Late September, and fall blows in from Lake Erie overnight. Storms charge through town, announcing the cold front. By 11 a.m., the rain’s gone, it’s 56 degrees, fluffy clouds race off the lake and chilly winds whip Tower City’s American and Indians flags, pointing south.
At Edgewater Park, those 17 mph winds make the lake tumble and froth. Waves, big white semi-circles, fill the cove, surging toward the beach.
Nine figures in black wet suits bob in the waves, appearing and disappearing. They lie or crouch on surfboards, paddling as a wave nears. It sweeps one guy up. He stands, rides the wave maybe 10 seconds, slows, then upends into the water.
Another guy rides in on the foam, turns left, crossing in front of the wave, then kicks up into it. His board leaps, then tumbles from him. Its little black under-fins arc through the air. He goes down with a little splash, surfaces to see another wave about to land, ducks under just before it hits.
It’s the end of summer and just the start of surf season in Cleveland. Yes, you can surf in Cleveland: You can catch a quick wave, take a brief ride, feel the mix of Zen clarity and rushing bliss. Not many people do it — a hard-core clan of a few dozen surf Cleveland-area beaches, less than a thousand surf the five Great Lakes — but the number is growing.
Forget those images of endless summer. Cleveland wave-riders are black-clad surf commandos, braving the worst our cold, dirty Great Lake churns up.
Surf in Cleveland is almost entirely dependent on bad weather. Cold fronts, storms, the tail-end of low-pressure systems create the freak winds that kick up Erie waves. Surf season is fall, spring — and winter, until the lake freezes.
“Most of the guys will surf all year long, as long as you can get through the ice,” says local surfer and entrepreneur Tim Moran. “We wear wet suits, Vaseline up our faces.” Winter surfing means guarding against hypothermia, frostbite and natural obstacles. “You don’t want to hit ice chunks as you come in.”
Early fall, when the water’s warmer than the air, is best. Today, there’s a strong wind from the northwest blowing whitecaps toward Edgewater beach. Four guys take off on one wave, coasting in. One gets a good 20-second ride, zig-zags three times and flashes a thumbs-up to his buddies before collapsing into the water. Most surf in fits, slashing left and right, bouncing on the wave. But one guy, his hair whiter than the waves, makes it look easy. He glides right to shore, graceful, undisturbed.
He’s Todd Williams, 55, an architectural photographer from Eastlake. He rides a longboard, his surfing technique a classic ’60s style. He learned to surf in Galveston, Texas, then surfed in Mexico, California, the East Coast, Hawaii. He started surfing Erie 18 years ago. Some of his friends took to Erie’s waves in the late ’60s, a decade before the Euclid Beach Band sang, “There’s No Surf in Cleveland.”
“It’s all right,” Todd says, stopping on the beach before wading back in. “It’s novelty surf, Lake Erie is.”
Like many Erie surfers, Todd got addicted to the sport in warmer, ocean-front spots, and now coaxes whatever thrill he can get out of our inland sea. “I get to the Coast whenever I can,” he says — Cape Cod, Long Island, Nantucket Island, where waves rise 8, 12, 14 feet.
Here, today, the waves are “head-high on the initial drop, chest-to-waist high on the inside [of the wave],” Todd reports. (Great Lakes surfers measure the waves against their bodies, not in feet; they rarely get higher than head-high.) It’s not an ideal day on Erie, but not bad.
“It’s a skanky place to surf,” Todd admits. He curses the sewage in the water.
Surfers know more than most Clevelanders about the area’s biggest environmental embarrassment. Todd points across the beach to a giant overflow pipe that disgorges untreated sewer water after storms. Cleveland’s old sewer systems mix storm water and wastewater, so big storms cause the system to overflow — just in time for the best surf weather.
“It’s skanky, dude,” he repeats. (He’s the kind of guy who still says “dude” at 55.)
But surfing here is still worth it for the rare, exhilarating sensation when you become part of a wave.“It’s just the mellow feeling you get after you’re done,” says Todd, relaxing later in the parking lot, wearing a hooded sweatshirt to warm up. “You get real loose. Your mind gets into a real zone. All you’re thinking about is the waves, the energy of the waves.”
“It’s freedom,” says Sean Rooney, a 30-year-old surfer and apartment rehabber.
