There’s a snippet of sandy beach – just 900 feet wide – on Cleveland’s near west side at Edgewater Park. On warmer days the beach at Lake Erie can be crowded with families pressed up against the lakeshore, playing in the sand or wading in the water, or with couples holding hands and admiring the shocking pinks and oranges of the sunset.
But when the weather turns, it’s a different story. Then, like some sort of noxious cauldron, Lake Erie spits and froths icy brown waves. And a different kind of crowd descends onto the beach: a shiny-black-wet-suit-clad band of surfers looking for the perfect wave (or any wave really).
Surfing Lake Erie isn’t as unlikely as it sounds. In fact, some people think die-hards have been catching waves along the North Coast for as much as half a century. Legend has it that a GI brought a longboard home after a stint in Hawaii during the Second World War.
The Great Lakes, Erie included, have more coastline (10,900 miles) than both of American’s other two coasts combined. Add that to the weather patterns that govern the region – cold fronts blow through regularly during autumn and winter and when they hit the warmer air that tends to linger over Lake Erie and brew stormy weather – and you get the nasty, chilly, mudslinging waves that make Cleveland’s coastline surfable.
Late autumn (October and November in particular) is the best time to catch a wave in Cleveland – the fouler the weather, the better the waves will be. But, the area’s hard-core surfers – and they’re all hard-core really, after all, they’re willfully risking hypothermia, frostbite and anything else the lake can throw at them – will keep coming back until the lake freezes, which can be as late as February. By May, the water has warmed again and the waves start to kick back up. During the summer, surf is gentler and harder to come by.
The waves on Lake Erie can, theoretically, get up 20 feet, but you’re more likely to see something half that size or smaller. An easy rule of thumb for finding surf-size waves is to look for small-craft advisories issued by the National Weather Service and a more surf-minded site, surfline.com, offers daily surf reports.
Local surfers ride the waves at Edgewater and any of the dozens of other area beaches, but if you want to track them down, one of the best places to find them is through forums like the wagnersurfclub.com, where you’ll find links to everything from daily forecasts to pictures.
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Have you braved the icy waters at Lake Erie? Would you try surfing in Cleveland? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.
Written by Sarah Routh