Yeah, I know the Pacific Ocean is going El Niño right now and, sure, EVERYWHERE’S firing, but I just surfed in Cuba the last few days and that right there is something I never thought I’d say. Yes, a fun little reefbreak in Havana not far from the Russian Embassy, a building by the way, that looks like a giant concrete spaceship…that somehow makes perfect sense in this country. What doesn’t make much sense is that surfing in Cuba is still pretty frowned upon by the gov’t. My boys from Calle 70, Yojany Perez Rivera, Arnan Perez Lantigua and Frank Gonzalez Guerra gave me the scoop on the Cuban surf scene, a story that’s just as fascinating as this vibrant and amazing nation. –Beau Flemister
SURFING: How did you guys in Cuba first find out about surfing?
Arnan Perez Lantigua: Actually, we saw an old film from the 90’s — it was mostly about inline skating but with some surfing, too — called “Airborne.” I saw it and I thought, “What the fuck! I live close to the beach, I could do this somehow.” The surfing-part, of course [laughs]. So I started to find information out about surfing. I went down to Calle 70 and met some Cubans that were basically bodyboarding on plywood that they’d cut into little boards. I have some family in the States and I asked them to send us a board or a bodyboard and they sent us some used bodyboards, so we just taught ourselves.
Did you guys have to make any of your own equipment?
Yes! We basically shaped our own boards. We’d pull the foam out of old refrigerators, sand it into boards and then we would buy boat resin. Then we had to figure out the chemistry with the resin and catalyst. This always made the resin cure in a different color. [laughs] Sometimes red, sometimes green, sometimes rainbows. But they were weak and you could only surf those boards for about a month, and then they’d break. And the shape of them…God it was a problem. [laughs] Basically we’d look at a photo of boards in magazines and try and replicate that with what materials we had. Like, “Oh, that looks about 6’0”…It was bad (laughing).
And how do you get boards now?
Well we don’t have any surf shops here in Cuba so it’s extremely difficult to get boards or any surf gear. Some friends that come through will leave boards or bring us gear. You just kind of hope that you can get something your height or size. Which can be a problem because sometimes we have money and we can buy a board, but we are not able to order anything from Cuba. There’s a lot of waiting. But every year more and more people are coming and leaving or selling us stuff here. But even wax, for example, can be a big problem getting. Once you’ve rubbed off all the wax, we drip candle wax on the deck for grip, but that can be really hard on your chest and skin. I know Cuba isn’t the only place on the planet where it’s hard to get surf stuff. There are still some Cuban guys today making boards from refrigerators, though.
What are some other obstacles Cuban surfers face? Like, besides getting boards, what’s the travel situation like?
Yes, the equipment is one problem but travel is the biggest problem because sometimes in Cuba, even if you have the money to go, they [the government] won’t let you.
And why is that?
Well, you need a lot of documents. For example, if I was to visit you in California, you have to write the government a letter to host me. Then you have to pay for the documents to arrive to Havana, and then I will need more documents in Cuba and then 60 percent of the time, even after all that paper work, they tell you, no, you can’t.
Even traveling around Cuba for Cubans can be difficult. There are some really good waves in the east that face south. But Cubans have to take different buses than the tourists to get there. Like, if we want to go to Guantanamo and Baracoa, a lot of times they won’t let us put the boards on the bus. And the tourist buses are just a bit too expensive for us. Long story short, it’s hard for Cuban surfers to travel within Cuba, let alone outside of Cuba.
That’s rough. So, who are Cuban’s favorite surfers?
Dane Reynolds. Shane Dorian. Craig Anderson’s got a nice style. We like Yadin Nicol, Wade Goodall, Adriano de Souza, Chippa Wilson, Dusty Payne…John John, of course. The guys that do crazy airs.
And do you get surf videos over here?
People like you bring us some. Or we can see some clips on YouTube, but Internet is a problem here. It’s better to watch downloads of the videos or DVDs that have been given to us, rather than on the Internet. Like, they just got WiFi here and there’s some public parks where you can get the signal, but when there’s 3,000 people around while you’re trying to watch a Dane clip on your laptop…you’re afraid to get your laptop stolen [laughs].
Are more people coming to Cuba to surf?
Yeah, every year there’s more and more people coming. The good thing for visiting surfers is that there’s no crowds. A day like to today is as crowded as it gets, and what, there was 10 people in the water? In the east of the country, there’s nobody. Maybe two or three.
Are there any contests here in Cuba?
Yeah, a few…Red Bull kind of put one on. And we’ve had a few others, like, three, but they weren’t serious contests. Mainly, because surfing isn’t a recognized sport here in Cuba.
Really? Explain that to me.
Well, Cuba considers surfing and skating and other “extreme sports” recreational, not athletic. So they’re not official like boxing or baseball. So the government won’t give any money to the Cuban surfers to travel (for contests) because they don’t recognize the sport. They also consider it an American sport, which is a problem for the government because they see RVCA and Quiksilver and all the companies as private American companies, which they don’t want to support. So that also makes it pretty much impossible to be sponsored by an American company.
Damn. Also rough.
Yeah, it’s a problem, because the police don’t like it either. As you know, there have been a lot of Cuban people that try and take illegal boats to Miami, so water sports like surfing are looked at with suspicion. They actually accuse us of trying to flee! [laughs] They don’t understand that it would be a really, really long paddle to Miami. So sometimes police stop us and ask what we were doing or where we are going. They say “What is surfing? That’s not a real thing.”
Geez. So what, mainly, do Cuban surfers need to help them grow the sport?
Something needs to change about the way surfing is perceived here. When a magazine like you comes to talk about surfing in Cuba, that’s actually really big. It’s a big deal because so few people know that there’s surfing in Cuba. But definitely we need the government to recognize the sport because in Cuba if the government doesn’t recognize it, there’s no future. We can’t make real surfing associations or organizations that are legal here if the government doesn’t recognize them. We’ve tried — they’ve told us no.
So more than money, we need the government to help us travel for contests. I think traveling for contests will help Cuban surfers get better. For example, the ISA games. Cuba even has a flag on the ISA games sign but we have never ever been to the ISA Games. The government just won’t let us! But I think in a few years with the relationships that Cuba is having with the world and the States, we will be able to get into the ISA.
I mean, if America’s favorite pastime — baseball — is legal, why not surfing, right?
Yeah, crazy right?! You can play baseball and it’s fine. But we don’t want to play baseball. We just want to surf.