Cuba's Surfing Underground

Scrappy surf culture survives despite hardship on this communist island

What if surfing weren’t quite legal? Suppose you paddle your homemade plywood board—or hand-me-down, if you’re lucky—out to dangerous, crowded, reef breaks off the side of the highway and make it back to the concrete shore unbloodied, only to be greeted by men in uniform who suspect of you of being a spy.

What if surfing weren’t quite illegal, either, but your only surf report were your eyes, and your only surf shop were one man’s apartment supplied by occasional donations from abroad?

Welcome to Cuba!

The New York Times had a fantastic piece yesterday about surf culture in this island nation which neither officially recognizes surfing as a sport, nor has the capitalist infrastructure to create an above-ground market for gear.

And official recognition is everything: this communist country calls surfing a "recreation," according to Michael Scott Moore, author of last year’s Sweetness and Blood, meaning no competition and no passports for surfers.

In other words, want to wax your board? Melt a candle.

Check out this video (Spanish alert), in which big wave surfer Ian Walsh watches a board being built out of discarded freezer foam, scrap fiberglass from a boatyard, and recycled fins:

Self-taught surfers like Eduardo Valdes, who runs the apartment "shop" and cofounded surf non-profit Royal 70, help sustain this growing underground community through the sheer force of their passion. Even though Cuba has more than 2,300 miles of coastline, the logistics of doing something relatively simple like transporting your board to a less dangerous spot than Calle 70, Havana’s treacherous break described above, are often prohibitive:

"If we could maybe move to the eastern side of the city with sandy beaches and have a better transportation system, it would be different," Valdes told the Times. "Or if one of us could afford a car, you could say, ‘O.K., put the surfboards on the roof and we’ll go.’ But travel is too difficult for Cubans."


Meanwhile, travel for Americans to Cuba has its own hurdles, although getting around them through people-to-people visas is increasingly becoming an option.