Ocean Film Festival to introduce Michigan ice surfer to Edinburgh

The Ocean Film Festival World Tour washes into Edinburgh later this month, offering a tasting menu of short films concerning the life aquatic. Highlights include Manry at Sea, a documentary about US newspaperman Robert Manry’s bold 1965 attempt to cross the Atlantic in a tiny, 13-and-a-half foot sailing boat called Tinkerbelle; I Am Fragile, in which filmmaker Florian Ledoux trains his lens on the landscape and wildlife of north-eastern Canada and western Greenland; and A Peace Within, which follows “extreme artist” Philip Gray as he attempts to execute an underwater painting in subterranean pools in Mexico – pools, incidentally, which some locals still believe are gateways to the afterlife.

Michigan surfer Dan Schetter looking for waves a still from Surfer Dan
Michigan surfer Dan Schetter looking for waves a still from Surfer Dan

As is often the case with this event, there’s also a film about surfing on the bill, but this one is by no means your average surf flick. There are no palm trees, no Hawaiian shirts, no ukuleles and no dreamy tropical sunsets. In fact, I’m pretty sure there’s no sun full-stop. What Tim Kemple’s film Surfer Dan has in abundance, however, is grey skies, snow-covered beaches and bleak industrial landscapes. Oh, and icebergs – hundreds and hundreds of icebergs.

Set in Michigan on the shores of Lake Superior (which, fact fans, at 31,800 square miles, is larger than the entire state of Maine) the film follows hard-as-nails surfer Dan Schetter as he drives his clapped out van up and down the frigid lakeside in search of the perfect wave. OK, perhaps not the perfect wave, but any wave that looks even borderline surfable.

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In the summer, Lake Superior is mostly millpond-flat, but in the winter it comes alive as strong winds howl across its surface, whipping up powerful but often short-lived swells.

Dan Schetter, star of Tim Kemple's film Surfer Dan, screening in Edinburgh as part of the Ocean Film Festival World Tour

“Maybe this is just all novelty,” Schetter says as he drives to the beach, “but I’m having the time of my life so I’m gonna keep going for it.”

Year-round Scottish surfers will be used to dealing with cold conditions, but surfing the Great Lakes gives a whole different meaning to the word cold, and Schetter has to deal with things that don’t typically trouble us here, even in the depths of winter. Turns out that in January in Michigan, even waxing your surfboard can be tricky.

“I’m doing the Great Lakes kook wax job,” he tells Kemple, while applying great smears of wax to an elderly green surfboard.

“How does that work?” Kemple asks.

Icebreaker Dan...

“Put as many big chunks on as possible – that way if they freeze up you still have some traction.”

Frozen wax is nothing, though, compared to the hazards presented by heavy lumps of ice floating around in the line-up. On arriving at one spot, Schetter describes conditions as “pretty nasty.”

“The swell is growing,” he says, “and there’s a lot of ice breaking off the shore and throwing around.”

For a moment, you wonder if he might be exaggerating for dramatic effect, but then Kemple cuts to a shot of him paddling out through stormy, head-high surf, having to pick his way between slabs of ice that are bigger than he is.

Midwinter surfing on Lake Michigan presents some novel hazards. Schetter says that when it gets really cold he sometimes has to contend with "ice chunks falling on my head."

“If you take off on a wave you could really get hurt,” he says. “You could get hurt, or you could have the best time of your life.”

Mostly, Schetter seems to be having the best time of his life. He dives off icebergs into freezing water, just for the hell of it. He has howling contests with his dog. His van even has the license plate UPSURFR. Yet there’s also a sense that surfing is his way of keeping the darkness at bay.

“I love the waves,” he says, “it gives me a chance to paddle and to get out all the energy that I have built up. Because it’s not always easy to put all your energy... to funnel it into the best places.”

“If you hadn’t found surfing, where would you be?” asks Kemper.

“Surfing saved my life,” he says. “I don’t know where I’d be. I quit drinking and got back into surfing and ever since I got back into surfing I stopped having nightmares about not being able to surf.”

The film ends with Schetter surfing one of Lake Superior’s big wave spots – a place where he says he sometimes experiences “ice chunks falling on my head.” It’s also a sketchy spot because it’s situated right in front of a breakwater, so waves rolling towards shore are often obliterated by waves bouncing off the breakwater and rolling back out again.

As Schetter runs off through the snow towards the surf he looks back at the camera and shouts “Hey! It’s getting better! It’s getting better! Yeah!” Then he punches the freezing air.

As the old saying goes, only a surfer knows the feeling.

The Ocean Film Festival World Tour is at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh on 14 September, www.oceanfilmfestival.co.uk