Meeting the world’s most patient, dedicated surf crew in Ohio

A sun-loving surfer from the Californian coast heads inland to Cleveland, Ohio - where the waves are fickle and the water’s fresh - to meet the world’s most patient, dedicated crew.

On November 11, 2011, the first morning of my surf trip to Cleveland, Ohio, local surfer and filmmaker Scott Ditzenberger meets me outside my hotel to loan me a board. The weather is brisk in an I-can’t-feel-my-limbs sort of way. It’s freezing. Surfing in thirty-degrees-Fahrenheit weather is going to be a new experience for me.

The six-foot, neon-blue single-fin Scott gives me, which barely fits inside my recently rented Ford Fiesta, looks like a prop from eighties teen surf flick North Shore. (The retro movement is more than just a passing trend in Cleveland; boards like logs and fishes just tend to be more practical in this environ.) Before he leaves, Scott tells me that the surf is about waist-high at Edgewater Park.

I drive to Edgewater – a Lake Erie surf spot in downtown Cleveland, approximately ten minutes by car from my hotel near Progressive Stadium, home of the Cleveland Indians baseball team. Scott has to work, but tells me to go ahead and introduce myself to the local crew, all of whom he assures me are perfectly friendly. But hell, what have I got to fear? I mean, I’m only heading to an unfamiliar surf spot, 500 miles away from the nearest ocean, and introducing myself to a close-knit group of locals that I’ve never met before.

‘Hi, I’m a surfer from Los Angeles,’ I imagine myself saying, ‘I’ve come to surf your… lake.’ In my mind, that introduction is closely followed by a quick tour of the bottom of Lake Erie, viewed from my sinking Fiesta. Regardless, I try to remain optimistic.

Within fifteen minutes of arriving at Edgewater, it starts to rain. The wind has picked up to a surfboard-tossing gale, and I have already made two new surfing friends: Rich Stack and Brian Willse. Without even knowing me, they share their knowledge of the lake, and offer the use of their gear. I end up borrowing Rich’s seven-foot Dewey Weber, which, I am told, is perfect for the mushy rollers this morning. The man is beyond stoked; he laughs and smiles incessantly, even while he suits up in the freezing rain. I opt to suit up inside my heated car.

The lake is the colour of chocolate milk and as I walk down to the water, wet autumn leaves cling to my wetsuit. Down the shoreline, I notice a large sewer run-off point. No one mentions anything about pollution even though, later, I find out that Edgewater is quite capable of producing a vast assortment of pungent, eye-watering odours.

I paddle out and it begins to rain harder. Despite the layers of neoprene I’m wearing (4/3mm with a hood, booties and gloves), the rain stings my face. I look back at the muddy shore, which is now, surprisingly, white. “Hey Brian, what’s that?” I point to the pale distance. “That? Oh… that’s sleet,” he says.

Well… that’s new.

The surf, though small, is fun. All of my worries about pollution and hypothermia melt away after the first wave. It seems illogical, but here I am, surfing Lake Erie. At that moment, the possibilities of scoring epic waves on the Great Lakes seem limitless. I paddle over to Rich, who is still very visibly stoked. “Hey, the surf out here has potential, doesn’t it?” I ask, enthusiastically. “Nah,” says Rich. “It never really gets that good. But it’s good practice… and at least you’re surfing.”

Optimism is popular in Cleveland.

Some History

Surfing is not new to the Great Lakes. Due to their immense size and propensity for powerful wind swells, the Lakes are able to produce surf year-round. In fact, according to Matt Warshaw’s The Encyclopedia of Surfing, surfers have been riding waves on the Great Lakes since the 1940s (some locals even believe that the Lakes were surfed sometime around WWI). Lake Erie has a number of surf breaks in all three of its north-facing shore states: Pennsylvania, New York and Ohio. In his book Surfing the Great Lakes, P.L. Strazz estimates that as of 2000 there was a population of about 750 surfers in the Great Lakes, with Lake Michigan and Lake Erie being the most popular, respectively.

Compared to the East Coast though, surfing on the Great Lakes is still in its adolescent phase. According to Warshaw’s Encyclopedia, the state of Virginia has over 10,000 surfers — arguably more than the entire Great Lakes area combined.

So, why’s this part of the world slow to fully embrace wave-riding fever? Well, it’s not easy to surf the Great Lakes. The waves are fickle and extremely unpredictable. Conditions are often brutal: freezing temperatures, extreme weather, and poor wave quality are just some of the difficulties surfers face on a regular basis. Surfing on the Lakes, especially in Cleveland, requires a crazy level of patience and dedication. It requires a different breed of surfer; a freshwater creature that’s uniquely divergent from its saltwater cousins.

I was first introduced to the Cleveland surf scene through Scott’s appropriately named film Out of Place. In this documentary, released in January 2011, Scott explores surfing life in Cleveland. The surfers he follows run the gamut professionally: from artists to lawyers to blue-collar workers. Their personalities are unique and diverse, yet they are all anchored by this common love. Some sacrifice quite a bit for their passion, forsaking sleep for days on end just to catch some waves. They chase fleeting waves up and down the coast of Lake Erie, often driving hours at a time.

