2021-09-21 21:28:52 This Haitian Town Hopes To Become A Surfing Destination
This Haitian Town Hopes To Become A Surfing Destination
When Samuel Jules walked past an abandoned house on Kabic Beach in southern Haiti, he wrapped the surfboard leash around his ankle and glided into the turquoise waves, the sun had just crested above the hills.
For a few minutes that August morning, Jules, the country’s undisputed best surfer, bobbed alone out in the water, where his dream of representing Haiti in the Olympics had been born. Soon after, a couple more surfers paddled out to join him, the town behind them still sleeping.
“When you surf, you forget about your problems and just focus on what’s in front of you,” one of the surfers, Frantzy Andris, 22, said.
Even in this idyllic setting, there was a lot to leave behind.
A month earlier, Haiti’s then-president, Jovenel Mose, had been assassinated, plunging the Caribbean country into political turmoil. As a series of arrests — of top officials and foreign mercenaries linked to the magnicide — dragged on for weeks, the country’s nerves were frayed. A new barrage of depressing headlines from Haiti dominated newspaper front pages and primetime television segments around the world: natural disasters, government failure, and corruption.
In the aftermath of a decade-long crisis, the first surfers rode waves in this Haitian bay. Following a devastating earthquake in 2010, an American physician who had traveled to the country to assist with the emergency response established a surfing program that drew dozens of local kids and turned a hobby into a profitable project for the neighborhood, as a trickle of tourists rented boards and signed up for surf lessons. However, as funds dwindled and founding members left, Surf Haiti languished and is now on the verge of extinction, with only a handful of surfers out on the water on any given week and few customers.
It’s become a common story in Haiti: well-intentioned foreign-founded ventures have failed to deliver the long-term relief that inspired their initial missions. Some left too soon, leaving the community without the resources needed to continue the projects. Others have mismanaged funds, or worse — over 200 UN peacekeepers have abused or engaged in exploitative relationships with women, impregnated dozens of them, and then fled the country, refusing to pay child support. All efforts have been hampered by political insecurity and a series of natural disasters that have ravaged the country.
A week after Jules’ surfing session last month, an earthquake struck Haiti, killing over 2,200 people, and was quickly followed by a destructive tropical storm.
According to available estimates, the nation’s unemployment rate may be as high as 70% — most locals lack the resources to continue surfing. The surf project aimed to provide an escape from daily realities for those who couldn’t leave the country, in addition to attracting tourists.
Even so, for many, that escape has become inaccessible.
Wolvenson Gilles, 27, stood on the beach watching Jules do a 360 on a wave and land softly on his board, his legs dangling on either side.
Gilles stated that he was itching for a ride, but his board was broken at home.
He was initially terrified of the sea.
Gilles’ parents, like so many others, had warned him that if he went in, he might drown. They claimed that a bad spirit lurked in its depths. He met many others who shared his apprehension, including fishermen who couldn’t swim.
Gilles believes that the fear of water is a legacy of slavery: generational trauma passed down from ancestors who were kidnapped, shipped across the ocean to a French colony, and forced to work coffee and sugar plantations that enriched white colonizers.
Gilles, also known as Papito, was a curious and free-spirited child who learned to swim at the age of five. There wasn’t much to do in town besides play soccer on the beach and horse around on plastic scraps in the water. Then, around the age of 15, he was captivated by the sight of a dark-haired figure standing on a board dozens of miles into the horizon, weaving through the waves.
Ken Pierce had just returned from Kauai, Hawaii, where he had witnessed footage of the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, which had flattened much of the capital city, buried thousands under rubble, and filled tent camps with dazed and injured people. Pierce, an emergency physician, was among the thousands of volunteers who flocked to the country. He brought a suitcase full of medical supplies, as well as a surfboard in case of emergency.
He drove down the coast near Jacmel, a cultural hub that resembles a worn-down New Orleans, with some buildings boasting high ceilings, vibrant colors, and wrap-around verandas. Painters and sculptors in the city created art out of the rubble of collapsed buildings. Pierce later recalled that he kept looking over his right shoulder at the waves, looking for the right one, until he finally found it near Kabic Beach.
When he returned to shore, a group of local boys greeted him with questions and a request to try out his board. Gilles recalls climbing onto Pierce’s surfboard, catching a wave, and diving into the sea before he could get off his knees.
He was able to stand by the end of the day. Gilles’ mind cleared for those fleeting moments gliding across the water — he wasn’t thinking about his damaged house or fear of aftershocks, but was completely consumed by the thrilling challenge of trying not to fall off the board.
Pierce rented a house on Kabic Beach within months, imported more boards, and began teaching local kids to surf. He founded Surf Haiti, a non-profit organization with the goal of establishing the country as a surfing destination and creating jobs in the community.
