When they were children, Cuban surfers transformed their school benches into boards to ride the waves.
They now have real equipment. And since surfing became an Olympic sport, it has been increasingly accepted by authorities in the communist nation where its practitioners have often been harassed by police.
In the fishing community of Santa Fe, west of Havana, Ayax Borrero, 34, carries his surfboard under one arm as he and two friends meander through the streets that separate his house from the sea.
It’s a cloudy day and the waves are breaking against the shore.
“Overall, we depend on weather conditions like cold fronts, hurricanes – which create the waves here – that’s why the season starts in winter” from November to April, said Borrero, an architect.
Their playground is the ruins of an ancient rock pool believed to have belonged to a bourgeois called Antolin before the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power.
The area now serves as a promontory from which surfers can launch into the water.
Surfing reminds Borrero of his youth, although at the time boards were almost impossible to find.
“I started young, around seven or eight years old, with wooden desks. That’s what we used at the time.
“They were really heavy!” he added, laughing.
He acknowledges that it was a good starting point because “afterwards, when my father bought me my first board at 11, I was able to stand up straight away”.
– ‘Shark food’ –
There was a time when surfers also removed the polystyrene tray from the back of refrigerators to make boards.
In Cuba, a country where most people lack many basic commodities, such a practice is known as “inventing” – the art of finding a solution to every problem.
“It’s a bit difficult to surf here,” said 29-year-old Yasel Fernandez.
Coming from a family of fishermen, he started surfing at 13 but he didn’t manage to “have my own board until he was 29 and it was my dream, to have my own board and surf”.
Obtaining your own board is not the only difficulty for surfers, who have often aroused the suspicion of the police in a country where the sea is also considered an escape route to Florida.
In March, US authorities rescued a Cuban man who had embarked on the 370-kilometre journey by windsurfing.
Cubans have been flocking to the United States in droves as Cuba recovers from its worst economic crisis in nearly 30 years, in part due to the coronavirus pandemic.
But “surfing is shark food,” jokes Frank Gonzales, 35, one of the only board repairers on the island.
Even so, he doesn’t always have a choice.
“It’s boring to surf, to practice a sport in a specific place with the best waves, and the police come and tell you to go there,” said Gonzales, who taught his six-year-old daughter how to surf.
“I hope that in the future the police will respect surfers as sportsmen.”
– “Great sport” –
Some say their boards were confiscated, others tried to swim away from the police.
But things are starting to look up.
Surfing made its Olympic debut at the Tokyo Games in 2021, and now Cuban authorities recognize it as a sport.
“What happened was that the sport was practiced but it was not taken into account by” the Cuban Sports Institute (INDER), said Eric Gutierrez, the head of the body. .
“Now INDER is taking steps to pay attention, give recognition and grow the surf.”
He insisted that the police were not stopping people from surfing but “they were taking care of their lives”.
“I remember once the firefighters came to rescue us. Someone called them,” said Yaliagni “Yaya” Guerrero, 39, one of Cuba’s first female surfers.
She has worked alongside Gonzales with INDER since 2019 in an attempt to change the “lack of culture or ignorance” surrounding surfing.
In December, an INDER official watched for the first time a competition between surf clubs in Havana, won by Gonzales.
That manager was Gutierrez, who described surfing as “a great sport”.
Since last year, INDER has been in contact with the International Surfing Association and plans to host a delegation from the world governing body in the coming months.
We want to present them with a work project that will support us in terms of instruction, equipment, surf-specific elements such as first aid and refereeing,” Gutierrez said.