Icah Wilmot: star of the surf

For Icah Wilmot, Jamaica’s only pro surfer, his championship career is both a family enterprise and a vehicle for moving his sport ahead. Michael Robinson visits Jamaica’s first family of surfing at their Jamnesia headquarters in Bull Bay

“Surfing is for  everyone,” says Icah Wilmot. Photography by Marlon JamesThe Wilmots head out to catch some waves: Icah behind the wheel, father Billy in the passenger’s seat, and sons Ivah and Ishack behind. Photography by Marlon JamesIcah, Billy, Inilek, and Ishack Wilmot get ready to hit the water. Photography by Marlon JamesPhotography by Marlon JamesPhotography by Marlon JamesTwo generations of Wilmots in their element. Photography by Marlon James

The Palisadoes is a narrow finger of land jutting out from Jamaica’s southeast coast, which protects one of the largest natural harbours on the planet. At its furthest tip is the historic town of Port Royal, the commercial epicentre of the Caribbean during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, known then as the “wickedest” city in the world. Home to Kingston’s major airport, the Palisadoes is also the only way, once you’ve landed, to get to the rest of the island by car.

Looking out to the left on the drive in, visitors are treated to a scenic view of flat Kingston harbour and the downtown skyline. On the right is the open sea, and in the distance is the coastal town of Bull Bay — home to Jamaica’s first and only pro surfer, Icah Wilmot.

Wilmot remembers his father Billy taking him and his brother to the beach when Icah was six or seven years old, to get them into the sport. He admits, however, that he only started taking it seriously a few years later, when Billy gave him a surfboard and said it would be the boy’s last if he didn’t take care of it.

One of the pioneers of Jamaican surfing, Billy Wilmot was introduced to long boards when a vacationing college student, who was camping out and surfing the beach behind their house, showed him the basics. “The first wave — my father stood up and rode it,” explains Icah, “and he’s been kinda hooked since then.” That love for surfing seems to run in the blood, as all five of the Wilmot children eventually got into riding the breaks.

While the siblings’ talent began to emerge, Billy, who had started touring with his band, was being exposed to the international surfing scene. He realised conditions in Jamaica were just as ideal for surfing as any of the popular surfing destinations elsewhere, and Jamaican surfers were good enough to compete. “That’s when he started the Jamaica Surfing Association,” says Icah, “along with a couple of the other surfers from back in the day, to kinda get everything moving towards developing surfing on a whole and providing opportunities for people.”

Sixteen years later, Icah Wilmot is at the top of the Jamaican heap. He was the country’s national junior champion from 2001 to 2005, and has held the overall national title for all but one year since 2006.

Thanks to the JSA, Jamaica has participated in every major surfing meet since 2002. Wilmot has also established himself as a force to contend with on the international scene, as the reigning Makka Pro champion, having won the Caribbean’s biggest surfing competition for the second time last year. He’s also placed second in the Barbados Independence Pro, which sees surfers from the region as well as the east coast of the United States competing annually at the famous Soup Bowl on that island’s east coast.

Through consistently solid performances, Wilmot has garnered enough interest and support from corporate sponsors to allow him to pursue surfing as a career. He is quick to point out, however, that he views his career as having another purpose. “I use my career right now as more of a stepping stone to pave the way for the younger kids coming up,” says Wilmot. He quickly lists some of the “groms,” the young generation of promising Jamaican surfers: his brother Ivah Wilmot, Shama Beckford, Garren Pryce, Akeem Taylor, and Okeem Thompson. “They’re all between fourteen and seventeen, and they’re surfing amazing.” Wilmot’s aim, he says, is to get the international surfing world to see that Jamaica is a force to be reckoned with.

And with feature spreads in some of the sport’s major publications, including the magazines Surfer and Surfing, as well as appearances in video productions by well known surfing studios like Poor Specimen, he seems to be doing a good job of keeping Jamaican surfing on the radar.

Surfing in Jamaica began long before the Wilmots got involved. Portland’s Boston Bay was the country’s first internationally known spot to catch waves. Around the time the surfing counterculture was bubbling to the surface on the west coast of the United States, Jamaican surfers were taking to the water with homemade boards. Over time, the sport has been kept alive by a small but stalwart community of surfers, whose subsequent generations have kept the flame alive.

The roots of Jamaican surfing are family and friendship. The local scene is characterised by sharing and cheering, instead of the competitive individualism of most international competitions. The result is a surfing community that is inclusive and welcoming, and which seems to keep visitors coming back.

