Braving Barbados’ Soup Bowl

The Caribbean’s best-known surfing event catches its biggest wave yet. All eyes on Barbados’s Soup Bowl

Alan Burke prepares to hit the waves. Photograph by David PyeBrian Talma in his element. Photograph courtesy Brian TalmaThe famous Soul Bowl. Photograph by David Pye

If you happen to be at Oistins for a typical Friday night fish fry, chances are you’ll come across Brian “De Action Man” Talma — arguably Barbados’s most colorful personality. The two-time Olympian is easily distinguishable by his beaming smile that stretches from ear to ear and by his tousled sun-bleached locks and piercing blue eyes. A veteran of the Professional Windsurfing Association World Tour, today “De Action Man” lives the life of a professional beach bum, spending his days chasing down the best waves along the Barbados coastline as a surfer, kite boarder, and windsurfer.

“Barbados has the best surfing conditions in the Caribbean, and the rest of the world is starting to take notice,” says Talma. “We also have one of the best beach cultures in the world, and there’s really nowhere else in the Caribbean that comes close to this island in my opinion.”

Talma — the youngest ever recipient of the Barbados Service Star award — is one of a generation of Bajan athletes who are doing their part to promote Barbados as an international watersports destination. The island is blessed with world-class conditions on every coast, from the beginner-level tides of South Point to the high-octane A-frame waves at Duppies near the northern tip of the island and Tropicana on the west coast. Barbados also boasts a behemoth that strikes fear into the hearts of those who have endured its wrath: the infamous “Soup Bowl” near the east coast village of Bathsheba.

“Soup Bowl is the number one spot in the Caribbean, and one of the best in the world,” says Mark Holder, a Bathsheba native and professional surfer known internationally as “Boss of the Soup Bowl”. “It’s right up there with places like ‘Pipeline’ and ‘Backdoor’ in Hawaii.”

In 1994, the legend of Soup Bowl gave rise to the annual November Independence Pro Surfing Championship, a professional event sponsored by the Barbados Surfing Association. The event was founded by current BSA president Paul Bourne, who wanted to create a regional competition that would bring together the island’s best surfers. In 1997, world-ranked surfer Alan “Burkie” Burke took the event to a higher level, bringing in sponsorship for a prize purse of B$10,000. The event has grown dramatically ever since, drawing 68,000 spectators in 2004, and competitors from the United States, the Caribbean, Europe, and South America.

“I think we’ll do bigger and better things every year,” says Holder, who has placed in the top five for the past six years of the Independence Pro Surfing Classic. “We’re all pretty psyched about it, and I’m really looking forward to this year’s event.”

This November will mark a new chapter in the event’s history, following the announcement of a three-year sponsorship deal with activewear manufacturer Reef. The tournament will now be dubbed the Planet-Reef Pro-Am Surf Barbados, and will feature prize money estimated at US$10,000.

“This event is now labelled by international magazines as one of the best in the world, mainly because Soup Bowl comes through for us every year,” says Burke. “I’ve done a significant amount of travelling around the world, and some of the best surf I have ever had was right here at home.”

One of Soup Bowl’s greatest endorsements came earlier this year, following a visit from six-time world surfing champion Kelly Slater. After hearing of 10- to 15-foot waves during last year’s competition, Slater accepted an invitation from Alan Burke to spend a day at Soup Bowl. Slater later reported to Transworld Magazine that it was one of his best days of surfing to date.

“Judging from the growing popularity of Soup Bowl and the success of the tournament over the past eight years, this year will be even more spectacular than the others,” says Burke, a perennial contender who competed internationally from 1985 to 1995. Despite injuring his knee in December, Burke plans on competing in November alongside Bajan rivals including Mark Holder, Peter Hill, Zed Layson, Anderson “Hoggie” Mayers, and Paul Bourne.

This year’s tournament will also feature a junior category where Barbados’s next wave of up-and-coming young stars — including Lewis St John and Bruce Mackie — will be able to showcase their talents on the international stage. Another name to watch for in the future is a nine-year-old by the name of Josh Burke, who is following in his father’s footsteps. The younger Burke can be seen surfing along the south coast of the island on a typical Saturday morning while his father Alan devotes his time to teaching the next generation of surfer boys and girls.

“Unfortunately, the sport has a huge gap between my generation and the next wave,” says the elder Burke, who also teaches adults at Burkie’s Surf School (www.surfbarbados.tv). “There should be a dozen more Lewis St Johns and Bruce Mackies by now, but I’m still confident that we’ll see an international star emerge from Barbados in the next ten years.”


The Planet-Reef Pro-Am Surf Barbados event takes place from 6 to 7 November at Bathsheba, on the east coast of Barbados