Small wonder that it has taken almost 20 years to build what they have. Another Australian surfer set the ball rolling. Bob Samin, a former oil-rig worker living in Cuba, helped Cuban surfers in Havana set up the Havanasurf website back in 1999—almost medieval in Internet terms. (Cuba—although by no means its general population—has been online since 1996, with the help of satellite technology.) Samin, who now lives in the surf town of Puerto Escondido, Mexico, traveled nearly all over Cuba to find the island’s best surf breaks and list them on the site, along with details of how to donate equipment, and a Spanish-language manual teaching beginners how to read wind, waves, and breaks. Others have added to it over the years, and the site has become a crucial link between the Cuba’s surf community and the outside world.
After the website went up, people began to arrive, leaving boards behind, and awareness grew in increments. In 2008, looking for surf while studying in Havana, Cuban-American filmmaker Rod Diaz McVeigh discovered the website, and eventually made the documentary ‘Havana Surf’;. Then came the 2011 film ‘Surfing with the Enemy’—by Venice Beach-based film-makers—an account of traveling around the island with six Cuban surfers, including Valdes, to find a surf spot in Guantanamo, just a couple of miles from U.S. territory.
But still, in a country of 11 million people on an island with over 3,500 miles of coastline, Valdes estimates that there are fewer than 150 surfers—including just two women (one of whom is a boogie boarder). Some might see that as a pitifully low number; Valdes sees it as a sign that sport has plenty of room to grow.
Despite the embargo, about 80% of the people who come to donate boards are from the US
Cuba is not known for big swells because it is blocked from most Atlantic Ocean wave action by the edge of the Bahamas, but there is a consistent winter swell around Calle 70 in Havana, and in the summer, in the eastern Guantanamo province, near Baracoa. Cuban surfers also take advantage of swells from hurricanes.
Once equipment gets to Valdes, he oversees the distribution of surfboards to the surfers or kids, depending on the type and size of board.
“The best or most advanced boards go to the best surfers,” he explains. “This makes people want to get better.” Boards then get handed down the line to somebody else. He also makes sure surfers in other provinces get boards too.
“Despite the embargo, I would say about 80% of the people who come to donate boards are from the United States,” says Valdes. They tend to be young, mainly from California, who find Valdes through the site or documentaries and travel via Mexico. He also learned his fluent English mainly as a result of this surfing venture; he had to decipher the first emails from foreign surfers planning to visit.