Surf’s Up! The Caribbean’s Best Surfing

The Caribbean islands offer some of the best surfing in the world. Learn about the next surfing season and where to find the most exciting breaks

Barbadian surfer Alan Burke in action in Barbados. Photograph by Dick MeserollBarbados’s rugged east cost. Photograph by Roxan KinasBob Rohmann at Glitter Bay, Barbados. Photograph by Dick MeserollCaribbean surfing. Photograph by Dick MeserollCharlie Kuhn in action in Puerto Rico. Photograph by Dick MeserollGas Chambers in Puerto Rico. Photograph by Darrell JonesJeff Klugel at Rincón. Photograph by Darrell JonesMount Irvine, Tobago: is there such a thing as a perfect wave? Photograph by Nick NorhangelPuerto Rico action: Rich Rudolph goes through his paces at Middles. Photograph by Dick MeserollPuerto Rico’s Juan Ashton at South Point, Barbados. Photograph by Dick MeserollReady for the plunge: Jobos Beach, Puerto Rico. Photograph Darrell JonesSteve Lenches at Encuentro in the Dominican Republic. Photograph by Dick Meseroll

The search for the perfect wave has taken surfers all around the world. These days, plenty of them are packing their boards and heading for the islands of the Caribbean.

It’s not that the Caribbean is just like Hawaii, though if you’re looking for really big waves you don’t have to look further than Puerto Rico‘s north coast when there’s a good swell. What makes the Caribbean a world-class surfing destination in its own right is the huge range of conditions you can find along its 2,000-mile chain of islands. Every island has its own “breaks” or surf spots, from sandy beaches to coral reefs, point breaks and rock bottoms, and many of the most exciting spots are still barely explored.

The most renowned centres are Puerto Rico in the north, Barbados in the east (both of these already stage professional competitions), and Tobago in the south; exotic names like Rincón, Bathsheba and Mount Irvine have become familiar to the international surfing community. There are also lesser- known and even secret locations in other islands, including Tortola, St Thomas, Cuba, St Lucia and Martinique.

The prime time for surfing in the Caribbean is from November to April, when cold-weather fronts moving along the eastern seaboard of the United States produce ocean swells which spread over a thousand miles; almost every island in the Caribbean feels the resulting waves.

That is usually when the visitors come calling. But locals are also on the lookout during the hurricane season from June to November, when an errant tropical depression can also whip up the water; and some places are blessed with good waves year-round, like Barbados’s Tropicana or the Bathsheba “Soup Bowl”.

Puerto Rico is the most famous Caribbean surfing centre, and some of the region’s biggest waves can be found at places like Tres Palmas, Table Rock and Gas Chambers. The waters of the island’s Atlantic coast, with some of the deepest ocean in the world not far offshore, have been the arena for two World Championships in the last 20 years. The first was in 1968, when Caribbean surfing was still in its formative stages and the professionals and amateurs from 15 participating countries used heavy and cumbersome “long boards” at Rincón, where the waves can be really huge.

But by 1988, surfing was riding a crest of popularity, and a whole new generation of wave junkies had been spawned. They understood the excitement and danger, the oneness with nature, which good surfing demands. And competitors were pulling off truly breathtaking stunts on their sleek, colourful, lightweight boards.

There were 26 countries involved in that World Championship at Aguadilla on Puerto Rico’s north-western tip. Two breaks were used, Wilderness and the aptly-named Surfer’s Beach; at the end of the two-week event the Australians were crowned world champions in the team category and a Brazilian named Fabio Govia took the individual title.

That contest showed how far surfing in Puerto Rico had come since the day back in the late 1950s when islanders were fascinated to see a couple of young American businessmen doff their suits, pick up their boards and take to the water to ride the waves. Today there are over 15,000 surfers in Puerto Rico, backed by a surf-information network which provides daily reports on conditions around the coast.

The vibrant Puerto Rico Surfing Federation (PRSF) is presided over by a non-surfer, Guy Ashton, a 52-year-old university lecturer and former national lawn tennis champion. Ashton got involved in the organisation of surfing seven years ago when his son, Juan, went to the beach, saw some guys shredding the waves, and told his father he wanted to try it. These days, 23-year-old Juan Ashton is one of the finest surfers ever to come out of Puerto Rico; he competes as a professional on the east coast of the United States, where he sometimes meets up with 27-year-old compatriot Alberto Licha, a leading big-wave surfer.

Meanwhile, back home, Ashton senior is serving his second stint as president of the PRSF, whose 1,500 members belong to eight surfing districts, each area holding an annual competition leading up to the national finals. The sport is organised on an island-wide basis for all age-groups, including school-age children.

Barbados, a hundred miles east of the main Caribbean chain in the Atlantic, is one of the world’s youngest countries, more accustomed to producing international cricketers; but it has already produced top-class surfers who rank high on the international stage.

