would be having a "huge" presence in this year's Riverfest, our investigation into their claims revealed that no WSA representatives have actually contacted the organizers.
As I stayed through their monthly meeting, I watched as members of the club clad in Hawaiian style shirts with puka-shell necklaces attempted to manipulate and even wax surfboards which they proudly told me were made of 100% Kansas Oak and which must've weighed 250 pounds or more. Their efforts were further hampered by their sunglasses, which they wore despite it being 6 p.m. and being shut in a windowless, fluorescent-lit room.
When the room emptied, it occurred to me that no women were present. As Wilkerson cleaned up after the meeting, I asked if women were allowed to join. Wilkerson was quick to insist that "girls" were "extra welcome. Do you know any?"