CLEVELAND — At least a dozen cars, each with a surfboard strapped to the top, arrive at Edgewater Park on a very windy day in June. Heads turn and the curiosity is evident by the facial expressions and questions from other parkgoers doing everything but surfing at Cleveland’s iconic beach. The presence of this unfamiliar sight is a sure sign that it’s a good day for Cleveland’s surfing squad — a growing but relatively unknown tribe of natives and transplants who find familiarity and commonality on Lake Erie.
Dressed in their wetsuits, because yes, the water is predictably a chilly 60 degrees in June, and with their surfboards in hand, these dedicated surfers can’t make it from their cars to the sandy beach without getting asked the question, “You can surf in Lake Erie?” as one man did, smiling while driving away in his convertible.
It’s a common question, answered relatively the same each time, with an enthusiastic yes and a genuine invitation to join.
These surfers are a dedicated and passionate bunch, who obsessively check the forecast as much as an influencer checks their social media accounts. Conditions that would normally keep some inside bring the surfers outside, especially in the winter when the wind creates the ideal swell. Rain or shine, snowstorm or heatwave, Cleveland's surfers are a versatile, easy-to-please bunch.
When locals and visitors think of Lake Erie and water sports, surfing is likely the last thing that comes to mind, because it’s not as common of sight as paddle boarding and jet skiing are — something the local surfers here are trying to change, even if that means bragging about surfing conditions to surfers in other parts of the country, who have even better waves.
“I was talking to a San Diego friend on the way to the lake. I'm like, ‘yo guys, it's 3 to 4 feet on the lake,’” said Chris Kish, a pastor and an Elyria native who within the last couple of months moved back from a stint San Diego. “They're like, no fricking way. Yeah, but when people think of Cleveland, Ohio or any of the Great Lakes, they, you know, you don't think of surfing, you think of fishing or boating.”
Kish, who has the welcoming vibes of a born and raised Midwesterner and the cool, laid back demeanor of a Californian, lives and breathes surfing. So much so that the back of his trunk is decked out in fake grass and Hawaiian leis, a tell-tale sign surfing is a big part of his life, and the reason for a journey that took him to San Diego and Florida, working with Christian Surfers United States and famed surfer Bethany Hamilton.
Time is of the essence for Lake Erie surfers, because unlike waves in California or Florida, a good swell could last as little as two hours for the entire day; but when conditions are good, word travels.
With one text sent by Cat Carrillo, considered the organizer of the unofficial group and probably the biggest cheerleader for Cleveland surfing you’ll meet, several surfers answer her call and show up to the shores of Edgewater Beach. Some days, she says, the direction of the wind could take them to the shores in Lorain or back to Edgewater.
“Even if it's a bad day, you're just lucky to get out in the water,” Carrillo said.
Like most of the surfers who make Lake Erie their new Pacific Ocean, Carrillo learned how to dominate the board on the waters in Florida and California. Born in China, Carrillo said the diversity of the group is something to celebrate. Among the dozen or so surfers on the beach, there’s a civil engineer, a pastor, a graphic designer, an ICU healthcare worker and a carpenter.
“We all unite over surfing. Yeah, some of the guys, though, they've been surfing out here for. Ten years, twelve years, some guys that even come from Hawaii. It’s really diverse,” she said.
One of those surfers who has been surfing Lake Erie since the early 90s is Rich Stack, a local legend to the new wave of younger surfers. His career as a carpenter allows for flexibility in his schedule, which means when he’s not working, he can be found at the beach.
At 62 years old, he said when he first started, he was one of the few surfers who would brave the winter waters, even as icicles formed on his beard.
“You’re solo until you start to meet people because they're showing up at the same place at the same time because that's actually the problem and the curse with Lake Erie. The curse is what we call a swell window of opportunity. You're talking like two hours, three hours, maybe all day and maybe three days in row, but hardly ever. You have to be there. And the waves come and they go. They're gone,” he said.
Stack remembers when he had to check weather conditions during the days of dial-up.
“Before smartphones, I accumulated weather and government websites for reference. Back then you would have to become your weatherman,” Stack said, laughing.
As the evening approaches and beachgoers take one last dip in the water, the surfers are just getting started. Roughly 13 figures in black wet suits bob up and down, waiting for their next wave, remaining optimistic in true Cleveland fashion that this wave will be the one that makes it all worth it.
Lying flat on his stomach, one surfer paddles to the approaching wave. Next to him, another surfer just watches in silent support, giving his fellow surfer the silent code of permission. He stands up, rides the wave for about 15 seconds until that wave seamlessly folds in the lake, eventually brushing up to the shore.
It’s this embracing nature that keeps Noah Sees, a transplant who moved to Cleveland two years after traveling the country and surfing in California for years, coming directly after work to catch some wave time.
“Everyone is just so happy to be out regardless of the conditions. I think that's kind of the biggest thing for us. We don’t take a nice weather day for granted as you would maybe in California or Florida," said Sees, who calls having access to Lake Erie “therapeutic.”
He’s not alone in how he feels. Trevor Lyons, who started surfing when he moved to Cleveland from Michigan in 2010, said no one tries to keep their favorite spot a secret.
“You can walk up to us and start talking to us and we'll teach you surf. There's a lot of camaraderie because the group is so small and it's kind of a really unique thing,” Lyons said.
Even as the sun disappears over the horizon and beachgoers start to leave the beach, the surfers are usually the last ones to leave, staying as long as possible to catch the next great ride.
“I don’t take our lake for granted anymore. Surfing here [Cleveland] has taught me patience as I wait for good conditions and just a lot of thankfulness and gratitude for when it does happen,” said Kish, with his board in one hand, wet suit still on, as he walked along the edge of the water back to his car, hoping to do it all again tomorrow.