Scott Ditzenberger is the co-director of Out Of Place, a documentary that covers surfing, surfers, and surf culture in Cleveland, Ohio. The film premiered at the New York Surf Film Festival in 2009, where it won the highly coveted viewer’s choice award. Scott is also one of the few and the brave to surf Lake Erie year round—even when there’s ice in the line up.
So where are you originally from?
I was actually born in San Diego, and some of my first memories are of the Pacific Ocean. My family and I eventually moved to New Jersey, and I grew up on the Jersey Shore. After high school, I moved to Ohio with my family in 1990. It was a rough transition, because at the time, I had the worst opinion of Ohio. I was leaving the beach culture of the Jersey Shore behind, and I was completely bummed.
When did you start surfing?
Well, I started surfing in New Jersey, and at first, I did it pretty casually. It was something I wanted to get better at; so when I found out I was moving to Ohio, I was really disappointed. But, I cheered up a bit once I started going to school at the University of Akron. That’s where I met my buddy Vince Labbe, who also was a land-locked surfer. While we were at school, we both heard of this urban legend that there were actually surfable waves on the Great Lakes. We talked each other into driving up north to Cleveland during a big storm, and we were amazed with what we saw. There were good waves, and actual surfers! It was completely unreal! So, we made friends with the locals there, and that’s how it all started (that was back in the 90’s).
Do you remember the first time you paddled out on Lake Erie?
Oh yeah, I remember; it was a total cold air and water endeavor. I was wearing an early 80’s faded neon-green Ron Jon wetsuit. I was riding a friend’s 1960’s Hanson—basically an old beat-up bolt with 50-50 rails, and absolutely no rocker. It was totally rough conditions, really freezing and choppy, and I remember piling on sweatshirts and thermal underwear before paddling out. I managed to get in the perfect spot by luck and made the wave. I was hooked.
Can you walk me through the average session of an Ohio surfer?
First off, you never really know when the waves will arrive, and you have no clue how long they will last. My friend Mike (he risks it all for the waves) drives 30-40 miles during an average session just to catch overhead waves! I’m not like that. I live about 2-miles away from Lake Erie, and if there are waves there, no matter the size, I paddle out! Anyway, surfing on the Great Lakes is rather unpredictable. You can go off the entire checklist (right wind, perfect swell, and so on), and everything could look great for your next session. Then you could pull up to the beach, and it could be completely flat. My friend Neal Luoma has been surfing here since the 60’s, and even he still doesn’t quite understand how to predict surf conditions.
How did surfing get started in Cleveland?
Actually, Neal was the first surfer here in Cleveland. Back when he was a kid in the 60’s, Neal went to Florida with his family regularly for vacation, and it was there that he picked up surfing. His family owned (and still owns) a campground on the shores of Lake Erie, near the town of Geneva-on-the-Lake, which was really touristy at the time. Neal helped his family manage the campground, and on the side, he taught some of the local kids there how to surf. Within the next few years, there eventually ended up being around 20 or 30 surfers in that area. Unfortunately, Geneva fell on some hard times in the 70’s, and a lot of folks and surfers left the area, but a few (including Neal) stayed behind and kept surfing.
When are the best times of the year to surf?
Summer, we get waves, but rarely, and they’re usually pretty small. During the fall, (late August through November) the water is warm and there are nice cools winds. This is when we have prime surfing conditions. Round this time, we can surf up to three days a week. Winter waves can be good, but by December, there’s ice in the water. And by January through February, the lake almost completely freezes over. Spring is a complete toss up. The air temp is warming up, but the water is still cold, so the wind has trouble moving the water. We need cooler winds and warmer water for the swells to start forming, or we need the conditions to be about equal. Since the waves are generally small, we mostly ride longboards or fishes here. But, when the waves are bigger, we can break out different kinds of boards.
What are the waves like?
Average wave heights are like this: good is about waist high or so. Great is shoulder high. Fantastic, which is really rare, is overhead. We have it all: small wave spots, point breaks, beach breaks—you name it. The setups are very diverse, as the coastline is really varied, with lots of different kinds of waves. Sometimes (with the right sandbars), you can score 200-yard rights! You have to work for your waves, and it’s not easy, but it’s just a really different experience.
What’s the biggest wave you’ve ever caught on Lake Erie?
The biggest wave I’ve ever ridden was about 8 ft, but I’ve got friends out here who chase much bigger waves. Larger than double overhead: sometimes up to 12ft plus. But I’m not into the big waves as much, because I like longboarding a lot.
Can you tell me a bit about your local breaks?
The main break is Edgewater Park. Because the coastline here is so industrialized (i.e. the shipping port and so on), it is almost all lined with breakwaters. So, you have to travel about ten miles east or west to check other spots. That’s just the sad state of how public access to the shoreline is so limited. Past points of access fell victim to overdevelopment and the proliferation of breakwaters and jetties “armoring” the coastline. This caused an acceleration of erosion, and most of the beaches to be washed away forever.
Do you ever have an issue with pollution?