Alan Burke, who has been flying his country’s blue and yellow flag on the east coast circuit of the ASP (Association of Surfing Professionals) Tour in the United States, retains his amateur status; his compatriot Mark Holder has gained a reputation as the most flamboyant surfer in the region. Both were members of the Barbados team which competed at the 1992 World Surfing Championships last September in La Canau on the south-west coast of France.

That squad was coached by James Blades, the president of the Barbados Surfing Association, which has established the Sprite Caribbean Cup as the main event for amateur surfers outside the World Championship. Blades is fiercely proud of the quality of the Bajan surfers; in 1991 his countrymen defeated both the United States and Brazil, two of the world’s biggest surfing nations, before losing to then world champions Australia by just three points in the final round of the Cup.

That event was held at Bathsheba on Barbados’s east coast, which is one of the most surf-rich spots on earth, with steep offshore slopes and very large waves fuelled by the Atlantic swells rolling ashore on a rocky reef. Bathsheba, known as the “Soup Bowl” because of the shape of these big, peeling swells, has some of the most powerful waves in the Caribbean and has often been compared to the birthplace of surfing, Hawaii.

Surfing at Bathsheba can be absolutely perfect, with a world- class challenge in the awesome power of the swell. But Barbados is just overloaded with breaks, according to Blades, who rattles off a list of names, including his home break at Brandons: South Point, Sandy Lane and Batts Rock on the west coast, Tropicana, Hull, Maycocks, Duppies on the north coast, Fosters Funland, and Freight’s Bay.

Compared with Puerto Rico, Barbados has a tiny surfing population of around 150, but the ratio of hot surfers is impressive. At one time there was even a locally-assembled surfboard called Flying Fish. But while that indigenous product is no more, the Caribbean Cup is definitely here to stay (the 1993 edition will be held in November).

Furthersouth, Trinidad and Tobago cannot yet boast of any such high-ranked international competition, but at Mount Irvine in Tobago there is a surf spot par excellence – a “mindblowing righthander”, as one American surfer put it. The waves are not as powerful as Barbados or Puerto Rico, but many surfers say they are perfectly shaped.

Like the makers of the finest wine and the manufacturers of million-dollar automobiles, Mount Irvine delivers in small doses at select intervals throughout the season. But when it is pumping, it is an incredible sight, an adrenalin-filled rush for anyone who has experienced it first-hand, including surfers who have come here from as far away as Australia.

The waves are generated by swells from the Caribbean striking a coral reef off Rockly Point on Tobago’s north-west coast. It was there that Tobagonian Michael Baker, who was then a lifeguard but is now better known as calypsonian, first watched visiting surfers in action. That was around 1967; Baker was among the first locals to try their hand and surf the Mount Irvine break. Another, helicopter pilot Nick Nothnagel, recalls that he was hooked right away by this “gift from God.” “You lost credibility if you did not go out when it got real big.”

Today, less reckless surfers head off to Swallows, which is on the way to Pigeon Point Beach, or even Sandy Point, at the end of the Crown Point runway, whenever Mount Irvine is “closing out,” or just too big for comfort.

Mount Irvine
has become even more unpredictable in recent years. Once the waves would arrive reliably around Easter, but this is no longer so, and the diehards who live in Trinidad wait around, airline tickets in hand, for the shout of “surfs up” from their contacts in Tobago.

At home in Trinidad they content themselves with smaller stuff at Salybia, near Toco on the north-east coast, where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Caribbean Sea. This is the site of the national championships in July, a reef break and the most consistent spot in Trinidad, though there are others which provide reasonable surf: Matelot, Grande Riviere, and Outer Island off Saline Bay.

Over the last two years, each March, the Surfing Association of Trinidad and Tobago (SATT) has organised the Zoom Break Surf Off at Sans Souci, a beach break on the north coast, not far from Salybia. The waves are nothing to write home about, but huge crowds come out for the event and have been rewarded to see spectacular moves by Mark Holder of Barbados, who has twice won the championship, Venezuelan Pedro Ranghell, and locals Che Lovelace (four-time national champion) and junior title-holder Jason Apparicio.

Apart from being a strong swimmer, you need a good sense of balance and fast reflexes, and, as with any sport, some instruction and lots of practice. And, of course, some gear.

Today’s boards are around six feet long, with three short fins underneath. You also need figure-hugging clothes: a tight vest and shorts or knee-length pants are de rigueur. Many serious surfers wear duck gloves, webbed between the fingers for faster paddling out to the waves. Some even wear neoprene body suits for extra warmth in the water. A shock cord of stretchable rubber joins the board to the ankle, preventing loss of the board and absorbing some of the shock when board and surfer part company (in the old days it was rope, which could be a lot more painful).

Don’t wait for the shout of “Surfs up” Come on down: with the 1993-4 season not too far away, now is the time to lay your plans.