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College students make service mission to Cuba – with surfboards

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Posted on April 28, 2016 |
By David Fuchs



surf_arnan_boost LEAD .jpg
ONE OF HAVANA’S top surfing talents, Arnan Perez Latingua, catches big air at “Calle 70” in Havana, Cuba. Photo by Linda Mariela Gutierrez Delgado

“Are you bringing your board?”

It was January and I was in California, packing up my car to drive back to Middlebury College in Vermont when I read that text from my friend and fellow wild man Christian Johansen.

What? Was I bringing my surfboard to Vermont, a landlocked state, in the middle of winter? Was he out of his mind?

I resisted. He insisted. And sure enough, a month later, we were at the tip of Long Island clad head-to-toe inneoprene, marching across the snow to the Atlantic with surfboards in hand.

I had always known Christian, a New Hampshire native and senior Feb at Middlebury College, to be a bit of a dreamer, but it was out there — bobbing in the chop with 20-degree gusts of wind whipping across my back and an ear-to-ear smile stretched involuntarily across my face — that I became a believer. By my spoiled West Coast standards, this was crazy … and I loved it.

So, I guess it shouldn’t have come as such a surprise when, just seven weeks later, Christian caught me in passing and suggested in half a sentence that our newly founded Middlebury College Surf Club lead a surf-service trip to Cuba.

What?

“We’ll talk later,” he said and rushed off to class. I got a text that night telling me he had booked his ticket. I tried to call, but his phone was dead … so I took a deep breath and a leap of faith, and booked mine.

A QUICK HISTORY OF SURFING IN CUBA

On the map, Cuba doesn’t fit the mold of a surfer’s paradise. At the edge of the Caribbean, protected from the Atlantic by the Bahamas, Haiti and Jamaica, it doesn’t look like a wave-magnet like Hawaii, which is surrounded by open ocean and picks up swell from virtually every direction.

If it weren’t for the personal testimony of a mutual friend, a New York Times article from 2013 and a dated website titled “Havana Surfers,” we wouldn’t have had reason to believe that there was much surf in Cuba at all — and, due to shortage of surf supplies in the country, even less reason to believe that there’d be surfers.

In part, those challenges tie back to policy. As the Cuban government does not recognize surfing as an official sport and has a general suspicion of any form of watercraft, it has been and still is impossible to buy a surfboard or any materials one could use to make one on the island.

Despite these obstacles, a small, underground community of Cuban surfers has prevailed, drawing on every resource possible to make it into the waves. From the early days of scavenging board-shaping materials like foam from the lining of old refrigerators, resin from the national plastic factory and plywood tabletops from the dump, the Cuban surf scene has come a long way, managing to stockpile a small supply of gear. Still, every board has either been carried in by family members abroad or donated by foreigners.

Groups like Havana Surfers and Royal 70 are committed to nurturing the Cuban surf community by attracting equipment donations from abroad. They manage their supply as equitably as possible — distributing the newest and highest-performance boards to the island’s best surfers who then, in turn, give their old boards to younger or newer surfers. Every time new gear comes in, a re-shuffling occurs and the new equipment is appropriately absorbed into the Cuban surfboard eco-system.

We planned to add to that supply with the goal of eventually establishing a triangular surfboard distribution network between Middlebury College, the rest of New England and Cuba. But with only two and half weeks until departure, we needed to act fast.

We roped in Asher Brown, a freshman Feb and additional New Hampshire surf fanatic, and began cold-calling every surf shop between Montreal and New Jersey in search of donations.

After two weeks of hustling, we were on the road to Montreal to catch our flight with six surfboards strapped to the roof — thanks to the generosity of Pioneers Board Shop and Cinnamon Rainbows of Hampton, N.H., and Burlington’s Wind & Waves.

TOUCHDOWN IN HAVANA

The airplane door opened and we descended the staircase to the tarmac in the 85-degree and humid evening weather, a far cry from the snow we had left behind in Middlebury.

We slipped through customs without a problem and soon were waiting at the baggage carousel, brimming with excitement as we slowly came to terms with the fact that we had actually made it to Cuba.

The bags trickled out at glacial pace — like one bag every five minutes slow. We joked, trading guesses about what was happening behind the scenes.

“It’s like there’s only one guy back there and every few minutes, he walks to the plane, grabs a bag, and then takes a break,” one of us mused.

Spirits were high, but as 30 minutes stretched to an hour and the first hour gave way to a second, nervousness crept in.

We noticed a baggage handler walking in from a side door and asked him if he had noticed two 10-foot-long bags lying around. He hadn’t.

“Just wait,” he said. “They’ll come.”

