Cuba's Endless Summer
By: John Kim, Photos: Alejandro Gortázar & Courtesy of Yaima Espinosa
Cuba has always had a romantic side from the birth of the Mambo and Cha Cha Cha to Hemingway's Islands in the Stream; Tropicana dancers strutting like glamorous birds and exotic cocktails toasting sultry nights.
Adding a new image to our winter dreams is a group of young women who have formed the Cubanita Surf Team. From their difficult beginnings, the girls decided to band together in October of 2005 to encourage and spread the sport of surfing amongst women. The Team now includes nine members who hit the water on boogie boards, short boards, and one long board. Most are students, either in high school or at university, and two are dolphin trainers at the Havana Aquarium. They are in touch with fellow surfers from Canada, the U.S., Spain, England, and Australia and are happy to receive gifts of board wax and old surf boards - with each new board going to a new surfer.
Surfing in Cuba is relatively new and started three decades ago with surf boards being fashioned from plywood planks. Now Cuban surf board makers, or "shapers" as they are called, toil in humid workshops in Miramar working with scavenged materials.
Surfers now number around one hundred with hot spots being along the north coast where ocean swells are pushed down by cold fronts from Canada. On occasion, hurricanes and tropical storms sweeping by the island will deliver ocean swells that transform into glorious three metre waves.
There are only 30-40 good surfing days a year but when the weather is right, telephone calls buzz all over Havana telling everyone to head to the ocean. They come barefooted, on bicycles, and the rare car to the "beaches" at 70th Street in Miramar and in Sante Fe, the sleepy little village with wooden shacks just west of Havana. Neither place has any sand but rather the aptly named diente de perro - eroded volcanic rock that is as sharp as "dog's teeth."
With limited surfing sites and few days with good waves, the male surfers dominating the beaches were not always kind to the novice women. The founders ofthe Cubanitas had to learn on their own and struggled with technique and near drownings until they had achieved a level of competence and the begrudging respect of the male surfers. The Cubanitas are now welcomed and this vibe extends to most visiting surfers. We spoke with two of the founders: Yaima Espinosa who is a former Cuban windsurfing champion and Gisele Martinez a former member of Cuba's water skiing team. They are both 22 years old and are attending a national sports university.
CubaPLUS Why did you get into surfing when you were the wind surfing champion o/Cuba?
Yaima - Because surfing was my dream. I love the sea, I love the waves. A lot of times I would be practising my windsurfing and I would see people on the beach catching waves and I would say "Oh, that is really nice" and I would want to try it but my coach and my family said "No, now it is only windsurfing because you want to be the champion."So I said okay. When I started university, I said "Okay, now I am finished. Now I want to try surfing."
Do you remember the first time you were able to catch a wave?
Yaima - Well, the first time I stood up it was great. I dream about it all the time. I stood up for maybe only 5 seconds but I felt something in my heart like a pump and I had to ask "what's going on?" I wanted to do it again after I knew that I could really do it. It was really crazy. When I catch a wave, I feel completely clean and pure - my body, my mind, my heart - like I am born again.
Did anyone teach you how to surf
Yaima - No, no one.
Gisele - We learned alone. They would say, okay, okay, wait until after but then they didn't help.
Yaima - I would go to the beach and into the water and no one would say, "hey, take care with the reef, be careful with that." I didn't care, I just went in. Sometimes I would feel scared when I would look around and see that I was all alone but I didn't care, I wanted to try. And when people saw that I was standing up and that I had learned, people said "Oh, okay, now we can say hello, you are in our community, welcome." This happened after a lot of months. I can say that I am still learning. No one showed me anything, what wave was good, what wave was bad.
Gisele - One time I was boogie boarding and my leash broke and I was under a big wave on 70th St. where the reef is very close. There were a lot of strong currents and I grabbed the reef underwater and I could look up and see the waves coming in. It was beautiful even though I almost drowned.
Do you have a message for any surfers living outside? Yaima - We would like people to come visit us and to help us out. Not just for material things but for cultural reasons and to share their experiences, to make new friends and maybe one day, we can have a big competition. For me that is very important. I know that we need certain things like boards, some wax, all that, but that is not the most important thing. It is more important that people come and teach us, share their experiences, and to be our friends. Learn more about the Cubanitas at www.havanasurf-cuba.com