Cuba has almost three times as much coastline as California. Meanwhile, compared to the Golden State’s estimated one million surfers, Cuba’s surfer population hovers around 100 people. That’s an interesting contrast in cultures and experiences, which is something an all-female crew explored in Cuban Wave Riders, the story of four Cuban surfers coming across waves that have never been ridden before.
Liz Magee was born and raised on the Jersey Shore. She started surfing when she was 10, which was also the same year she received her first camera. With an interest in photography and filmmaking, she moved to New York after college, where she started working on film sets as an assistant director. Then, in 2011, Liz started to get serious about surf photography and videography. Inspired by the work of Dustin Humphrey and Taylor Steele, Liz followed up on her dreams and started planning to make her own surf documentary.
Her partner on that project, Taylor McNulty, is a documentary and adventure filmmaker from Jacksonville, Florida. Taylor has always been drawn to the ocean and the water, spending entire days in the water and on the sand growing up. Connected to the ocean in many ways, she traveled with Liz to Indonesia back in 2015 to make A Call to the Sea, a documentary about an indigenous group of people called the Bajau, who live in little huts on the water.
How was it that this film came about?
Liz: I was really just planning on making a five-minute video about the surf scene in Havana when we went down there last year and we got to know some of the guys at the beach. They became our friends and told us to come back and they would take us on a trip. How could we turn that down – it was just too good to pass up. So we went back and went on this kind of endless summer type journey through Cuba with them. So that’s pretty much what happened. We left the US at the end of March 2017 and spent a good part of April early there. The landscape is really beautiful and wild and from the photos that people have seen people tell me that it’s reminiscent of what California was like back in the 20’s and 30’s.”
The initial goal was to film a five-minute surfography but it turned into something much more. What led to this?
Taylor: The first trip that we made to Cuba was in January of 2017 and we stayed for about a week. It was kind of like rogue filmmaking where we didn’t really have internet and we were just walking to places trying to meet people. It’s not like there was someone we could have talked to beforehand and connect with Instagram or something. Liz had done a bit of the research and she knew where we could stay in Havana where we would be within walking distance from one of the point breaks at Calle 70. We would walk there each day and would see no one. As East Coasters, we know how waves can be fickle and we’ve chased swell before. Finally, on the fifth day, we walked back from the beach to the place we were staying to check our email, and as we came out there were like five surfers in the water and we ran and grabbed all of our equipment. Liz actually jumped in the water and got all bloodied from the reef, which had a super gnarly entry covered with what we can only describe as moon rocks.
There’s actually a quick snippet in the documentary where there is a girl standing on a rock with the waves crashing behind here and that’s the entryway to get in and out of this pretty gnarly break. On the beach, we ended up meeting a few surfers. That was the day that we met Victor, Frank, German, and Rey who would become close friends and eventually the stars of the film. We were talking to one of the guys, Victor, and he put a little bug in our ear by saying “I know some of the most perfect spots in Cuba to surf and there are perfect waves and you have to come. They are perfect all the time.” We were really compelled by this and knew that we had to come back and film this.
Liz: We could have made a two-hour documentary, but we just didn’t have the finances or resources to do that. There is so much more there.
In the first scene of Cuban Wave Riders, there is a taxi driver who tells you that there are never any waves there and that the ocean is always calm. What was it that inspired you both to pack up your cameras and boards and go to Cuba the first time to make a surf film in a place that supposedly never has any waves?
Liz: It’s really weird, I remember when I was first thinking that I wanted to make a surf film and Chris Burkard is going to Iceland and is doing all of this Alaskan cold water stuff, which was really rad, and I was like “I want to do something that is really unique too and go to a place that really hasn’t been explored before.” I remember looking down at the morning paper one day and it mentioned the first commercial American flight touching down in Havana and I just thought that we had to go. On top of that, it’s Cuba and who doesn’t want to go to Cuba?
In the film you present a beautiful board to some of the Cuban surfers, what’s the story behind that?
Taylor: Yeah, before leaving on our second trip, Liz was able to get an amazing shaper in New Jersey, Andrew Sakalas from Gunn Surfboards, to make a board to bring and give to them. The board was absolutely beautiful and he customized the board and wrote For Cuba on it. In the film, you can see the surfers open up the board and they were just so excited, it was really awesome.
Liz: In Cuba, there is only a small surf scene and no surfing industry. There are only about 80 surfers in a country that has about 10 million people and there are no surf shops or way to buy things. I’ve tried sending them magazines and they always get returned to me and there is no way to send them anything through the mail. It’s a struggle and they rely heavily on visitors bringing them supplies for sure.
Taylor: The tricky part is actually bringing the stuff into the country. When we went down for the second time we actually brought them three boards, but it’s difficult to bring the surfboards through the United States so we had to go through another country. So we went through the Bahamas, which only had two flights to Cuba each week. We were almost going to miss our flight from JFK because we were sitting on the runway for seven hours and if we didn’t take off we wouldn’t have been in Cuba for over a week and would miss the entire swell that we had planned this trip around. We needed to get in the air, and we did. We made it to the Bahamas and the next day we had made it to Havana. We were very worried about the boards. It was a miracle the three boards made it all the way to Cuba without a single ding.
The trickiest part was that Sticky Bumps gave us some surf wax and we had it in these plastic bags. We were so happy that we had the boards and that they survived the trip in one piece and then customs takes out the bags with the surf wax and the woman is like “what is this.” I can speak a little bit of Spanish, but I forgot the word for wax and so I’m holding it and telling her what you use it for and she’s still really confused because she probably doesn’t know what this is and then I just smell it and then she smells it and is like “oh it’s ok!”. So suddenly everything is all ok – if it smells good you can take it on the plane apparently.
What was the Cuban surf culture like?
Liz: The surfers that we spent time with in Cuba are really sweet, intelligent, and talented. They are all fathers and they are really like a family. The group that we were hanging out with all worked together at the aquarium and all three are dads with families. Victor has a small son and Frank and German have small daughters. They are athletic, cool people and just awesome guys.”
Taylor: And there are women surfers too. All of the guy’s wives and girlfriends surf as well or are learning and getting better.
What is next for you?
Liz: The goal for this year is to get the film in front of as many people as possible and to show people the film and see where that takes us.
Taylor: One of our main goals is finding the right home and audience for the documentary and finding a good place for it to land. Surfrider is interested in it and that is really amazing.
Note: Cuban Wave Riders will be premiering on February 3rd, 2018 at a screening hosted by the Miami Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, where Taylor Magee will be hosting a Q&A session. The film will be released to the general public later this summer. To find out more about the film check out the Cuban Wave Riders Facebook page and be sure to connect with Taylor (@taytaymataray) and Liz (@_lizmagee) on Instagram.