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Area’s winter surfers hang ten despite freezing conditions

The Beach Boys waxed their surfboards waiting “for June.”

Maybe it’s because they never saw Lake Erie in December, or the California men weren’t as hearty as locals like Aurelian Bouche-Pillon, Christian Edie, Kevin Cullen and Jared Callahan.

The foursome is part of a quickly growing group of the Great Lakes surfing community that “hang ten” and “shoot the curl” unfazed by frigid water, blistering snow squalls or zero-degree wind chills.

If all goes well, a few could score a spot in the Eastern Surfing Association’s regional competition next May in Belmar, N.J.

“It’s extremely cold, don’t get me wrong,” Bouche-Pillon said. “But there is very good surf on the lake.”

Bouche-Pillon, the co-director for ESA’s Great Lakes Chapter, is organizing an association surfing competition at Sunset Bay to honor the memory of Magilla Schaus, a late Buffalo firefighter who co-founded the Wyldwood Surf Club on Lake Erie in the 1970s, and his wife, Christine, who passed away from cancer in October.

With plans to attract “the best surfers in the Great Lakes,” efforts to hold the event on a December weekend have proven tough. Bouche-Pillon would like to get it in sometime by the end of January to qualify surfers for the regionals.

Unlike on ocean waters, in which ground swells create surf, on the Great Lakes, stormy weather is required.

“All of our waves are created by on-shore winds,” Cullen said.

Added Edie: “The fall and winter is our best surf season.”

And the chill doesn’t stop them any.

Neither, apparently, did a pair of killer lake-effect snowstorms.

Edie and Cullen, her fiance, donned their full-body wet suits, hoods, gloves and booties and hit the waves during the thick of the double lake-effect snowstorm of November. They took video of the adventure and, posted it on the Internet, where it quickly went viral. The story was picked up in the pages of the United Kingdom’s Daily Mail. Watch the video here.

The Hanford Bay couple said the visibility was down to about 100 feet or less. They couldn’t see a horizon and could barely make out the shore or almost anything else besides the water and a curtain of white.

“We were right next to each other and you couldn’t see each other,” Edie said.

So, everyone’s big question: why?

“There aren’t any sharks,” Edie said.

It’s as good a reason as any.

“We do it by instinct and passion. Mother Nature calls us and we follow,” Bouche-Pillon said. “It is a lifestyle. It is a culture.”

The four were out on Lake Erie again the week before Christmas – Edie, Cullen and Callahan off Sunset Bay – and Bouche-Pillon near Crystal Beach, Ont.

“People travel thousands of miles to vacation and learn to surf,” Edie said. “If I have surf right out my front door, I’m going out.”

Edie said Great Lakes surfing is “a lot of work,” involving traversing lake waters through currents and high winds, but the payoff is worth it.

“Once you catch that ride all the way to shore it’s the best feeling ever. It’s addicting and you don’t want to stop,” Edie said. “I always tell myself, ‘OK, this is the last one, I’m going in after this,’ but as soon as I catch that wave, I paddle right back out again.”

An ice-encrusted Bouche-Pillon summed it up in a brief film about his frozen exploits that was produced by his close friend, Theophyl Syslo: “It is crazy.”

Besides the wet suits and other necessary equipment, winter surfers on the Great Lakes often smear olive oil or Vaseline inside their masks in vain hopes of insulating their heads. Often ice can form around the face – the only part of the body that’s exposed to the elements, but extra-hearty surfers like Bouche-Pillon can last 3 to 5 hours in the water.

“It gets extremely nasty. It gets extremely windy. It gets extremely cold,” Bouche-Pillon said. “The wet suit does a pretty good job to keep you warm and safe.”

So does some positive thinking.

“If I think it’s cold in the water,” Bouche-Pillon said. “I’m going to die.”

Sponsored by Hyperflex and SUPERbrand surf equipment, the 33-year-old Bouche-Pillon grew up on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean – in France. He’s been surfing since he was a child.

When he moved to the United States in 2006 to chase “the American dream,” Bouche-Pillon settled near Rochester.

He spoke no English, had no money and came with only a pair of surfboards.

It was a bit of a culture shock.

“Rochester doesn’t have a huge surfing community,” Bouche-Pillon said.

That hasn’t slowed him down any.

Bouche-Pillon, an independent energy consultant out of the water, is one of the Great Lake’s top amateur surfers.

In October, he won the men’s shortboard competition on Lake Huron in an event that attracted not only Great Lakes surfers but entrants from across Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Barbados and South Africa, the ESA said.

That made Bouche-Pillon one of the first Great Lakes surfers to qualify for a pro event. In May, he and two others will represent the Great Lakes and have a shot at a $25,000 prize at a pro event in British Columbia – a first for the lakes.

Bouche-Pillon, Callahan – who owns City of Light Fitness, a stand-up paddleboard business on Buffalo’s Outer Harbor – as well as Cullen and Edie are trying to replicate the event in the Buffalo area by holding the Eastern Great Lakes Surfing Festival at Sunset Bay. It would be the first of its kind in at least a decade.

The long-term goal is to bring an Association of Surfing Professionals surfing contest to the area.

“We’re trying to promote this sport and awareness in the region,” Callahan said. “Now that Buffalo’s paying more attention to the waterfront, there’s a lot more momentum out there.”

Bouche-Pillon called surfing – and the ESA – a “tradition in the lakes” and said the winter surfing festival would be the perfect testament to Schaus’ life as a founder of Great Lakes surfing.

“I thought Buffalo is perfect – it’s a beautiful place,” Bouche-Pillon said. “We pursue the legacy.”

News Refresh Editor Scott Scanlon contributed to this report.