The day before their trip, they look at weather maps. They check the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Coastal Forecasting System. They are hoping for a good wind storm, maybe even hurricane conditions.
They aren’t students studying meteorology or atmospheric science.
They are members of the Cornell Surf Club. And they are looking for somewhere, anywhere, to surf.
Throughout the long upstate New York winter, while their peers are trying to stay warm indoors, these intrepid souls grab their surfboards and wetsuits, hop in the car, and head an hour or two north – to ride the waves of Lake Ontario.
The water is frigid, the waves aren’t all that high, but the students are totally stoked for the adventure.
“Southern California schools have their surf clubs, you know, 500 members, they’ll walk down to the beach before class,” said Ben Collins ’22, one of the club founders. “Part of what makes this special is we have to work for it. We’re driving up north in snowstorms, we’re sleeping in cars. I like the unexpectedness of it.”
Cornell has had at least one surf club in the past, but it fizzled out about a decade ago. The current club was formed casually in fall 2020 by Collins, Will Taber ’22 and Jalen Winstanley ’22. The three students had met as freshmen, but they weren’t aware, at first, that they shared a love of surfing, as well as a willingness to brave the elements to pursue it.
“When I came to Cornell, I was a big surfer, but I never expected to be surfing while I was here,” said Collins, who hails from the Boston area and has been surfing throughout New England his whole life. “That first day we went to the lake, it was early September. I surfed in board shorts, and then made it back in time for my first lecture of the day. I was just blown away that I could actually be surfing while in Ithaca. After that day, we were like, OK, wait a second, this could be a real thing.”
For the record, Lake Ontario does not exactly offer world-class surfing. But it does have an advantage beyond its geographical proximity to Ithaca. While not the largest of the Great Lakes, it is one of the deepest, which means it doesn’t cool off easily and therefore rarely freezes. The peak surfing season generally runs from October to early April. By the time summer arrives, the wind dies down, and so do the swells.
In addition to the lake, the club makes day and weekend trips to New Jersey and Long Island. Not only is the surfing better on the East Coast; the prime surf spots usually have live video feeds, making it easier to monitor the conditions ahead of time, and the weather predictions are far more accurate.
“Ocean forecasting is much better, but for the lake, it’s kind of more experimental,” Collins said. “You really have to go up and drive to the shore and check some more spots before you paddle out.”
Lake Ontario has hundreds of miles of coastline, but the club mainly sticks to the south and east sides, roughly between Rochester and Watertown. It can sometimes take them hours to find the right spot. If they find it at all.
On a recent Sunday, with sunny skies and strong winds blowing in from the southwest, the group drove to Oswego, only to find the beach filled with icebergs. They headed east and checked out another promising spot at Selkirk Shores State Park, but it wasn’t quite surfable. The group then went to Sandy Island Beach State Park, north of Pulaski, but the waves were not what the NOAA map had promised. Tired from their fruitless scouting, they drove back to Ithaca before sunset, resigned to surf another day.
One benefit of surfing an unlikely body of water is there isn’t much competition for waves, and the club rarely sees other surfers. However, they do occasionally draw an audience of onlookers, who watch from the shoreline, snapping pictures and videos with their phones.
“The locals just think we’re crazy,” Collins said.
Apparel is key. The club members wear thick winter wetsuits, with boots and gloves, and full hoods. The winter-appropriate gear is not cheap, and that can be an obstacle for new members. The club, which became an officially chartered student organization last year, has about 50 people in its group chat, although the number of people who have actually gone surfing is closer to 10. The founders are hopeful that more freshman and sophomores will get involved, so the organization can keep going after they graduate this spring.
Collins and Taber admit it can sometimes be a challenge to convince people to abandon the relative comfort of their warm dorm rooms and spend a Saturday afternoon in chilly water, with the wind blowing, their hair freezing, covered in icicles. Truth be told, the surfing isn’t all that great, either.
“When you go to the lake, generally, the waves can get big, but the surfing is never really, really good. But you’re still having as much fun as you would at home. The camaraderie out in the water, like seeing a friend catch a wave, is a simple pleasure in life,” Taber said. “One thing I always really loved about surfing is it’s quite escapist. It’s about being able to take your mind off everything for an hour and just focus on what you’re doing. And trying to feel your toes.”