Surfers ride waves of ice, sleet and sewage

CLEVELAND -- They surf in Cleveland because they must. They surf with 2-inch icicles clinging to their wet suits, through stinging hail and overpowering wind and waves brown with human waste. They work nights to spend their winter days scouting surf. They are watermen on an inland sea.

Given its industrial past, Cleveland largely turns its back to Lake Erie, lining the coast with power plants, a freeway and mounds of iron ore to feed its steel factories. The shore is especially deserted in winter, when strong winds and waves pummel the land. In December, as temperatures dip into the 20s and ice gathers in the lake's small coves, Cleveland surfers have Lake Erie almost entirely to themselves.


"Surfing Lake Erie is basically disgusting," said Bill Weeber, known as Mongo, 44. "But then I catch that wave and I forget about it, and I feel high all day."

Scott Ditzenberger hoped to experience the same feeling when he heard that the first blizzard of the winter was pounding across the Midwest. "I was so excited I could barely sleep last night," said Ditzenberger, 35, who quit his job as a lawyer in August to spend more time surfing and to film a documentary about Cleveland's surf community.


It was the kind of day that lives mostly in Cleveland surfers' fantasies. Pushed by the storm's winds, water the color of chocolate milk rose 10 feet in the air before slamming onto a beach of boulders and logs. The temperature was 40 degrees and falling. One surfer, Vince Labbe, climbed onto his board only to get blown backward by 40 mph winds.

Mike Miller, known as Chewbacca, managed to tuck his head and left shoulder into the barrel of a wave before being crushed by a wall of water.

"I haven't seen a break this good in 10 years," Ditzenberger said.

Go ahead and laugh. Cleveland surfers are used to it.

When Jamie Yanak sits at a stoplight with his surfboard atop his 1996 Ford Thunderbird, he said, people point and laugh. Every year a local television crew arrives on the beach to film surfers in the snow and make jokes about "California dreaming."

But this is not California. And Cleveland surfers are not playing around. Many of the roughly 25 committed surfers here work nights all year to keep their winter days free for surfing. Weeber quit his job as an advertising art director, making less money as a summer landscaper, and moved his family closer to the beach, to spend more time on the waves.

Sean Rooney, 31, said, "All I want to do is surf."

The strongest winds and waves come in winter, just before Lake Erie freezes. Waves up to 10 feet have been surfed, but usually the largest swells are chest-high. Instead of curling into a vertical wall, the waves are round like haystacks, and they collapse onto the shore like soggy paper.


Surfers learn to avoid ice chunks the size of bowling balls. Some wear goggles to surf through freezing rain, which can sting their eyes like needles. That is a bad idea, Labbe said, because the goggles freeze to their faces.

Surfers watch their friends for signs of hypothermia, urging them to leave the water when their eyes glaze over and their words slur. Ear infections are a common affliction.

To reach the lake, surfers drag their boards across snowdrifts and beaches littered with used condoms and syringes, Ditzenberger said. The most popular surf spot is Edgewater State Park. It is nicknamed Sewer Pipe because, after heavy rains, a nearby water treatment plant regularly discharges untreated waste into Lake Erie.

Love and family obligation prevent most surfers here from moving to California or Hawaii. So they adapt. Rooney chose a surfboard that is longer and wider than most modern boards because it adds buoyancy in the lake's salt-free water. He replaced its three small fins with one large fin, which helps him turn quickly on small waves.

Because the nearest surf shop is on Lake Michigan, 285 miles away, Labbe builds surfboards for his friends in his mother's basement.

"Cleveland surfers have a reputation for being gritty and hard-core," said Ryan Gerard, owner of Third Coast Surf Shop in New Buffalo, Mich. "They just don't care what other people think about them."


Except that they hate being compared with the modern California surf scene. Cleveland surfers believe they are the last remnants of the original surf culture in the 1940s and '50s, when surfing was still a renegade sport of social misfits who scouted virgin breaks, surfed alone and lived by a code of friendliness to newcomers and respect for the water. They keep their best surf spots secret. They consider themselves part of an underground society. And they hope to keep it that way.

"Everybody surfs in California, which waters down the experience," said Rooney, who grew up surfing in Orange County, Calif., before moving to Cleveland three years ago to work in his family's real estate business. "Being here takes me back to that feeling of discovery that the founding fathers of surfing experienced."

Occasionally there are days when the waves are good and the sunset falls into Lake Erie like a red fire and the Cleveland surfers bob silently in the water, alone in the city. And they laugh at their good fortune.

"Nobody surfs here to get noticed," Ditzenberger said. "We surf here because we love it."