Fruit and Nuts in Cuba With Art Brewer
Story by Morgan Williamson | Photos by Art Brewer Last winter Pope St. Francis and Canada cusped hands with the US and Cuba. In a candlelit room they formed a circle and said, come on guys, let’s give this one a rest. An amen may have been involved. But this Stab staffer wasn’t there, so […]
Story by Morgan Williamson | Photos by Art Brewer
Last winter Pope St. Francis and Canada cusped hands with the US and Cuba. In a candlelit room they formed a circle and said, come on guys, let’s give this one a rest. An amen may have been involved. But this Stab staffer wasn’t there, so certainty on the matter is unobtainable. Optimum journalism, I know. It was a milestone, the first engagement at a presidential level with the Castro Regime since the Cuban Revolution. But what really sparks our surf-centric minds is what will the ending of a 50 year estrangement and implementation of diplomatic ties with Cuba under Raul Castro mean for American surfers? Coverage on Cuba in the surf world’s been minimal. For Floridian surfers, the country lies 110 miles off the coast. So close that Diana Nyad swam from Key West to the Cuba’s coastline at the tender age of 53! There’s no reason surf couldn’t turn on over there. Although the doors for surf tourism aren’t yet full on, a simple signing of an affidavit may have you scouring Cuba’s coast for waves, cigar and mojito in hand. It’s not a far fetched speculation that Cuba may one day be a surf and vacay destination for wandering Americans.
Art Brewer’s an iconic surf photog, he’s been setting the bar for a half decade. He’s shot the legends, dead and living. Also, he was one of the first cats take make the leap to Cuba with a surf trip in mind and document it. Back 1999, when were hitting Britney Spears One More Time and adoring Bill Cosby. Those kids do say the darndest things, don’t they? But all pop culture references aside, it was a cutty time in the communist regime.
Lunch and dinner courtesy of a Cuban fisherman.
Stab: When did you make the trip?
Art: Fifteen years ago. I tried to go in 1994 with Sonny Miller and Tom Curren. We were in Puerto Escondido. Tom’s girlfriend at the time was of Cuban nationality, we thought we could slide in. We flew up to Mexico City and bought a ticket. At the last minute they pulled us off the plane.
Shit, how’d that go? It was dicey, there was all sorts of shit going on right at that moment. Another plane was on fire right next to us. There was a shouting fit, it was a wild scene. Sonny Miller ended up filming some clips from it and throwing it in a movie later. He had me in there singing ‘it could happen to you’ which I was just being facetious because I was pissed. Anyways, we got denied and went back down to Puerto.
When did the next trip get put into action? A few years later we were talking with Carlos de Loma who’s a Cuban national out of Florida and Pete Lopez; Cory and Shea’s dad. We didn’t know a whole lot about it. We looked at maps with hopes to time it properly with a swell pushing out of the northeast. We made the jump and flew to the Bahamas. From the Bahamas we flew to Cuba and made sure not to get our passports stamped. We had with us; Pete, Cory and Shea Lopez, Dino Andino, Carlos De Olmo and some of his friends from South Beach. They were disco party guys or whatever they called them the 90’s. The information that we were given was mixed. De Olma told everybody it was inexpensive to be there. But it turned out to be pricey because you can’t live like a Cuban when you’re in Cuba.
So, it was segregated? Absolutely. They want every tourist dollar they can get. We stayed in this shitty hotel on the beach that should’ve been $50 a night. But we paid $150. And we had people watching us all the time. They were suspicious of foreigners.
How’d you get around? Two drivers in black ties wondering what the fuck we were doing with all our surfboards and camera equipment.
Where’d you guys surf? Right in front of our hotel in Havana. There was an area down past the hotels that was pretty good too. It was like going to Rocky Point on the North Shore. We basically covered the whole coast around Havana to the Harbour where Hemmingway had hung. The best potential we saw was this area called Nautical la Havana south of the main hotel row. It was a righthand point that was looked pretty good. We were ready to go surf until gun shots fired above our heads.
Shots fired? Some Cuban guys were stealing sand off the beach to mix into concrete. They thought we were with the guys stealing sand. We were arrested by the Cuban authorities, but we were let go once they saw our camera equipment and realised we were tourists.