The Cuyahoga River lets out a few miles east of Edgewater, our main break. Its problems are legendary. It used to be pretty bad when I started surfing back in the 90’s. If the water got in your mouth, it burned. Today it’s much, much cleaner. On some days, the water is amazingly crystal-clear. With that said though, there are still problems with the combined sewer outflows. It’s (Cleveland) an old city and the system is really outdated, so you don’t want to go in the water after a rainstorm. The worst issue is keeping the beaches clean. There is just so much plastic that it’s overwhelming. It would take a lot of effort to change that. We are organizing a local chapter of the Surfrider Foundation to help address this.
What is the average water temp (°F) during the summer, fall, and winter?
During the summer, the water reaches the mid 70’s. In fall it drops in a hurry, from the upper 60’s in late September, to around 40 in early December. By January, we’re usually frozen over. Then the lake thaws in March.
What’s your favorite board to ride?
My favorite board is my wife’s 9.6 “Driftwood” longboard. It’s shaped by a guy in Coco Beach, Florida. It catches everything. Knee-high is when it’s great to use it. When the waves are tiny, all of my buddies bug me (and my wife) to borrow it.
How do you guys differ from ocean surfers?
We generally use thicker boards (less buoyancy on the lake), and thicker wetsuits for the cold. But surfing here isn’t all that different from surfing on the ocean. We have a few friends from LA, a few from Hawaii, and a few from Peru that like to surf here. Even though they didn’t grow up surfing in freshwater, these guys just kill it out here. Watching them has honestly made us all better. It upped the ante, you know, performance wise. The waves are weaker, and there is a difference in buoyancy, but once you get it dialed in, you can do pretty well.
What spurred you to make Out of Place?
At the time, I had a really boring job, and I promised my girlfriend Jen (now my wife) to help some friends of ours (Darrin McDonald and Tom Heinrich) make a film. It was a 16mm film project. I was in love with the creative process, and wanted to get more into this whole concept. I asked Darrin and Tom if there was another project I could work on, and we talked, and came up with the idea of making a surf flick. The local surf culture here is just so unique, and we wanted to share it with others. This was back in 2001. The three of us did it completely out of our own pockets. We spent a lot of time trying to capture the reality of what it is like to surf here, filming surf sessions and interviewing locals. But there were literally hundreds of hours worth of film that needed to be edited, and I just didn’t have the time. So, after talking with my wife, I quit my job as a lawyer, and I spent a full year getting footage together. I eventually ran into a friend of mine named Kurt Vincent (a local surfer); he was a film guy and spent a lot of time in Hawaii surfing and making movies. I got him to help (he also eventually became our producer) and we both spent 7-8 months working on editing every single day. I moved in with Kurt over in NYC for about a month, and got the film in for the New York Surf Film Festival in 2009. Luckily, we got the DVD in right before the cut off time for submissions. The festival staff took one look at the title, and they honestly thought we were messing with them. They watched the film and loved it, and we ended up winning the viewer’s choice award for the whole festival. We actually beat out some of the big budget flicks like Modern Collective and The Drifter, which was pretty cool. Ever since we screened in NY we’ve gotten a lot of attention—we’ve been meeting a lot of different people—and we are so stoked to introduce new people to this scene.
Were there any difficulties with making the movie?
It was rough, and very cold filming those sessions (filming in the water was especially tough). There were days that I would paddle out for fun and just felt really guilty, that I should instead be getting this all on film—seven long years of guilt. The waves here, as I’ve said before, aren’t great, and it took years of filming to make it. We don’t have the waves to just get out and film them anytime, as they’re usually less than stellar. What makes surfing in Cleveland unique is the culture and the people. That’s what makes us special. We see someone else with a board, whoever they may be, and we approach them and talk to them, Endless Summer sort of style. We look out for each other; the way surfing here is now is what it must’ve been like back in California in the old days. Out here, you’re not just another surfer, you’re part of a community. Also, you’re just honestly glad to see another surfer, because it is so rare in Ohio!
How is it going now that it is finished?
Surfrider is helping us a bit, but we are shipping the flicks out ourselves, completely self-distributing. It’s going to be a lot of work, but it’s really important. We are enjoying the possibility for future projects, but right now, we just want to share the film with anyone and everyone. I have some ideas for another project, but we need the financing. We need other people’s money! On a side note, I may never financially recover from making Out of Place. (Laughs)
Surfing is important to you, so why stay?
Twice, I had the chance to go to CA—to never worry about money or surf—and be close to my family (my brother and sister live out there). But my mom was sick when I had the opportunity to leave, and I didn’t want to leave her or my father behind. Honestly though, staying here isn’t the worst thing in the world. Surfing is not ideal here, but it is still cool, and it has a great scene. There’s a great surf culture, the crew here is really inspirational, and there are good waves and good vibes. Plus, I will make the occasional surf trip to CA or NJ every now and then too. It’s funny, but life on the East Coast went by really fast. It was great for growing up, but once you’re an adult, you really begin to appreciate a slower pace of life, like you’d find in Cleveland. It breeds artists, musicians, and creativity. It has a great art scene, which was a whole new universe to me when I came here.
If you could bring any top pro to the Great Lakes, who would it be?
(Laughs) Kelly Slater! I would love to see (Joel) Tudor or Donovan (Frankenreiter) ripping out here too, but I’m honestly just so curious to see how the champ would handle the waves out here.
What do you think of Colt McCoy (quarterback for the Browns)?
I’ve never seen a player look so bad in the pre-season, but look so good during the actual season. (Laughs)
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