People thought we were crazy when we showed up to Cuba with our surfboards! Our taxi driver at the airport said he had never seen anyone come to Cuba to surf. In fact, did you know the Cuban police used to break the Cuban surfer’s boards in fear that they were using the surfboards to paddle to the U.S.? This was just a few years ago! So stoked we were able to connect with the Cuban surf community, donate gear and score some surf! 🏄
For Americans, Cuba is still shrouded in mystery. Starting in the early 1960s, in the height of the Cold War, the United States prohibited its citizens from traveling there. The world let out a collective sigh in hopes for change and peace after decades of gut-wrenching, nerve-wracking tension when that Cold War ended in 1991. But as things changed rapidly around the globe, the U.S. decided to keep ties with Cuba severed. Finally, in 2015, diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba were finally restored.
I had been waiting for this moment since I was a teenager. As soon as Alaska Airlines announced direct flights between Cuba and LAX, my wife and I had tickets. I had researched the surf on the island but most of the country has not been explored. So I got in touch with a group of surfers on the island and we planned out a trip together with their help. Without them, I would not have been able to surf or probably even find waves in Cuba.
When we landed in Havana, our driver picked us up in a hot pink Bel Air from the 1950s. He asked me if I had dead bodies in my board bag. He’d actually never even seen surfboards before. I soon started to notice that everywhere I went most people had never seen surfboards before. ever. When we met up with Yaya and Dani, they gave us a rundown of surfing in Cuba. Technically, surfing is illegal in Cuba, something that was vigorously enforced until less than a decade ago. Surfers would paddle out at their own risk, usually ending up getting their board confiscated by the military. Today, surfers still aren’t able to open surf shops, so they have been making boards from everything from used boats to refrigerators. Ding repair is just as interesting. I saw a few creative boards when I was out there. I even saw fins made out of glass. The Cuban people are resourceful and have always had the quality of ingenuity. They depend on it for survival. And when it comes to surf equipment, they rely heavily on donations from traveling surfers. Knowing that, we brought a few boards, a lot of wax, leashes, fins, fin keys, t-shirts, and board shorts. Dani and Yaya distributed what we brought to the locals based on who needed it. Then after a day of surfing under the hot Caribbean sun, we spent the entire night salsa dancing.
Cuba has roughly 11.5 million people, and the locals estimated that only about 50-75 of them surf in the entire country. It is also the biggest island in the Caribbean, so you can imagine the untapped potential here. The locals there are among the kindest we have met in our travels. The message they told me to bring back to the states was to help them legalize surfing in Cuba. Help raise awareness. If you travel to the country, drop off a few bars of wax, an old set of fins, or even just a fin. Drop off that snapped board that’s been sitting in your garage for a year. They will fix it and ride it. Any little contribution you can make to help them realize their dream of surfing would be appreciated. They have spent decades watching swells roll in but unable to surf them due to militant rules or lack of equipment. They love surfing. It is all they talk about. It is what they do and what they live for. It is infectious and contagious, like watching your kids catch their first wave and claim it hard.
Overall, if there’s ever a good place to get skunked, it’s in Cuba. There is so much culture, good food, entertainment, architecture, history and more to keep you busy around the clock if the wind is howling or if the waves are flat. The Cubans have been through a lot in their recent history. The stories they told me were pretty insane. From communism, socialism, human rights abuses, propaganda from a state-run media, disappearances and jailed dissenters, food shortages, no freedom of public expression, to tyranny, they have been walking on eggshells for a really long time. Surfing is an escape for all of us, and that idea rings true for surfers here.