Riding The Waves Of Change: Surfers Push To Transform Cuba

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Lying in bed, Ariel Boschem is kept awake by a faint, rhythmic rumble. Storm-charged waves have begun their assault on the decaying sea wall known as the Malecón, which stretches along five miles of the Havana coast. The sound of the crashing surf echoes through the concrete highrise he calls home. Quick-tongued and tattooed, Boschem is the local surf report, and per instruction, he must call his best friend, Frank, to tell him that quality waves have finally arrived.

Before the sun rises, Boschem—a 20-something Havana native—sets in motion the word-of-mouth broadcast, then hustles out the door and onto a crowded bus destined for the rocky shore of Playa 70. As he shuffles his patched and tattered board through the bus doors, he’s greeted with a familiar mix of confusion and disbelief.

Frank Gonzalez walks along the Malecón in Havana. This particular stretch of the sea wall has become a hot spot for new businesses thanks to economic reform.

“What is that, an ironing board?” a passenger asks.

“No, this is a surfboard,” replies Boschem, for the umpteenth time. By now, he’s used to curious looks and cavalier questions, whether they come from bus patrons, tourists, or the police. For most, his answer holds limited meaning.

In Cuba, the majority of the population either doesn’t fully grasp what surfing is or doesn’t believe that it is possible in their country. Yet Boschem and his dedicated crew of Cuban surfers would be happy to assure anyone who asks that along the nation’s more than 2,300 miles of coastline, the waves certainly exist. The biggest hurdle is simply finding a way to surf them.

Coming across a useable surfboard isn’t easy. Finding transportation to surf spots, which are often remote, can be even more difficult. The legality of surfing itself is questionable, too, as Communist leadership treats the ocean as the country’s border, suspicious of all forms of watercraft in the hands of Cuban civilians. Besides, the waves aren’t always good, and the beaches—lined with jagged reefs—can be treacherous.

And then there are the bloody bits of sacrificial animal remains littering the shore.

It’s not uncommon for Boschem and his fellow surfers to witness priestesses dressed in white chanting by water’s edge on Playa 70. Tonight, a group of women stand amidst a bountiful array of discarded plastic bags, shaking rattles to mark the untimely demise of a chicken or a young goat as part of a sacrificial Santeria ritual.

The priestesses surround a young boy who awaits the moment his elders will open the throat of the animal before him, releasing a cleansing cascade of blood over his head. Then they stuff the separated innards of the animal into a plastic bag while carrying its limp body toward the ocean.

Santeria priestesses perform ritual sacrifices along the Playa 70 shore.

Once they add a new bag to the multitude already littering the shore, the priestesses march joyously from the water’s edge as sunset progresses. Just beyond the splash of a dripping carcass pitched into the water bob a half-dozen or so surfers, hooting and laughing in the choppy waters, undeterred.

At a nearby house, Frank Gonzalez—one of the first Cuban surfers—rifles through his bedroom, covered wall-to-wall in pages cut from American surfing magazines. Gonzalez is hunting for sandpaper so he can continue his reformation of a left-behind, beat-up, and waterlogged old board. Finding none, he opts instead for a piece of abandoned skateboard grip tape wrapped around a piece of scrap wood.

Nearly 30 years old, Gonzalez is lean and strong, as happy in the water alone as he is surrounded by peers. Having immersed himself in surf culture for years, Gonzalez seems to instinctively understand how to move in the water, enabling him to excel—and inspire others, like Boschem, to do the same.

Frank Gonzalez meticulously shapes the rails of his newly formed short board.

“He’s for me like a father for surfing,” says Boschem, who in his first few forays into the unforgiving Cuban surf turned to Gonzalez for instruction. Patiently, Gonzalez showed Boschem where to put his feet, how to balance on the board as he paddled, and what to look for in the waves.

Gonzalez wants to surf like some of the pros from the old surf films he’s managed to collect over the years. Boschem wants to surf like Gonzalez.

We have few resources and few waves. So I believe that we live with more intensity for surf.

There are no surf shops in Cuba. Even those with money to spend still find it impossible to buy a board—or even the materials to make one. For surfers like Gonzalez and Boschem, ingenuity is the key to being able to begin and continue surfing. The surfing movement in Cuba began just like Gonzalez’s room decorations—with a picture from an old magazine left behind by a tourist sometime in the late ’90s.

Gonzalez estimates there are no more than 100 surfers in all of Cuba. Along with other core members of the surfing community, he recalls piecing together the sport as though deciphering a series of clues. One photo would reveal a good shot of how the boards were shaped or how the fins were laid out, while a new one would hint at how the surfers should properly pop to their feet or duck dive under the waves. There was nobody to show them the proper techniques; it was all trial and error, and a whole lot of heart.

“Few people have the passion for surf that we have,” Boschem says. “We have few resources and few waves. So I believe that we live with more intensity for surf.”