How were the locals down there? The people were great. We met a couple kids who were trying to get into surfing. Bodyboards were more prevalent. We only saw one or two boards that were actual surfboards in Havana at that time.
Shea Lopez, communism can’t stop the rail.
What did the boards that ‘weren’t actual surfboards’ consist of? Most the guys had boards they made from refrigerator foam. There’s no boat buildings around so fiberglass and resin was hard to get. They’d take the foam out of refrigerators, strip it down, piece it together, shove a string in it and paint it with this white glue-type substance. We befriended this one kid who had relatives in Venezuela, so he managed to get resin and supplies when he could. He was super cool. He shaped in his garage. It was very primitive. Then we came down with these Channel Island boards and they were digging on getting the templates and fins and anything they could as far as new technology. There were a good dozen surfers at the time, or people attempting to surf.
Any surf outside of Havana? We stayed in Havana for about five days waiting for some kind of swell to materialize, which never did. We flew out of the local airport towards Guantanamo to a town called Holguin. Then we headed down the coast to Baracoa. There was a reef pass a half mile out. A northeast swell was pushing in. We got our best surf here. I managed to shoot a few things with a long lens from the beach. Then got a ride from an old man and his son in a rowboat made of plywood. The bottom was slippery as hell, no longer than 10 feet, real bare bones. I got a few shots from the boat, while the old man and his son tried to keep us from getting cleaned up by sets. I just had 36 exposures and then we’d have to swim back in. I was lucky enough to shoot through a couple rolls. When we got back to the beach, we filled up on crackers and fruit and shit because we couldn’t buy food in the same places the Cubans.
So you guys were just eating whatever you could get your hand on? Yeah, it was pretty gnarly. On the other side of the road, from where we were it was nothing but cane fields. This young guy came running out the fields screaming something about his grandfather! his grandfather! They brought his grandfather over. We were gonna give him a ride to the airport. They laid his grandfather down and he died the moment they set him in the van. We didn’t all wanna go to the hospital. We had no idea what the fuck was about to go down. So, Pete and De Olmo went with one of the drivers and dropped the poor guy off.
Where’d you crash after that? We went back to the hotels and couldn’t find a room for less than $450 a night. I suggested that we just go sleep in the cane fields. It wasn’t like it was freezing or anything. No one agreed. Around midnight, one of the drivers took us into the little town of Holguin and knocked on some doors. The people in the town let us stay in their bedrooms and they slept in their living rooms. It was weird. we were mixed all around this little tiny town. Nobody stayed in the same place and we had to leave before six in the morning. Nobody wanted us to be seen leaving their homes. The people were nice, woke us up at five, gave us some eggs and sent us on our way. We went down and checked the surf, it was flat. So Dino, Shea and Cory and the rest of us drove back in the vans with the drivers and De Olmo and the South Beach crew flew back to Havana. On the way back to Havana we tried to stop and find a place to stay. One of the drivers knew of this Cuban hotel. It was a picturesque little place with a long driveway set up on a hill. On the side of the road behind this head of bushes we could hear these people talking a couple hundred yards away. We got denied and as we were coming back down the road and there was this fox hanging by its neck from a tree across the road.
Wait, they lynched a fox? Yeah man, they put it up while we were in the office. As we were driving back out all these wide eyed people chanting some shit started walking out of bushes and we just thought Holy Fuck. So we drove down the road out to the middle of nowhere and spent the night in the van.
Now’s an acceptable time to wig out.
How was getting back into the States? We flew out to the Bahamas. They rousted us, They pretty much just bullied us for a bit and let us go.
Do you think Cuba will become a surf destination with steps smoothing relations in motion? Now that the relationships opening up, it would be a pretty cool place. Because you could fly in and pinpoint where the surf’s happening. But I’d say you gotta have some deep pockets to be dealing with the Cubans because nothing’s free if you’re an American or a European. The people there are great. If I had the time and money I would love to go back, especially with things starting to open up. It’s one of those rare places on earth. It’ll be good for a while, the guys who hit it first right off the bat are the guys that are gonna be stoked. I would highly recommend it especially if you watch the swell patterns. The South could interesting, with the right swell it could be all time.
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