Dark skies, bright future. Surfing in Cuba is on the cusp of being swept into the 21st century maelstrom. Photo: Marco Bava
Inside Cuba's Surf Revolution
Because everyone should have a chance to ride a wave.
“The true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.” ― Ernesto Che Guevara
The Cuban dream includes surfing, the country just doesn’t know it yet. Like jazz and ’57 Chevys, the few Cuban surfers that exist have been able to make something very cool out of very little. And like jazz or car clubs, Cuban surfing begins and ends in the underground. While well poised in the Caribbean to accept swell from a host of angles, currently the Cuban government does not officially recognise surfing as a “sport.”
“In Cuba, unless activities are explicitly stated as legal, they fall under an enforceable category of ‘not legal.’ Ever since it originated on the island, surfing has lived inside that zone of illegality,” reads a petition currently being circulated in hopes of changing the government’s stance on surfing.
While they may not be able to travel freely, the high art of surf exploration has not been lost on the young Cuban surfers.
“Because the government doesn’t officially recognise surfing and because it is more or less illegal, local surfers really have to struggle just to get a board or even wax. The few surfers that there are in Cuba have been forced to become very resourceful,” says Tyler Dunham, who’s currently co-producing a film called “Havana Libre” which details the plight of the Cuban surfer.
In the 42,000 square miles of island territory, there are only an estimated 100 surfers throughout Cuba (by comparison, Puerto Rico is approximately 3,000 square miles and is considered the surf capital of the Caribbean). Famous for their ability to trick out ’50s-era cars and keep them running seemingly forever, Cuban wave-riders have had to resort to similar practices due to the scant surfboard building materials on offer. Ripping styrofoam blanks out of refrigerator doors, reshaping beat-up, hand-me-down boards using cheese graters to sculpt the foam, swiping sanding resin from local boatyards, boards are cobbled together with zero wasting. Performance cues are taken from surf videos smuggled into the country.
While times may be tough, they do enjoy a unique, relatively isolated slice of paradise.
The U.S. is only 90 miles away from Cuba, but the country has more or less existed in a bubble since Fidel Castro and pal Che stormed the island in the mid-'50s. Until recent developments, a surf culture has never had the opportunity to take root. Surfing isn’t baseball or soccer, and while the Cuban the government pours money into those recognised sports, kids are literally ripping plywood panels off their homes and sliding shoreward on them (known locally as a “pleybo”). Most residents on the island are amazed to learn there are actual, surfable set-ups all around Cuba. And when it comes to the business of surfing, because the “industry” is primarily based in the United States and American imports are more or less barred, whatever equipment has managed to find its way to Cuba over the years has done so through covert, backwater channels.
Foam blanks scavenged from refrigerator doors, an old cheese grater used in place of a planer, the ingenuity of the underground Cuban board builder in action.
In ’99, photographer Art Brewer smuggled the first cadre of pros into the country, including Pete, Cory and Shea Lopez, Dino Andino and Carlos De Olmo. They didn’t exactly score, but they did come away with proof that there was surf in Cuba. Over the years, there has also been a consistent back-and-forth between local surfers in the southeast U.S., especially in southern Florida. Most recently, thanks to sweeping government reforms on both the Cuban and American side, surfing may now have a chance.
“As a legitimate sport on the island, Cubans will be able to compete internationally, import surf supplies and most importantly form an official organisation capable of advocating for the needs of surfers and ocean health around the island,” continues the petition.
To play ball or pleybo, that is the question. That little plywood slider is called a pleybo and is a common craft among the Cuban grom set. It’s a serviceable alternative to a bodyboard…and beats baseball practice.
Cuban surfers Frank Gonzalez Guerra and Yaya Gurrero are among those championing the sport on the island. Both will be travelling to California and Hawaii this summer as part of a project with the Smithsonian Institute to live and learn what a free surf life’s all about. There’s also a group known as the Royal 70 Surf Havana Club. Founded by Blair Cording and Eduardo Valdes, based in Havana and Sydney, their mission is “to create opportunities for Cuba’s youth to engage in extreme sports, music and art.” More than just surfing, they are also focusing their efforts on other action sports, music and art. They’ve started a program called the Black Market Collective, which is billed as a “network of passionate people with the same goal: to help surfing grown on the island and get more kids in the water by sourcing and donating much-needed surfing equipment.”
Legitimising surfing in Cuba is all about building momentum. Between the local surfers advocating and hopefully a heartfelt international push, the sport could finally achieve liftoff.
By and large, the international surfing community is very good at helping and supporting fellow wave-riders in need, wherever they may be. Thankfully, the situation in Cuba is something that we can all do something about. Signing the petition and leaving a comment is easy enough. But maybe you have some extra boards laying around the shed, or old, plastic FCS fins you haven’t used in five years, or maybe a wetsuit or two that aren’t in vogue anymore. Pay it forward, kick that stuff down to our friends in Cuba. Collectively, we have an opportunity to usher in a new era in Caribbean surfing.