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Deconstructing the Surfer Dude

Freezing cold. Fresh water. And freedom of the waves.

Think about a surfer. The sun-kissed skin and board shorts. The frequent use of the words ‘gnarly’ and ‘radical,’ ‘dude’ and ‘bummer.’

Now take that picture—that preconceived notion of what a surfer looks like, how he acts and talks—take that picture and burn it.

If you need any help with this exercise, wait for the winds to pick up on most Saturday mornings this winter, and head out to the beach at Lake Ontario. You might have to do some searching, but you’ll find them: surfers. Lake surfers.

Lake Surfers

“I don’t think that guy exists,” says Darrell Licata about the “surfer dude” persona. “It’s just a movie character that they used to make fun of the sport. It’s just always the way it’s been ever since surfing was first popularized.”

In his view, no sport’s athletes have suffered more media and social stigma than surfing, and Licata doesn’t mince words when asked about it.

“Those Hollywood writers just fucked it. They just fucked surfing! And it just sort of stuck. It’s just impossible to get away from that.”

Lake Surfers

Unlike its more attractive cousin, lake surfing thrives on cold weather and blustering winds to provide ideal conditions. If skin looks burned, it’s from the frigid wind. Still, the tie that binds both is the love of surfing. Hundreds of miles from salt-water waves, local surfers found a way, and one another. One by one, they caught wind of the promise of surfable waves on the lake, and, like the tides, were pulled to the shores to see it for themselves. Cole Slutzky, a New Jersey native who attended RIT, was caught just that way.

“It was a fateful day,” says Slutzky, who now resides in Brooklyn. “I had brought a board to just paddle around on the lake to keep in shape or whatever; that was my third year in school. It was September or October, and I drove out for a paddle at Ontario State Park. I drove around the bend to Seabreeze, and I met a bunch of guys surfing on the water and started talking to them.”

Lake Surfers

Trevor Cranmer is another Rochester-based lake surfer who, to his surprise, found the scene to be pretty relaxing.

“It’s great because, when we get surf up here, there’s storms and chaos with the weather and everything, and there’s no one else out,” Cranmer says. “I get to share the lake with three of my friends. When there are waves on the East or West coast, you’re sharing those waves with a hundred other people. I don’t feel like fighting for waves. It just doesn’t feel natural. It’s a more relaxing experience, and I feel like this is more of what surfing should be, what it was intended to be.”

Licata notes that there’s another, very important reason that the lake surfers are so open to adding a few people to the group.

“In the Great Lakes, generally, you’re begging to find someone to go out surfing with.

If you see somebody else out there, they’re instantly your friend. Ya know, you call them over, and everybody likes to surf together. And, generally, the conditions we surf in here in the Great Lakes are a lot more dangerous than the conditions you’re generally surfing in the ocean. So it’s a little bit more of a buddy system because you really need to look out for each other here in a way.”

Lake Surfers
Lake Surfers
Lake Surfers

It didn’t take long for Slutzky, a photographer and budding documentary filmmaker, to form an idea. He’d grown up an ocean surfer and lived that life firsthand. He, too, resented the stereotypes and immediately saw something different about this surfing subculture. With a drastically smaller number of surfers, the dynamic is more supportive, more communal. Slutzky decided to combine his talent with his newfound passion to create a documentary to help tear down the perceptions that paint that portrait of the surfer dude.

“My goal is to show people the aspect of surfing in this kind of rare culture, and demonstrate how powerful it is,” Slutzky says. “These guys are going out in 34-degree water, negative windchills, and they’re so happy and so stoked. They’re just out there to have fun. ... It’s really cool, especially when you’re freezing your balls off.”

It’s been four years since Slutzky began piecing together his film, “Preconceived Noceans,” a clever play on words that tips a cap to the lake surfers he’s come to know. He makes trips back to Rochester now and then to do more work and also to hit the waves whenever possible. The plan is to finish with a feature-length film (more than 40 minutes long), enter it into film festivals, and hopefully show it at area places like The Little.

As Slutzky’s film portrays, these guys aren’t pompous or cocky. Lake surfers don’t claim to be “real surfers” as if the coastal guys are somehow fake or inauthentic. If a blondehaired California dude strolled up to the lake wanting to give it a try, he’d be welcomed just the same.

“There is no surfer guy; there’s just people who like to surf, and they all do different things,” Licata says. “In our group, there’s everything: there’s a fireman, a cop, a doctor, construction guys, bums, you name it. Every different kind of personality, they’re all down there.”