“It’s about camaraderie” and “tapping energy,” he says. “When the waves break, it releases enormous amounts of energy. Only surfers can [tap it]. Not even windsurfers can. There’s not a real explanation in words. Pictures don’t describe it.”
Like any good private, semi-secret group, the surfers have a clubhouse. It’s in an old storefront in a mostly industrial part of South Collinwood.
A giant tiki-head, one of those Easter-Island-y fright masks, stares out from a mural on the back wall. It looks like it’s demanding an offering: a fluorescent rum drink, the ritual burning of a surfboard.
To Tiki’s right, the Cleveland skyline — Tower City, the new federal court building — rises above Edgewater. Two surfers carry their boards across the beach. Waves rise from an idyllic-blue Erie.
A small stage, protected by chicken wire, stands below the mural, with some speakers and a drum kit with an anarchy symbol on the bass drum’s skin. On the other side of the wire, there’s a giant half-pipe for skateboarders. Lots of surfers skateboard during the off-season. It’s good for practicing balance.
On another wall, the name “Wagner Surf Club 2000” is painted in Olde English lettering. That’s Wagner, pronounced VAHG-ner, with German severity, named after the statue of composer Richard Wagner, which looks down over Edgewater.
A few dozen people drink and talk in the clubhouse’s three rooms, which have the feel of a garage attached to a basement rec room. The men and women in their 20s and 30s sport hints of skate-punk fashion: baggy pants and sweatshirts, winter caps, lots of black. The guys in their 40s and 50s stick with classic surf styles — Hawaiian shirts and shorts — even though tonight’s temperature is in the 50s.
Tonight is the surfers’ early April spring reunion. It’s also the first surf day after the long winter and late thaw, the first day the winds have blown from the north, kicking up surf.
“To be a surfer in the Great Lakes, you have to drop everything and go, or [the waves] might not be there in a few hours,” says Gary Lagore. He’s from Green Bay, Wisc., and he road-tripped to Cleveland for this party. “I’d never surfed Erie before,” he says.
Great Lakes surfers, like subcultures everywhere, connect online. They meet on road trips to each other’s lakes, especially big events such as the Dairyland Surf Classic in Sheboygan, Wis., in September and the Great Lakes Surf Luau in New Buffalo, Mich., in August.
My host tonight is Scott Ditzenberger, an energetic young lawyer with a shaved head that’d make him look scary if he weren’t smiling all the time. He’s working on a low-budget documentary film on Cleveland-area surfing, titled “Out of Place” to reflect local surfers’ sense of exile from ocean surf. He even took four months off between law-firm jobs to work on the film and moved from Columbus to Lakewood to be closer to the water.
Scott grew up on the Jersey Shore, immersed in beach culture. When he moved to Akron, he remembered hearing a legend that you could surf the Great Lakes. “When I finally saw Lake Erie with my own eyes, [I thought,] ‘This is massive. There’ve got to be waves here,’ ” he tells me in March.
One night about 15 years ago, he and his friend Vince drove to the lake to look for surf. “Not only were there waves, there were a few people out there,” he recalls.
“It’s not the ocean, but it was the next best thing. It’s magical.”
His friend, Vince Labbe, 35, who learned to surf in Hawaii, has recently discovered a talent for making and repairing surfboards. Tonight, he’s showing off his little workspace in a corner of the clubhouse, where he repairs dings in boards with sanders, sandpaper, drills and glass fiber. He’s just made a new board for someone, so his friends admire its shape and smoothness and debate the advantages of longboards and shortboards.
A punk-pop band starts playing behind the chicken wire. They sound like early Elvis Costello — angsty, aggressive — then break into a surf-rock stutter. Out back, in the parking lot, someone’s cooking chicken and hot dogs over a drum-barrel-sized barbecue.
Seventeen surfers line up for a group photo. Two are women, including Jen Wooley, Scott’s girlfriend, a 32-year-old elementary school teacher wearing a little nose ring, jeans and a green T-shirt that reads, “Happiness Is Lake Erie!” (Since the party in April, they have gotten married on the beach in North Carolina, during a weeklong trip with plenty of surfing.)
On Jen’s first surf day of 2005, she says, the winds off Avon Lake were up to 50 mph, the waves big but choppy. “Most of the time I was paddling, trying to get back to the spot I started.”
