Historically, Jamaica isn’t exactly the first place you think of when picturing hotbeds of surf culture. But over the past few years, a fresh crop of stylish rippers has been making waves throughout the Caribbean and beyond, drawing attention to their tiny island with their stylish carves and weightless punts. One of these young rippers is dreadlocked, 20-year-old Ivah Wilmot.
Wilmot is the son of Jamaican surfing legend Billy “Mystic” Wilmot, the owner of Jamnesia Surf Camp on the southern coast of the island and president of the Jamaican Surfing Association. As the youngest of four siblings (all surfers themselves), Wilmot has become one of the island’s top talents and has developed a goofyfooted, laid-back style that pays homage to Craig Anderson and Rob Machado. Like most Jamaican surfers, Wilmot grew up riding whatever he could get his hands on, as surfboards are hard to come by in Jamaica, thanks mainly to high import taxes and shipping fees. But a couple years ago, things started to change for Wilmot and the local surf community. After a SURFER magazine trip to the area, San Clemente surfers Dane, Pat and Tanner Gudauskas noticed how guys like Wilmot and his close friends/rippers Shama Beckford and Garren Pryce were riding old, well-used boards. They returned a couple years later with over two hundred donated boards, leaving them there for Wilmott and the rest of the Jamaican surf community.
With the Positive Vibe Warrior board drive two years in the rearview mirror, we called up Wilmot to see how that event changed his life and the future of Jamaican surfing.
The last time we spoke was about two years ago when the Gudauskas brothers brought all those boards over for the locals. What has the longterm effect been from that visit?
It had a huge effect. Now it feels like we have a lot more high-performance surfers in Jamaica than before. As you know it’s hard to get boards here-you either have to bring them in yourselves or have people bring some when they are visiting. But with all those boards from surfboard drive, now there are kids with potential who just need to be groomed a little more and shown what they're doing wrong. There are a few guys who I didn’t even really know that well from Boston Bay [a surf spot about an hour away from Jamnesia in Bull Bay] who are just ripping now. For example, in a contest we just had, I was in a heat with one kid and I thought, "I could beat this kid easily just a year ago, but right now I have to give it my everything so he doesn’t kick my ass." [Laughs.] I can’t imagine what things will look like in a year's time.
It seems like you and Shama have been traveling a lot since their visit and have even attracted a few big-name sponsors.
For me and Shama, it did a lot for us. The exposure that we got from that is more than anyone could ever imagine--just showing the world who we are and how we surf. After the board drive, we realized we needed to get out and continue getting more exposure. Often times in Jamaica, even if you win a contest here, nothing happens. You just sit at home and are hidden away from the rest of the surf world. There's not that much exposure here in Jamaica if you don't create it yourself or people come in and expose it from the outside. So Shama and I went to California and everything just started happening so fast. People recognized us as “the Jamaican kids,” which just sparked conversations with people.
In California, we felt like we were a part of the surf culture. We didn't feel like we were different from Kolohe or Julian or Kelly when they came to town. We felt like we were as apart of the community as they are. Shama did some contests and ended up signing with Hurley and I signed with Roark. And all that happened because of the exposure we got when the Gudauskas brothers came down. We always give them thanks for what they've done and everything they've helped us with.
Since the surf community is small in Jamaica, do you feel like you’re personally responsible for the future of Jamaican surfing?
Yea for sure. The surf community is so small in Jamaica and if no one does anything, then nothing happens for surfing. Like when I'm in California, it feels like you can sit back and be apart of a culture that’s been thriving for over 50 years. But here, the surf culture is very new and there are a few key players in it.
Back when I was a grom and started surfing, me, Shama, Garren and all the other boys would try to enter the contests that my dad and the Jamaica Surfing Association put on, but the older guys were so much better than us and a lot of the time the waves were so gnarly that we were scared. So the contest organizers saw that and decided to create a grom series for us, which really pushed us to improve. Shama, Garren and I always competed with the each other. It's not something we talk about, but you're really surfing to get better and out-do the next guy. Doing those competitions really helped me grow as a surfer. But right now there's a big gap between us and the next generation of rippers. There aren’t that many kids who charge it and go to the contests like we used to. I feel like we are really responsible to help continue that, because when we were young, it was the older guys who helped us improve.
What do you think can be done to groom the next generation?
We need to bring back that grom series. Or maybe do a coaching program and have a couple surf schools like Shama's Surf School and Ivah's Surf School, a coaching program that teach kids how to surf and allow kids can go head-to-head and compete against each other. I feel like that would groom a lot of the young talent to become even better than us. Because we're just three guys out of 20 guys that surf. Imagine if there were 100 surfers, there’d probably be 30 guys as good as us. That's the vision I have. It's up to us to continue it.
The hardest part is that this is a third world country, so it's not easy to get a board or to afford coaching. We’d coach for free and try to groom the next generation of kids without expecting a dollar. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's just about planning it out properly, getting events going, getting parents involved and knowing who to contact to help market events. But once it starts spinning you just have to keep doing it.
The last time we spoke you expressed some interest in learning how to shape your own boards. Is that still something you want to do?
Yeah, definitely. What I really want to do is shape a board with Terrance Muschett, who taught my dad how to surf and shaped my dad’s first board. Anytime I see him I have the longest conversation with him about boards. I tend to surf all types of boards--just because I get bored of a high-performance shortboard sometimes or if my board gets too old, I can’t get another board just like it so I move onto the next shape. I like figuring out boards.
If I could shape, that would eliminate the problem of having to leave the island to get boards. I would have to source blanks, but blanks are a lot cheaper than boards. At first, I'd probably want to shape for the groms because they probably won't mind if it's a bit asymmetrical or if the fins are off a bit [Laughs.] But that's the goal: to get all these groms on boards until they get better. Once the spotlight turned on us after the board drive, I really started thinking about these things. I realized that kids need boards, and in the future, they could show that there aren’t just these three dudes from Jamaica who can surf, but there's actually an entire culture to keep an eye on.