Today, with the establishment of the Jamnesia Surf Club, new surfers are discovering their own talents, while more experienced ones are able to meet and share waves with some of Jamaica’s top surfers and future champions. A family-run business that is more an extension of the family’s passions than a commercial enterprise, Jamnesia is a surfing headquarters of sorts. According to their website, it was started by the Wilmots “to groom new surfers and facilitate the development of surfing through surf-related events.” It is also perfectly positioned to take advantage of the Caribbean Sea’s summer and winter swells.

Jamnesia provides affordable accommodation for surfers wishing to stay close to the waves or for people wishing to use the spot as a base camp for island-wide surf adventures — you can get a room or pitch your own tent. They also rent boards and give classes. For children from the surrounding area, Jamnesia provides a positive mentoring environment to learn surfing, repair surfboards, and get help with their schoolwork. There’s even a skating bowl for those days when the sea is flat. “It keeps them off the street,” says Wilmot, explaining that education is a priority at Jamnesia, with surfing privileges withheld from kids who are not taking their books seriously. “Schooling is a big part of it for us,” he says. “If you’re doing well in school, you can get a surfboard. We also consider performance in school when choosing surfers for the national team.”

And every other Saturday night, the HQ comes alive with Jamnesia Sessions, an open mic event showcasing live music and poetry. Some of Jamaica’s hottest new acts have debuted here, Wilmot says, recalling names like Chronixx, Raging Fyah, and Pentateuch. Wilmot himself plays bass guitar in From the Deep, the band he started with his brother Inilek.

After nearly two decades of surfing, Wilmot maintains an authenticity and a genuine love for his sport that is as undeniable as it is contagious. Surfing, he says, provides a special connection with nature, and a hypersensitivity to the environment. “When you’re surfing and spending that amount of time in the water,” he explains, “you realise how man’s actions affect the ecosystem.” The Palisadoes strip in particular is lined with mangroves and bordered by mangrove cays. Sea turtles, crocodiles, and dolphins have also been spotted in the area.

In five to ten years, Wilmot believes, surfing will be a big sport in Jamaica. “Right now there are a lot of young kids getting involved, and they’re getting support from their families and communities. It’s slowly taking off.” He refers to more corporate support coming onstream, which means in ten years there could be a Jamaican surfer competing in the World Championship Series. “We have the talent,” says Wilmot. “We just need the support right now.”
Three questions for Icah Wilmot

 

What was the biggest wave you’ve ever surfed?

Usually hurricanes out the back here. Hurricane Sandy was a really big one. The waves were maybe twenty or twenty-five feet. We don’t have any videos or pictures, because it was so rainy and I was so far out that the cameras couldn’t focus, but that was probably one of the biggest sessions I’ve surfed.

What’s your strangest surfing experience?

I was surfing in Indonesia once, and I fell off and my foot got stuck in a reef. The water was above my head and I couldn’t get my foot free. Each time a wave would come in to break, it would suck the water out, and I’d just barely get my face out to catch a small breath before the next wave pushed me back down.

I was like that for about five minutes, until I was really out of energy. I was just thinking “This is it,” when the last wave crashed down and I managed to push my hand up above the surface. Meanwhile, my brother had been looking for me. He saw my arm come up then disappear. He rushed over and dove in to free my foot.

The weirdest part about that was that when I went in and sat on the beach, I thought, “Oh my gosh. I almost drowned.” Then I looked at the wave and it was so good I just went right back out.

Who’s the last person who should be surfing?

Someone who’s allergic to water, I guess. [He laughs.] Surfing is for everyone. It’s a really great sport. From the first time you try it, from the first wave you get and stand up, you’re either hooked for life or you don’t like it. In most cases, people are hooked for life, and they just want to come back again and again.

Apart from being fun, it keeps you physically active. It also keeps you aware of the environment. Everyone should surf.
Icah Wilmot’s top picks for surfing spots on Jamaica’s south coast

Lighthouse: “Everyone likes Lighthouse. It has a shallow reef break for more advanced surfers.”

Copacabana: “Copa is a mellower wave. It has cobblestones on the bottom. It’s for intermediates and beginners. When there’s no wind, we go to Lighthouse. If the wind’s blowing, we go to Copa.”

Bob Marley Beach (Nine Miles, Bull Bay): “It’s good for learners, and it also has a reef on the outside that gets really good for more advanced surfers.”

Makka Beach (Southhaven): “That’s where we keep the international pro contests every year in July.”

Prospect: “A spot that gets really big waves. We don’t surf it unless the waves are, like, fifteen feet.”