Erie surfers spend a lot of time riding less-than-ideal waves. Small-craft advisories from the National Weather Service are usually a sign that surf’s up. Gale-force wind warnings, even better. But fickle winds usually create mixed conditions. If you get choppy waves — and Erie’s a choppy lake — “you can only ride a few seconds before a wave intersects,” Jen says.
On a good Erie surf day, the winds come from the north, northwest or northeast, across miles of water, and line up an orderly procession of waves. And every now and then comes an ideal surf day. Last summer, Jen reminisces, 10 surfers hit the water off Avon Lake. It was warm but breezy. “There were 3-foot waves, but they were coming in sets. The temperature was perfect, the water temperature was perfect. … Everyone loves a day you can take off your wet suit, usually a quiet day when you can wear your board shorts and have fun.”
Jen’s friend Evie Obias, 35, works in corporate communications for Kaiser Permanente by day and writes poetry and surfs in her spare time. She used to live in Honolulu. “When I caught my first waves, that was it,” she says. “I was completely hooked, completely obsessed.” She’s also traveled to Los Angeles to surf. When she moved back to Cleveland, she met Scott and Vince, and Vince made her a small longboard for her under-5-foot frame.
“I’m a novice, I’ll be honest,” she says. But she loves surf culture. “The lifestyle, at least for me, is very free, laid-back.”
Here, “the waves are smaller, but you still get the sense of excitement,” she says. “You can feel the wave pushing you at that precise moment.” Once you pop up on your board, “it’s kind of like you’re floating on water.”
They’re all chasing that moment full of both energy and calm, the moment Rich Stack is trying to describe to me. He’s somehow both mellow and intense, friendly, emotional.
“There’s a learning curve,” he says, “and you fall and you look like an idiot and you look stupid, and finally you stand up. In whitewater, but you stand up.”
He tells me I’ve got to try surfing if I want to write about it. “It would change your whole life,” he promises. “You’ll look at everything different. … There’s no feeling like that in the universe. It’s so free, and it doesn’t cost you a dime.”
Of course, there’s a vast gulf between ocean surfing and Great Lakes surfing. That’s clear one night in late June when the Cedar Lee Theatre shows two films: “Unsalted: A Great Lakes Experience,” Michigan resident Vince Deur’s lake-surf documentary, and a typical “shred flick,” a surf-action movie filmed in Hawaii and other tropical locales.
“Right now I am extremely stoked,” film distributor Ryan Ariano tells a crowd of about 60 before the first reel rolls, “because I’m about to start the Great Lakes portion of my journey.”
Ryan, a California surfer, is touring the country with “Unsalted.” In warmer states, its shots of wet-suited surfers with icicles hanging from them have inspired theater-wide shivers. “When I showed it in Florida, I could see people turning blue.” Surfers elsewhere have it “easy,” Ariano says. “They don’t have the hard-core spirit you guys do.”
Deur’s film starts with a weather report of gale-force winds on Lake Superior, then shows suited surfers jumping off docks, waves hitting lighthouses, a surfer riding under the curl of a wave, a surfer waddling through snow. (The crowd roars with recognition at the snowy scenes.) Grainy old video captures Midwest-surf pioneers riding Lake Michigan in the ’60s. Deur’s cute, weary wife testifies she never knows when or for how long he’ll disappear to chase waves. His crew roams lakeshores for months, hoping for video and photos dramatic enough to get a surf magazine to
cover Great Lakes surfing. Finally, they get
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their shots by driving through Minnesota in a blizzard and surfing Lake Superior in terrifying conditions.
The second movie replaces white and
gray with tan and blue. Star surfers defy massive swells. Sun blesses bronzed bodies. Women in bikinis frolic.
The lake surfers grow bored. A few wander into the lobby. There, Ryan talks more about ocean surfers’ mixed reaction to “Unsalted.”
“Young guys just want to see movies like this,” Ryan says, pointing to the theater where the shred flick is playing. “Older guys, who’ve seen all the surf movies, say you guys really have something special.”
Ryan was born and raised in Hawaii, but his wife’s from Cleveland, so he’s surfed Erie. He likes the uncrowded beaches where “everybody gets a wave,” but wearing a wet suit took some getting used to. “You feel like Gumby,” he says. “I slept in a bathtub one night to get used to it.”
