Meet The First Cubans To Go On A Surf Trip To America And Return To Cuba
Frank and Yaya’s excellent adventure!
Walk into your kitchen. Pull the cheese grater out of the cupboard. Now rip the door off your fridge and hack the styrofoam insulation of it. Now go into your living room with your cheese grater and rudimentary foam blank and shape a surfboard. That’s how surfboards are built in Cuba.
A couple months ago, Stab reported on a documentary film project called Havana Libre that details the plight of the 100 or so resident Cuban surfers. The sport of surfing is not recognised by the communist government, which renders it illegal. The import of surf equipment, including foam blanks and planers, is heavily regulated and exploring the island’s surf potential is strictly limited by government minders. Even though the island nation is only 90 miles from the tip of Florida and a stone’s throw from Puerto Rico, the surf scene remains closed off from the rest of the world, existing underground in its own self-contained bubble.
Is Cuba holding? Yes it is. It’s fickle, but according to Frank when cold fronts come down from the U.S. and spin in the Gulf of Mexico the surf can fire. Hurricane season can also be fruitful. Follow the map on Frank’s board and you may just score.
This summer, as part of the film project being orchestrated by Makewild Films, two Cuban surfers, Frank Gonzalez and Yaya Guerrero, were invited to come to California and Hawaii. As far as anyone can tell, they’re the first Cubans to go on a surf trip—and then return to Cuba. The original intention of the trip was for Frank and Yaya to participate in the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s “Culture Lab.” Frank is a master of shaping surfboards out of refrigerator doors and the plan was to showcase this unique talent by presenting a “Cuban Livingroom” to the Smithsonian folks.
It’s not very often in “surf journalism” that one has the opportunity to do something really positive. Usually, it’s reporting on a contest, interviewing a pro, riffing on a video drop or fending off some half-baked critique from the self-absorbed. The Cuban connection is different. This was an opportunity to pay it forward, to give surfing a chance to be a lot more than riding waves. While working on the original Havana Libre story, I told producer Tyler Dunham that I’d make a few calls to some friends and see if we couldn’t expand the horizons of the Cubans while they were California and Hawaii.
The first order of business was to secure them some boards. We hit up Frankie D’Andrea, one of the partners in a new venture called SurfAway. Spearheaded by Ace Buchan, Blake Thornton, former Surfing mag editor Taylor Paul and a former Google wizard, the company’s goal is to make travelling with surfboards a thing of the past. They’re looking to build quivers of boards at locations around the world so all the wandering surf gypsy has to do is go online, find the board that’s right for them, reserve it and ride it. It’s sort of genius and we’ll be hearing more about the program as they continue to develop, but in the case of the Cubans, Frank and Yaya were able to fly from Havana to L.A. and then go straight into the HaydenShapes shop in El Segundo and grab a few boards.
Blanks pulled from a refrigerator door and a cheese grater for a planer, that’s how Frank mows his foam.
“The guy’s shaping boards with a cheese grater and to be able to show up in L.A., grab a new board and go surf Lowers, that has to be a dream or something. We had to help however we could,” said Andrea.
After grabbing boards, the Cubans bee-lined it to Trestles. The first person they ran into at the top of the trail was one Robert Kelly Slater.
“He was on an electric bike and had his little dog with him…we saw Kelly Slater!” beamed Yaya.
Only in California for a few days before jumping on a plane for Hawaii, the Smithsonian gig reportedly went off without a hitch, but the real treat of the trip was staying with Garrett McNamara on the North Shore.
“He whipped us into some one-footers and we did some diving,” explained Frank. “He’s so nice and so humble. I have to thank him for sharing his home with us.”
Pat O’Connell and the Cubans, breakfast in Orange County. No coffee, Pat?
Hawaii was good, but Frank and Yaya were keen to get back to California and indulge in some south swell fun. After taking the red eye back from Honolulu, the crew found their way to the Hurley headquarters in Costa Mesa. Endless Summer II star and Hurley VP Pat O’Connell gave them a tour and hooked them up with a walk-through in the company store. When Pat got word of the Cuban’s struggles to come up with surf gear he simply said, “What do they need?” and took it from there.
“This is the first real wetsuit I’ve ever own,” said Frank a few hours later on the point at Lowers. Never mind that the water was 75 degrees and everyone else was in trunks, Frank was so stoked on his suit he could hardly contain himself.
Pat Gudauskas and Dylan Graves met the crew down at Lowers for a Positive Vibe Warrior expression session. Pat sat on the inside with Yaya helping her get into some good ones. Dylan sat out the back, splitting peaks with Frank.
Power psyching with Patty Gudauskas and Dylan Graves.
“I’ve been trying to figure out how to get to Cuba for years,” said Dylan after. “I’m so stoked to meet these guys. I can’t wait to come visit.”
After a night of camping in San Diego, the Cubans and their entourage started the day at the Firewire headquarters. Following seeing the trailer to the Havana Libre film, Slater Design’s Travis Lee hit up Firewire CEO Mark Price, who welcomed them with open arms. Rob Machado stopped by to talk surfing and shaping. Yaya started crying the minute she saw him.
“They basically learned to surf by watching Drifter, so to see Rob in person, it kind of blew them away,” said Tyler.
After a tour of the facility and some good conversation, they left Firewire with half a dozen new boards to bring back to Cuba. Now maybe Frank will be able to put down the cheese grater for a few months.
Rob Machado liked Frank’s hair, Yaya just liked Rob, don’t be surprised if they all go drifting through Cuba sometime.
The afternoon was spent meeting with ISA President Fernando Aguerre at his palatial home on the water in La Jolla. Cuban surfers are hanging their hopes on the Olympics as a way to legitimize the sport at home, and Fernando’s Mr Olympic Surfing. But there was more substance to their meeting than just gold medals and a photo op. When Fernando was coming up in Argentina he fought tooth and nail to legalize surfing there. The government had outlawed it and it was only because of Fernando and his brother that the sport was finally legalized.
To say the trip was a whirlwind trip is putting it mildly, but as Frank said in the water at Lowers, “If this is a dream, I don’t want to wake up.”
We’re all fortunate to be living this surfing dream. To see the outpouring of support our community showed these two unknown Cuban surfers should serve as healthy inspo. A little stoke goes a long way.
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