Finding Waves

A day after my first dip in the water, local surfer and shaper Vince Labbe (who heads up a small, bespoke company NoNaNalu.com), Scott and I make our way to Mentor Headlands Beach, about half-an-hour from Cleveland, to check out the waves. We originally met up at Edgewater again, but the surf was pretty meagre at best. Vince says the Headlands (a large, sandy beachbreak) will probably have something a bit better, so we set off north. The sky is gunmetal grey, and a light rain pitter-patters on the windshield.

“Sun and surf don’t usually go together here,” says Vince, who goes on to explain that cold, wet weather is a good sign; it means that waves are brewing on the lake. If an air front (mass of air) comes in that is colder than the average temperature of the lake, it can cause the water to stir up. Generally, the waves on the Great Lakes are created by local storms, and require a constant wind (lasting five hours or more) blowing over at least fifty miles of water.

Vince’s van is packed with boards, including a ‘Zuma Jay’ longboard, which has found its way across the continent from Malibu. Jazz plays on the radio and Scott sits wedged between the boards, chatting with me about some of the surf trips he and Vince have gone on together.

The two surfers first met at the University of Akron, Ohio, in the early nineties. Both had heard rumours of surfing on Lake Erie, and hoped one day to find waves. During a sizeable storm, they drove north to Cleveland, and were surprised to discover not only waves, but other surfers as well. “We exist in a lull… sometimes, we just get lucky,” says Vince as he tries to find a way to pass the car ahead of us. “You can’t plan your session ahead of time. It’s a total shot in the dark, because it’s not consistent. The report can say ten-to-twelve feet, but it could be totally flat.”

Scott explains that the NOAA forecast program that they (and the Coastguard) use to check surf conditions is often inaccurate. Ohio sits in the middle of a jet stream, which runs parallel to the lake and creates unpredictable weather patterns. “It’s just a matter of luck,” says Scott.

When we finally arrive at Headlands, I’m disappointed to see that the surf doesn’t quite match the beauty of the beach — it’s dismal at best. The wind is blowing hard out of the northwest, and the waves are jumbled and messy. Vince is bummed. With less than an hour of sunlight left, he hustles us to get back into the van, and we drive back to Cleveland.

“Headlands is the nicest beach in Ohio; clean sand and clean water,” says Vince. “Edgewater, though, is a cesspool. It’s like swimming in a toilet bowl because of the current. Trash from the city will get pushed in and circle constantly.” They point out that the same current can cause a “fuel smell” to linger at Edgewater for long periods of time.

“We still get attention for being out here,” says Vince, referring to the gaze of non-surfers. “It’s like being a zoo animal with people coming to watch you. You could be out on the water on a good day, and someone will still come up to you on the beach and say, ‘What are you doing? You can’t surf here!’”

The hardy surfers tell me that the largest wave they’ve ever caught on the Lake was around overhead, though they’ve seen bigger. And the average drive for a surf check varies, they say, with some surfers choosing to stay close to Edgewater, and others trekking for hours to breaks in Buffalo, New York, and Ontario, Canada.

We finally make it back to Edgewater and the sun is close to setting. “Historically speaking,” says Scott, “people in Cleveland are really separated from the beach. They just don’t go to the beach here; they go to Florida or North Carolina.” Much of the Lake Erie coastline (at least around Cleveland) is heavily industrialised, making public access difficult in some areas.

I ask them about their thoughts on Cleveland. The steel industry played a key part in the city’s economy since the mid-1800s, but during the 1970s it faltered substantially. The city fell victim to deindustrialisation, and numerous manufacturing companies left for more profitable locales. Unemployment rose, and a population decline quickly followed suit. So, has it improved much in the forty years since? “This city was built to be great, but it’s not that kind of place anymore,” confirms Scott. Vince chips in: “But the people are fun!”

The waves in Edgewater are knee-high and slushy, and the temperature is steadily dropping. While we stand there, looking out over the lake, Rich, the enthusiastic surfer from my first session, pulls up. Everyone greets one another, and talks about the surf. Rich suggests (smiling as always) that I paddle out with him. I don’t see much worth catching, and I’m still frozen from my previous surf, so I offer to paddle out with him the next day. He shrugs, laughs, and starts rummaging through his truck.

As I drive off, the sun now barely visible, Rich is just starting to suit up.

Here to stay?

Will Cleveland become the next big surfing destination? Well, probably not. After my initial surf sessions, I drive up and down the Erie coast several times looking for surf. The largest wave I ever find is an awe-inspiring ankle-slapper. Scott says that, “finding waves out here is like finding water in the desert. It makes surfing in Cleveland that much more special.” And I couldn’t agree with him more.

Before I head back to LA, I meet up with a number of other local surfers. We eat hot dogs at a joint called Happy Dog and talk about football, the Mystery Science Fiction Theater 3000 cult B-movies, California girls and surf trips. They tell me about the Cleveland Surfrider chapter they’re trying to start to help clean up the local beaches. I also learn that many of them have been offered the opportunity to leave Cleveland, and relocate to consistent-surf spots like California or Hawaii. Nevertheless, they often choose to stay, most of the time because of family or work.

Cleveland surfers are unfailingly optimistic. It was difficult for me to remain stoked after so many flat surf checks, and I was only there for a week. Some of the surfers have been there for decades, and they’re still hooked on the ride. It may be far from paradise, but the Cleveland surfers make surfing worthwhile in Ohio. Their stoke and dedication is infectious.