Caribbean: Go There.
Words & photos by Al Mackinnon.
The water colour is unlike any you’ve seen and the evening light show is something to behold. Here’s Alex Botelho with the best seat in the house.
My old Man had told me stories of an island he and my mum had been to on honeymoon. They’d been so taken with the unspoilt beauty, peace and friendly locals that they’d returned almost yearly for nearly three decades. The part, which I found interesting, was the waves he spoke of and boy did they sound interesting. He talked of a sand point with very heavy shallow barrels, which as a keen bodysurfer back in the day he’d considered but soon written off due to the intensity of the waves and current, not to mention the isolation. We’d discussed the place and he’d considered the fact that things had changed a little, that boards could cover more ground and that surfing standards were generally rocketing and he felt it might be somewhere worth considering. I did too.
There was only one problem, well, quite a few as it happens. Firstly the wave’s a capricious darling, a sleeping beauty, secondly it is an incredibly long, convoluted and expensive journey from anywhere, thirdly accommodation is almost non-existent, fourthly the sand point changes shape massively during hurricane season and could be a closeout, soft or a rippy mess.
All these things in mind, I’d been waiting for some time to pull the pin, several years in fact as the Caribbean had been through a lean trot for quite some time - that is until Hurricane Sandy was spawned. The US Met office was forecasting it to be one of the most devastating hurricanes in history with winds reaching 175 kph and a predicted trajectory taking it slap bang into major urban centres on the US east coast. Crucially for us surfers it also looked as if it would produce swell from just the right angle to awaken the slumbering sand point.
Alex covering serious ground on his quad, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone surf so fast.
The problems I’ve highlighted above were nothing compared to the problems that would eventuate when I tried to put the trip together. I couldn’t find an airline that flew out on the right day and later on, when I had booked flights it was touch and go whether we’d be flying at all due to the havoc the storm was wreaking to flying schedules. Not only that but I couldn’t convince anyone to come with me. Given what my father had told me I knew I would need top-level tuberiders, who were comfortable on the road. I spoke to a number of pros, Greg Long was in initially in but then pulled out due to commitments in Hollywood following the success of Chasing Mavericks, his brother Rusty was in Sardinia with his girlfriend and couldn’t make it, Alex Gray was already on his way to Hawaii, the Geiselman brothers spoke to their friends who apparently knew the area and came back to me saying they’d heard it wouldn’t be good, Dillon Perillo, in the Canaries at the time thought about joining but then must’ve had advice from the same person as the Geiselman’s because he pulled out citing it being too much of a gamble. Well, things weren’t as bad as they could be because at least I had Eurostar Nic Von Rupp and Monster Energy had budget for us so at least I wouldn’t have to re-mortgage to make the trip happen... Actually, things were that bad because Nic got in touch late on to say he had to go to Jerusalem with his family, he’d promised some time ago and he couldn’t go back on his word. I admire a man of his word and Nic is a good friend but this left me with a serious quandary; I’d already booked my flights.
The very real possibility that I might end up alone on a desert island ravaged by a hurricane was starting to hit me. It would be somewhat crazy to go on my own - after all who would I shoot, how would I make my money back? I considered not going, but, the ticket was non-refundable – and too damned expensive. “After all" I thought to myself “this is the most telegraphed swell in years, there’s bound to be an in-the-know underground charger or two from the Caribbean or US east coast surfing and if I have to go on my own I can at least shoot them."
Nic had not forgotten me though and mentioned that a friend of his, Alex Botelho might be interested in coming. Truthfully I had no idea who Alex was and had to confirm with Nic that the guy could actually surf. Nic assured me he could and gave me his number. With less than 24 hrs before the flight was due to leave I rang Alex and explained the situation. No doubt he’d never heard of me either, but remarkably, and with little convincing he said he was onboard and started making arrangements right away to join me in London for a connecting flight the next morning.
Most of the waves were moving so fast and slabbing so hard that air drops were regulation. if any part of alex’s board still had contact with the wave face on the drop we considered it an easy take off.
Seeing the waves on the first day only served to reinforce my relief that Alex had agreed to join me on a mission, which many others had shirked. We’d never met, he only knew what I’d told him of the place and yet there we were, on a desert island with pumping surf and not another surfer in sight. It struck me how crazy it was that in 2012 with all this forecasting technology at our fingertips, Google Earth
and a ravenous surf media we should be there alone. I looked upon these tubes, muscular top-to-bottom booming freight trains, reeling for hundreds of metres (almost too fast) and thought to myself “I would’ve turned up, tried to paddle into one of these double overhead elevator drops, got absolutely vaporised and snapped my only board on the first wave. I would’ve been stuck here, no board, no company just photographing the best waves I’d ever seen - empty."