Finally, it’s time. On an overcast late October day with temperatures in the mid-40s and the water temperature around 60, I meet Rich Stack in Edgewater Park. He’s got two wet suits and two surfboards, one for him, one for me.
We head into the bathhouse to change. I slip on some tight shorts and a flimsy shirt, a rash guard.
A guy comes in and heads for the urinal. Puzzled, he asks Rich, over his shoulder, if we’re going in the water.
“We’re going surfing,” Rich says.
“Surfing? In that cold shit?”
Rich chatters cheerfully about how the water’s warmer than the air. He says I’m working on a story.
“You going surfing?” asks the guy, drying his hands.
“Yeah. Wish me luck.”
“Good luck,” he says, shaking his head. “Both of you.”
Rich, undaunted, gets into his wet suit. I put on mine. We grab the boards and head down some wooden stairs.
It’s hard to swim into the waves, Rich warns me. To train, he punches a speedbag and jumps rope. Boxing training, like the workout montage in “Rocky.”
We get to the beach. Polite little waves roll toward the sand. We wade into the brown-and-gray water’s rushing chill. It’s not like wading into summer’s placid blue Erie. It’s more disorienting, more exciting.
Rich tells me to bodyboard — throw my belly onto the surfboard, touch my chin to it and paddle. I try, but I tip to one side and capsize. I keep trying. He tells me to put my chin on the surfboard’s logo. That helps, a little. But every other wave upsets my balance and tips me over again. Only the cord Velcroed to my ankle keeps the board from leaping away.
“A lot of guys say surfing is the hardest thing they’ve ever done,” Rich says encouragingly.
The waves look bigger now that they’re washing over me. They’re small, Rich says, just knee-high. A good beginner’s day.
Patiently, he watches me flounder onto the board, flail my arms and capsize. “Don’t kick,” he says, “just paddle.” I need to practice my balance this way, he says, or the first wave I try to ride will knock me over.
I don’t think I’ve mastered it, but Rich says he’s going to push me into a wave. I aim the board toward the beach, hold on with both hands, and as a wave rumbles behind me, I feel him swimming and pushing. He lets go, I take off and paddle. The wave hits. I speed up for a second, then slow again. Two more waves catch me, carry me for an instant, then let go.
Rich cheers. I feel like I’m just getting the baby ride. But I paddle out to him and try again.
This time, he pushes me into the wave at just the right moment, and it picks me up and carries me. Its white foam, on my left and right, chatters like applause.
I want to master the rush, not just give in to it. So I try to pop up onto my feet. But my weight’s on my chest, my legs are dangling off the back, and I can’t pull my knees along the board to jump up.
The wave dies. I turn around and wade back toward Rich. “You’re probably cold,” Rich says. “I’m OK,” I say. I am cold, yet invigorated, ready to try again.
But the next time Rich pushes me, the board tips over. The second time, it plunges under the water.
“You’re tired,” Rich says, meaning we’re done. As I wade to shore, I feel dizzy. Each little wave makes me want to topple into the surf. On land, I’m still wobbling. I tell Rich.
“It’s probably hypothermia,” he says.
He tells me cheerfully about his first time surfing, when he banged his mouth into his board and needed 16 stitches. He couldn’t figure out what went wrong, until the nurse who stitched him up told him the cold had disoriented him, that he shouldn’t have been in Erie without a wet suit.
“You’re a lake surfer!” he exults. “You’re one of us!”
I feel like a half-surfer at best, since I never got up on my feet. But Rich tells me I had the essential experience: I braved the cold and caught a wave. I drag myself and my board across the beach, then up the hill, feeling queasy and weak.
Back in the parking lot, Rich hands me a beer, a Shiner Bock. It tastes really, really good. We change in our cars, since the cops have locked the beach house for the night.
I drive home with the heat on full. My feet are still numb when I get there. I burrow into bed under my heaviest blankets until I finally warm up, then take a long, hot shower to wash Lake Erie off me.
Part of me never wants to get that recklessly cold again. But then I think, if I’d only had a longer board, I could’ve had the leverage — I could have popped up and surfed.
I’ve started to think like a lake surfer. I can’t look at a forecast anymore without searching for high winds from the northeast. I can’t drive the Shoreway without looking at the water, judging the waves, and thinking about joining them, standing on Lake Erie, gliding on it. Maybe in May, I’ll try it again.