Lake Erie Winter Surfing Heats Up

Surfing Lake Erie isn’t for the faint of heart.

In a region with weather patterns that can change seemingly in an instant, on the shallowest of the Great Lakes, it takes patience, time and a willingness to get your board and go into the water in an instant, says Scott Ditzenberger, a San Diego native who grew up on the Jersey shore and now lives (and surfs) in Cleveland.

“It’s a frustrating endeavor,” he says. “You have to be vigilant and check the weather reports regularly. You can spend years just trying to forecast when there are good waves — and you can still be wrong. The lake is a mystery.

“It’s a lifelong learning process,” he continues. “In California or on the East Coast, the surf reports are extremely accurate. Here, there’s no such thing. Nobody knows exactly what it’s going to be like.”

And even when there are waves to surf, they aren’t as strong on Lake Erie as they usually are at the ocean, so most surfers use a bigger board than they might otherwise.

The best wave conditions are typically in the fall and winter — when the water’s really cold — so Ditzenberger also recommends a full thick wetsuit, as well as neoprene gloves and boots. “And, obviously, you have to be a good swimmer,” he says.

When the water’s warmest, in summer, Ditzenberger says, you typically don’t get enough wind for the waves. Spring might bring the right conditions for waves, but no waves. “Spring is weird,” he says.

Ditzenberger says the most popular place to surf in Cleveland is at Edgewater Park, just west of downtown. The lake’s western basin isn’t as good for surfing, but it’s popular — and conditions are conducive — in the eastern basin. “It’s very popular at Presque Isle in Erie, Pennsylvania,” Ditzenberger says. “Up around the bend in Canada, near Buffalo, is where they get the best waves.”

But each spot is different. “There are some areas where you have to paddle out 100 yards, and there are some where it’s a few feet,” Ditzenberger says. “You really just have to school yourself where you are. Watch how other people get in and out of the water. There are a lot of hazards under the water. Some spots have unique and very difficult currents to deal with. Get as much local knowledge as you can before you go in.”

Those who surf Lake Erie form a unique fellowship, and that’s part of what makes it so rewarding, he says.

“It’s humbling,” he says. “It’s spiritual. You’ll make friends and you’ll learn a little something about yourself.”

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