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HavanaJournal.com: Cuba Culture

Cuban surfboard crisis: Surfing is no easy bag in socialist Cuba. But then few good things are. Stor

Posted January 15, 2004 by publisher in Cuba Culture.
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By DAN COYRO | Sentinel photographer

HAVANA, Cuba - And Santa Cruz surfers thought they had it rough. Cuban surfers have bigger issues than overcrowding, poor etiquette and territorialism — namely a 44-year-old trade embargo that prevents any of the latest and greatest U.S. surf technology from finding its way into the only communist nation in the Western Hemisphere.

It’s left a tiny, dedicated counter-culture cell of surfers in Havana to ride waves using makeshift boards that would be laughed out of surf breaks in any other part of the world.

There are no surf shops here, so aspiring waveriders use water-logged pieces of plywood scavenged like driftwood as bodyboards.
So-called “surfboards” are fashioned from polystyrene foam ripped out of abandoned refrigerators.

And since there are no surf shops, there is no surf wax. Surfers scrounge candles from home and rub the wax on their homemade boards.

Pieces of clothesline (there aren’t many clothes dryers in Cuba) become surf leashes.

Like everybody else in this country of 11 million who have learned to live with food and gas rations, Cuban surfers have learned to make do and do without.

Surprisingly, perhaps, talk of politics and shortages are left on shore here in Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Nobody complains out in the lineup

Mucho surf, bueno surfers

Even though Havana’s location is protected from Atlantic swells by neighboring Caribbean islands, Cuba’s capital city gets waves generated from cold fronts in the Gulf of Mexico.

Surprisingly there are seven or eight surf spots right in Havana and two beach breaks 30 minutes to the east at Santa Maria.

And when a “norte” starts sending waves crashing over the Malecon Havana’s seaside promenade boulevard local surfers know the usually short-lived storm surf will settle into a perfectly set lineup the next day.

Ernesto Gonzales is one of a tiny, close-knit group of surfers in Havana who share boards and car rides to the breaks.

He’s been surfing for nine years and has the chops to hold his own at just about any break in the world ... if he could ever get permission to leave the country.

The 26-year-old surfed with Shea and Cory Lopez, and Dino Andino, when those world-class surfers visited in 1999 to shoot a spread for Surfer magazine. They even took him along on a search-for-surf trip to uncharted breaks along the eastern part of the island.

To hear Gonzales describe how he and his Cuban buddies make their surfboards is to know how far apart these two worlds are.

“We go out and find old refrigerators and commercial freezers and take them apart for the insulation. (Then) we shape the foam using a saw and then sand it,” Gonzales told a couple of incredulous visitors late last November.

“We then get some fiberglass from boat builders along the Almendares River in Havana and put three layers of fiberglass on the bottom and two layers on top with resin coats on each of the layers of fiberglass,” he added.

Felix Laso, 20, is a surf buddy of Gonzales who was lucky enough to buy a used board from an American whose boat was docked in Havana’s Marina Hemingway. The longboard he scored is an Infinity shaped in Dana Point, but the fiberglass is separating from the foam.

Antonio Enrique is an up-and-coming 18-year-old in the Havana surf scene. With half-inch plugs in each pierced ear and sun-bleached hair, Enrique is known to his crew as “Luzon.”

Between sessions at a favorite break called Setenta, Luzon showed off his 6-foot Al Merrick undoubtedly one of the better shortboards in Havana.

“I paid $200 for it from a guy who was passing through from Miami,” he said

While that sum may seem reasonable for a board shaped by one of America’s finest shapers, here’s a bit of perspective: the average Cuban earns $10-$20 a month.

Man on a surf mission

Bob Samin wants to bring the Aloha spirit and some 21st century equipment to the island of Cuba.

With the Cubans having to make their own boards using limited resources or beg boards off passing travelers, a 45-year-old globe-trotting Australian has ventured into the Cuban surf scene. And he’s making it his mission to change all of that.

He’s already set up a Cuban surf Web site: [url=http://www.havanasurf-cuba.com]http://www.havanasurf-cuba.com[/url]

Born in Coolangatta, Australia, Samin has been surfing since the age of 5. His friends have known him as “Barbecue Bob” since the time he accidentally burned his house to the ground.

As a drilling supervisor for oil companies, he’s gotten the opportunity to surf some world-class breaks in Africa, Indonesia, the Philippines and Mexico.

“I first came to Cuba in 1990,” said the affable Australian. “I saw waves here in Havana and later saw some nice waves near Baracoa after a hurricane went through.”

Baracoa is a tiny, colonial town near the eastern tip of the island in Guantanamo province. And while Havana needs a cold front in the Gulf of Mexico to kick up waves, the Yumuri River break near Baracoa is open to swells from the Atlantic.

“I sat and waited for it to get big and I finally surfed it when it got to be nine feet. It was a big, long wall,” said Samin. “It’s kind of like a point break ... a peeling 300-meter ride that dumps you into the bay.

“Once I saw that, I said to myself there’s got to be more here so I took my bicycle and spent two months riding the whole coast of the island looking for waves.”

Samin started his Web site to provide photos and information on surfing in Cuba and to sell caps, T-shirts, keychains and memberships to raise money to buy boards for the locals

“We average 7,000 to 8,000 hits a month,” he said proudly.

Help from within

One of those hits came from a most unlikely Web surfer living and working right there in Havana.

Professor Manuel Rivero Glean is a member of the Speleological Society of Cuba. Translation: He and his colleagues are experts in the exploration and study of caves.

But it is Glean’s other official job with the Ministry of Tourism that prompted him to click on Samin’s Cuba surf site.

Glean is also a professor in Cuba’s School for Higher Studies of Hotel and Tourism and in this capacity he e-mailed Samin asking to get together to talk about promoting surfing in Cuba.

“This is a very important spot in Cuba,” Glean said with a sweep of his hand toward the waves at Setenta. “This is the first place where they began surfing in Cuba.”

With the help of Samin and other surfers, Glean wants to form a surf club for the younger locals.

Adds Samin: “What I’d really like to do is get some foreign surfers down here to show the locals how to do it right. To get the aggro-hustle out of it.

“Anything goes here right now. We’ve got people taking off on each other, running into each other ... there are no rules. I have to get some surfers down her to teach them all the good moves and the proper etiquette.”

Samin has already sent a batch of six surfboards to the locals in Havana. The Cuban government, however, is currently holding them in quarantine.

Speculation is that the government is concerned someone may try to paddle to Miami on one of Samin’s surfboards.

The good-natured Aussie is not deterred, however. When it comes to Cuba and surfing, he’s hooked.

He’s already sold his house and boat and plans to eventually move to Yumuri where he can wait on those hurricane-fed nine-foot rights.

Contact Dan Coyro at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Member Comments

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On July 29, 2004, elisa wrote:

hola soy cubano

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On November 15, 2004, joan wrote:

    Hola
  Ya llevo aproximadamente 5 years aqui y estoy loco por regresar a cuba ,vivo en miami y ya saben como es aqui.Por mucho tiempo me dedique a hacer surfboards y ahora como que estoy volviendo al negocio .Tengo planeado volver con algunas de mis tablas y repartirlas entre mis amigos.Pienso ir aproximadamente para los meses de febrero o Marzo.
  Saludos.