Alex proved to be the perfect travel partner, calm, unassuming, remarkably funny at times he is a gifted tube rider whom took everything in his stride from running out of food and water, almost losing a hire car in floodwater, extortionate food prices, landing on his fins twice and lastly the most horrendous mosquito assault I’ve ever encountered. Bear in mind I’ve been through the jungles of East Africa, Papua New Guinea and several other mosquito laden zones but nothing, NOTHING I’d encountered could’ve prepared me for the onslaught we sustained on that island. The storm had turned the huge areas of the island (including many of the roads) into lakes and the little buggers were breeding like crazy. At one point, after just half an hour’s exposure one evening Alex counted more than two hundred bites on my back alone, we estimated nearly a thousand over my whole body; it was truly the stuff of nightmares. Having said all that, we both agreed the astronomical expense of the trip and infinite bites were a small price to pay for getting the most incredible waves of our lives, to ourselves in the most unspoilt surroundings. Alex put it perhaps best when he said the waves there had “permanently altered his perception of perfection."
‘One man’s loss is another mans gain’ so the saying goes and this was certainly true of this trip. A thought should be spared for the thousands of people through the Caribbean, up the US east coast and on to Canada whom had there lives devastated by Hurricane Sandy. When the forces that create the waves we rely upon touch land the results can be terrifying. I know I count myself incredibly lucky to have returned home to find my place still there, many thousands lost everything, including those families of the 253 dead.
Alex was regularly clocking ten second plus barrels but this wave was unquestionably the highlight of the trip. He took off and pulled into a glassy double overhead keg at the top of the point. As he flew past I recall thinking “Wow, that’s the most beautiful wave I’ve ever seen". I got the shot then swam through the back. I surfaced and was watching it intently from behind, waiting to see how far he’d go, I swum under the wave after – still no sight of him - and then, just as i was about to wear the third wave in the set on the head a little dot kicked out several hundred yards down the point. The swell period was around 12 seconds, he was in the barrel for a few seconds before passing me, and was covered all the way. A conservative estimate between us puts that tube at 20 seconds.
Caribbean Surf trippin: a rugged & rough guide
Where: There are 29 main islands with airport facilities to choose from, smallest being Tobago and the largest Cuba. Water temperatures are basically the same north to south, but it’s generally warmer on the Caribbean sides compared to the Atlantic side. Surf-wise, as a general rule, the deeper you go in the Caribbean sea (the more west), the less juice you’re gonna get. Same can be said from north to south, with Puerto Rico generally copping more swell than say Grenada...
Season: November to March sees the bulk of the swells, coinciding with our winter and the big storm systems in the North Atlantic. Of course hurricanes (June-Nov inclusive) mix things right up with episodes of extreme swells. Trade winds or alizée (in the French islands) from the NE can be an issue, but per large swell, you’ve always a day with a lighter wind window. Anyhows, being islands, a couple of hours drive will offer you offshore conditions under a swell big and long enough to wrap around.
Gear: Your normal shortboard should do, maybe a tad wider and shorter if you can to fit everyday conditions. If you can pack a fish or mal, they can also come in handy, as usually Caribbean waves are weaker, fatter and windier than at your A-grade surf spot in Europe. But with most spots being reef, as soon as a strong enough swell hits, it’s a different ball altogether. You won’t need a Hawaiian gun, but you will need a bit of sack to tackle the best spots on your island of choice.
Price: Flying there long haul isn’t that expensive really in the grand scheme of things, you’ve got heaps of charter flights too, but avoid at all cost school holidays. Inter-island flights can be pricey though. Remember a few of those islands are French departments like Guadeloupe, Martinique and they get flogged with tourists around Xmas & Feb half term holidays... Lodging and moving around isn’t that expensive neither...rent a car, choose the local bus services, hitch hike: it is all in the budget category. What’s expensive, is the boat if you wanna go and explore. But each island has enough potential for discovery or out of the beaten track line ups to avoid costly catamaran trips...
Why surf there: You won’t get the Indo barrels or the raw Tahitian or Hawaiian juice, but you’ll get some consistency and some fun waves in our winter. Ideal for fun performance surfing and to get fit and tanned in warm waters. Caribbean surf destinations are some of the most underrated, especially when you pick an island with little surf scene, which are plentiful. So it is nice cocktail of warmer water waves, with no big crowd issues and the island vibes and you can’t really ask for much more these days. You are also gonna surf mainly reefs, which in itself is a treat when you come from Europe. For the beach break addicts, you could find some banks around but usually they are not really what you came for...
Also: Regarding the time difference and flight times, usually planes are taking off around mid day with an 8 hour flight, minus 5 hours, means you rock up there just before dindins, go to sleep nice and easy and wake up just before first light frothing for your first surf.
Local vibes: Cool man and irie by clichéd definition, but
there are also unsavoury chracters hanging around, just like anywhere, so if someone looks like trouble, they probably are. That’s it for the on land, in the line up you are looking at dealing at some spots with legions of bodyboarders, litteraly owning the spot and with very little surfing etiquette, possibly.
Local taste: Island life is about music, from Calypso to Rap to Zouk, to Dancehall to Kompa to Reggae, put on the local radio or buy a CD for the car...and cruise... ...and about food, fish, chicken, veggies, fruits...all ripe, juicy, colourful vs imported, green and tasteless like in Europe in winter... Get yourself a bottle of rum, get your party on, just be sure to choose a local brand, not one you can find back home at Tesco...