When Gonzalez was a young boy, he repurposed the plywood from his school desk into a bodyboard. His first foam model came to be after he snuck into an abandoned building and found a piece of roofing insulation. He coated that material with scraps of fiberglass and resin collected from a boatyard and his first chunky board was born.

As more magazines—and a few nomadic surfers—found their way into Cuba with proper gear, the goal shifted to creating painstaking imitations of popular mass-produced boards, down to the logo. So eager to get into the water, surfers stripped foam out of refrigerator doors, using cheese graters and coat hangers to shape it into the very beginnings of surfboards. They were making leash ports out of bottle caps and screws, the leashes themselves out of jump ropes and backpack straps, stringers from the innards of audio tapes, fins from plexiglass, and waxing them using candle wax. They would trace popular U.S. logos from magazines and transfer them to their boards, which were supremely overweight, the leashes breaking after a couple falls.

Frank Gonzalez stands with a friend while watching the surf along the Havana coast. Photo by Marco Bava.

This year marks the first year in which Cuban citizens have had access to the internet. It may cost almost a week’s average salary for just two hours of a wireless connection, but it gives people their first unfiltered glimpses of the outside world in over 50 years. So while surfing had long gone mainstream around the world, Cubans had virtually no access to the sport. Until now.

‘You have to have a lot of patience; you have to wait a lot.’

In Havana, it is much easier than it used to be for surfers to get their hands on modern boards from tourists, but outside the city it is still nearly impossible. To this day, a young carpenter named Yoan Pablo gathers sea trash and foam that washes up on the shores of his community—a small ex-military district sitting 45 minutes by bus outside Havana called Micro X—and cobbles together Franken-boards to get him and his friends in the water. Pablo says that he has to source his resin, a key ingredient in the creation of boards, from over six hours away.

The struggle to take surfing beyond Havana’s limits faces greater obstacles. Surf travel, like the construction of the boards themselves, is a surprisingly challenging task within Cuba. Classic American cars—pre-’60s Chevys, Cadillacs, and Fords—have become icons of Cuban nationalism. These cars are more precious than gold here, and though Gonzalez dreams of driving his car all over the country in search of waves, he can’t risk losing his electric green 1958 Volkswagen Beetle to the rough rural roads.

Frank Gonzalez rides one of few perfect right waves. Photo by Marco Brava.

Many buses won’t allow boards. And if surfers are able to convince a bus driver to transport their boards in favor of someone else’s livestock, they still oftentimes must negotiate dangerous coastlines and government interference. Members of the surf community say it is commonplace for Cuban surfers to be placed under arrest when they venture too close to the water, as authorities are concerned about citizens attempting to defect. On a surfboard.

While surfing was quickly rising to the mainstream around the world, Cubans had virtually no access to the sport. Until now.

Each surf break along Havana’s coast has its own set of guidelines for avoiding bodily harm, every spot so dangerous that one has to wonder what the trailblazers were thinking when they first attempted to catch a wave. At Playa 70, surfers gingerly make their way across the dry reef shore to the water, essentially in the shadow of the ominously dark and foreboding Russian embassy behind them.

They aim for a narrow, dredged channel for their entrance to avoid getting washed back into the razor-sharp reef. Upon exit, surfers must gauge both waves and current to land exactly upon the smooth iron and concrete remnants of an abandoned industrial site.

Further to the west, at a break called La Sociedad, the shallows are filled with crushed aluminum cans that surfers crinkle around their feet to protect them from the reef until they can mount their boards, at which point they kick the cans back as far as they are able, to be used by the next surfer. Just to the east is a break called Bajo—Spanish for “shallow”—that lies closest to the city center. Particularly treacherous, one must wait until the break between sets of waves to descend the seven-foot algae-coated wall to a damp, even more thickly algae-coated ledge.

Surfers enter the water on a cloudy day along the treacherous Havana coast.

As the water swirls up under Gonzalez’s toes, he must wait until a wave strikes the wall and is reflected back. Gonzalez must time this and ride the rebound out and away from the wall, paddling with all his might against a ripping current pulling straight toward a craggy outcropping of rocks. Getting out is a similarly frantic process that incites a distinct feeling of “running for your life.”

“You have to have a lot of patience; you have to wait a lot,” says Gonzalez. “A lot of waves don’t have the quality, but even like that you need to go to the water, otherwise you will never surf.”

“We need to watch the sea all the time because we don’t know when we will have a good day,” he adds.

As Gonzalez pulls out of the lone glassy barrel of the day, he throws his hands up, wide-eyed in disbelief. This was a good day.

Cory McLean spent 10 weeks in Cuba earlier this year filming his upcoming documentary, Havana Libre, about surfing in Cuba. All photos courtesty of the author and his co-filmmaker Marco Bava.

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