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 Mr. 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-mile-an-hour 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,” Mr. 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. Mr. Weeber quit his job as an advertising art director and makes less money as a summer landscaper. He 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 the largest swells are usually 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, Mr. 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.
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