Soon, it was midnight and there was still no sign of the bags. With an airport staff antsy to get home and a rapidly depleting pool of taxis at the airport entrance, we filled out a missing baggage report and left, dejected, with nothing more than a phone number that we could call to check on the status of the bags.

Over breakfast the next morning, we borrowed our hostel owner’s phone to connect with the airport. Unfortunately, no new information had materialized overnight and we were told to call back the next morning.

Combined with the fact that we hadn’t actually managed to get in touch with a single Cuban surfer before leaving the United States, the prospects of our project were looking grim.

The only information we had came from the “Q&A” section of the Havana Surfers website. “Q: Want to meet Havana surfers? A: Go to the bottom of Calle 70, behind the Russian Embassy, next to the Panorama Hotel and ask for Yuniel Valderrama.”

So, that’s exactly what we did.

While it features some of the best waves in Havana, Calle 70, or 70 Street, is not what most people envision when they imagine a Caribbean surf destination. Waves break over a dangerous reef in the shadow of the towering Russian Embassy. Instead of sand, surfers traverse a treacherous minefield of razor-sharp coral-rock to arrive at “La Plancha,” a concrete slab filled with holes, which leads to the shoreline. Once there, surfers wait before carefully jumping belly-first on their boards, landing on the back of the receding aftermath of a wave and paddling quickly to evade any oncoming surges, which carry the risk of throwing them back onto the rocks.

Well, at least, that’s the case from December though February when there are waves. In late March, we discovered, the ocean next to Havana is flat as a lake. And unfortunately, no waves meant no surfers.

Short on alternatives, we pressed on, asking every person we encountered on the walkway next to the coast if they knew a man named “Yuniel” or, realistically, anybody who surfed.

For days, this was our cycle: Wake up. Call the airport. No one would pick up. Grab a taxi to Calle 70. Ask for Cuban surfers. Go home. Rinse. Repeat.

And eventually, it paid off.

A TURNING POINT

A young man named Alexis turned out to be the key. If we met him at the beach the next morning, he said, he would bring us to meet his friend Lester, a common figure in the Calle 70 surf scene.

Alexis kept his word, meeting us by the water the next morning. He took us to Lester’s and then to his art school, where we met a photographer named Linda, a Cuban journalism student who created a book on the Calle 70 surfers.

Once we got a hold of one thread, we just kept pulling. Turns out, Linda knew Yuniel and quickly put us in touch. Both of them knew Yojani, Arnán and Frank — some of the island’s best surfers — the same ones we had seen in the photos of The New York Times article. Yojani was friends with Januel, who invited us to a party at Havana’s only skate park that afternoon. Once there, we were invited to a party at Frank’s house where we met Yaya, the head of Royal 70 and the country’s most prominent female surfer.

In five days, somehow, we had gone from completely in the dark to completely in the loop.

Even though there was still no sign of the boards, we at least had a plan for what to do with them once — or, at this point, if — they arrived.

ICING ON THE CAKE

On the day of Christian and Asher’s departure (I was staying on a couple days longer), we caught a cab to the airport. If the boards were ever going to arrive, this was our last shot at picking them up while one us was on the island to deliver them.

As the New England boys waited to check in, I tracked down the airline office to figure out where in the Americas our boards had ended up. After a brief yet nearly impossible to believe conversation with the airline representative, I raced downstairs to update the guys before they passed through security:

Evidently, the airline workers had forgotten to unload the bags off our initial flight, sending them back and forth several times between Montreal and Havana. But now, finally, they were here and, because of their size, had been waiting outside the lost and found luggage area.

A few hours later, in a state of euphoria, I left the boards in the hands of one of our Cuban compadres.

When I came back the next day to meet the crew who would be riding them, a chill had set in across the coast.

A cold front had come in across the Gulf of Mexico, they explained, meaning that — if luck were on our side — we’d have a chance at snagging some off-season waves.

So, we suited up, waxed up the boards and optimistically headed down to the shore. As we got closer, we could make out the spray blasting off the shore and onto the street, eliciting a chorus of excited shouts from the crowd. Our relaxed walk increased to a jog and then to a full-on ecstatic sprint.

Swept up in the stoke, we made it to the rocks, picked our way to “La Plancha” and leapt it into the surf.

The Cubans in the water welcomed me to the line-up with smiles and fist bumps. As we traded waves, their skill was undeniable. They dropped in fast, carving aggressive, graceful lines up and down the faces and sending up plumes of mist every time they hit the top.

The surfer floating next to me was examining his new board from Vermont with contagious enthusiasm. My gaze shifted back to shore, where all of Havana stretched out along the coast, and that same involuntary smile spread across my face. This was crazy … and I loved it.

Editor’s note: David Fuchs is a Middlebury College junior and an intern for the Addison Independent.

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