The organization grew to 30 members who were united by their love of the ocean. They put up a sign on the street with a price list for surf lessons and board rentals and waited for tourists — mostly foreign aid workers who drove south for some R&R — to start trickling in. Donations of surfboards and bathing suits for Surf Haiti members began to arrive from the United States. A surfboard design company in New York created a special board for Jules, whose local celebrity was growing, and soon the founding members of Surf Haiti began plotting to send Jules — whose own mother does not know how to swim — to train in France so he could represent Haiti in the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
On land, debris from the earthquake that had brought Pierce to Haiti lingered for years on the streets, and money for reconstruction from the international community was either mismanaged by development authorities or promised but never delivered by donors.
However, dozens of young people were taking up a new hobby in the waters of Kabic Beach. Those who knew how to swim taught those who didn’t, and the surfing community grew quickly. Visitors were able to rent boards from the kids. They began giving surfing lessons themselves after honing their skills on the boards. They were both in school and making money on the side, which is a luxury for most teenagers in Haiti.
“Surfing is here to stay,” Pierce, who moved back to the United States in 2012, told the online publication Roads & Kingdoms in 2014. (Pierce declined to be interviewed for this story, citing a high volume of COVID patients at his hospital.)
Surf Haiti hosted its first international surfing competition in 2016. Over the course of two days, DJs played music on the beach, local artists promoted their work, and restaurants were packed. The following year, a similar event took place. The community had a chance to make international headlines not for political crises or traumatic natural disasters, but for being talented and entrepreneurial.
Surf Haiti had become “like a family,” and its members “were connected,” said Andris on an August afternoon near Kabic Beach.
It appeared that the tides had shifted in this part of Haiti.
The unrest began in July 2018 in Port-au-Prince, the capital city 54 miles north.
Following an agreement with the International Monetary Fund, the government had just announced a 50% increase in fuel prices, sparking protests that turned violent, with demonstrators looting stores and police firing tear gas. Protesters demanded accountability, particularly regarding the whereabouts of $2 billion from PetroCaribe, a Venezuelan oil deal intended to help Haiti invest in infrastructure and social programs.
Economic growth was stalling, and inflation was skyrocketing. The burning question for everyone: What did Haiti have to show for $13 billion from the rest of the world, thousands of volunteers, and countless projects?
Tourists were scarce in Haiti, and many Haitians were fleeing, including Gilles, who relocated to the Dominican Republic in December 2019 for two years in order to find work and save money. Today, he is attempting to open a small snack shop on the Haiti–Dominican Republic border. Despite his desire to remain in southern Haiti, he stated, “I really want a job and to feel independent.”
Around a half-dozen Surf Haiti founders and older members were among those who left, the majority of whom went to the United States to attend college or find work.
When the boards began to break, there was no one to bring new ones. Wax was becoming scarce. Visitors had dwindled to a trickle, and the kids who had waited by the shore for Pierce to return years before were now in college, with no job prospects and no income.
“The people who were here to motivate and support us haven’t been here as much,” Andris explained.
Then the pandemic struck. Jules’ Olympic bid fell through when he was unable to secure the necessary backing from sponsors and local authorities in Jacmel. Last year, fewer than a dozen people showed up for surf lessons, a far cry from previous years, when that many showed up every month.
In recent months, gangs have taken control of the main route out of the capital city, cutting it off from the south; few dare to travel it. Another option, a long stretch of steep, narrow dirt road, is too dangerous even if there is only a light drizzle. Water taxis are scarce.
For the time being, the flow of visitors to Kabic Beach is virtually halted. Surf Haiti members who are still alive say they intend to sell t-shirts with the organization’s logo and handcrafted souvenirs online.
Meanwhile, it’s mostly locals in the water, with fewer than a half-dozen of them on this August morning. In order to keep the sport alive, the regulars are teaching their younger siblings to surf. Frantzy’s 13-year-old brother, Samuel Andris, stayed close to the shore on a recent morning, pausing to observe the waves’ buildup and attempting to catch the smaller ones.
Jules practiced his more advanced moves further out. He learned some of them while surfing in the Dominican Republic in 2019, during his only international competition. He emerged from the water after a while, patted his adopted mutt, Brutus, on the head, and climbed the steps up to the patio of the abandoned house — Pierce’s home years ago. With no job prospects or a gym in the area, Jules spends the majority of his time here doing push-ups on the grass.
He still fantasizes about competing in surfing competitions in Brazil, Hawaii, and Tahiti.
“It’s like someone waking up and having to walk,” Jules explained. “I see surfing in the same light.”