The sun had just risen over the hills as Samuel Jules passed an abandoned house on Kabic Beach in southern Haiti, wrapped the surfboard line around his ankle and slid into the turquoise waves.
23-year-old Jules – the undisputed best surfer in the country – bobbed for a few minutes alone in the water where his dream of representing Haiti at the Olympics was born. Soon a few more surfers paddled out and joined him, the town behind the group was still asleep.
“When you surf, you forget all your problems and just concentrate on what is in front of you,” says Frantzy Andris, 22, one of the surfers.
There was also a lot to be left behind in this paradisiacal setting.
A month earlier, Haiti’s then President Jovenel Moïse had been assassinated, which plunged the Caribbean country into a political crisis. The country’s nerves were tense as a series of arrests – of top officials and foreign mercenaries linked to the Magnicide – dragged on for weeks. Abroad, a new flood of dire headlines from Haiti dominated the front pages of newspapers and prime-time television reports: natural disasters, government failure, corruption.
The first surfers rode the waves in this Haitian bay after a crisis over a decade earlier. After a catastrophic earthquake in 2010, an American doctor who traveled to the country to help with emergency relief started a surfing program that attracted dozens of local children and turned a hobby into a profitable project for the neighborhood as a growing flow of Tourists rented boards and signed up for surf lessons. But in the years since then, when the funds dwindled and the founding members left, Surf Haiti has stunted and is now critically endangered, with only a handful of surfers on the water for any given week and hardly any customers.
It has become an everyday story in Haiti: well-meaning ventures started by foreigners have not delivered the long-term aid that inspired their first missions. Some left too early without providing the community with the necessary resources to continue the projects. Others have mismanaged funds, or worse – more than 200 UN peacekeeping forces abused or exploited women, got dozens of them pregnant and left the country, later refusing to pay child support. All efforts were hampered by the political instability and series of disasters that rocked the country.
A week after Jules’ surf session last month, an earthquake struck Haiti, killing more than 2,200 people, followed by a devastating tropical storm within days.
Available estimates put the country’s unemployment rate at 70% – most locals lack the resources to keep surfing. Not only did the surf project draw tourists to the area, but it also aimed to provide an escape from everyday reality for those unable to leave the country.
Yet even this escape has become inaccessible to many.
Wolvenson Gilles, 27, watched from the bank as Jules did a 360 on a wave and landed gently on his board, his legs dangling on either side.
Gilles said he wanted a lift, but his board was at home, broken.
Next, he was afraid of the sea.
Gilles’ parents had told him, like so many others, that if he fell he could drown. An evil spirit, they said, lurked in its waters. He met many others who shared the fear, including fishermen who could not swim.
Gilles believes the fear of water is a legacy of slavery: generational trauma passed on from abducted ancestors, shipped across the ocean to a French colony and forced to cultivate coffee and sugar plantations that enriched white colonizers.
Curious and seeking freedom, Gilles, who passes Papito, learned to swim when he was 5. There wasn’t much to do in town other than play soccer on the beach or ride on scraps of plastic in the water. Then one day when he was about 15 he was mesmerized by the sight of a dark-haired figure standing on a board dozens of miles on the horizon, winding its way through the waves.
Ken Pierce had recently left Kauai, Hawaii after seeing footage of the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti that razed much of the capital, buried thousands in rubble and filled tent camps with dazed and injured people. Pierce, an ambulance doctor, was one of the legion of volunteers who flocked to the country. He brought a suitcase full of medical equipment – and a surfboard just in case.
After settling in, he drove down the coast near Jacmel, a cultural hub that resembles a worn-out New Orleans, with a few buildings with high ceilings, vibrant colors, and wraparound porches. Painters and sculptors in the city used the rubble from pancakes to make art. As Pierce later said, he kept looking over his right shoulder at the waves, looking for the right one – until he finally found it near Kabic Beach.
As he paddled back to the bank, a group of local boys were waiting for him, full of questions and requests to try his board. Gilles remembers getting on Pierce’s surfboard, catching a wave, and falling into the ocean before he could get off his knees.
At the end of the day he could stand. For those fleeting moments, gliding across the water, Gilles became clearer – he wasn’t thinking about his damaged house or the fear of aftershocks, just consumed by the exciting challenge of trying not to fly off the board.
Within a few months, Pierce had rented a house on Kabic Beach, imported more boards, and started teaching local children to surf. He founded Surf Haiti, a non-profit organization that wanted to establish the country as a surfing destination and create jobs for the people in the community.
The organization grew to 30 members who shared a shared passion for the ocean. They put up a sign with a price list for surfing lessons and board rentals on the street and watched as tourists – mostly foreign helpers heading south for R&R – trickled in. Haiti began to enter from the US. A New York-based surfboard design company was making a custom board for Jules, whose local fame was growing, and soon the founding members of Surf Haiti were planning to send Jules – whose own mother can’t swim – to France to train so he could do Haiti with the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
On land, the rubble of the earthquake that brought Pierce to Haiti lay on the streets for years, and funds from the international community for reconstruction were either mismanaged by development agencies or promised but never delivered by donors.
But out in the waters of Kabic Beach dozens of young people were finding a new pastime. Those who could swim taught those who couldn’t, and within a few years the surfing community was bustling. The children rented boards to visitors. Then, as they honed their skills on the boards, they started giving surfing lessons themselves. What is a luxury for most teenagers in Haiti was both going to school and making money on the side.
“Surfing is in Haiti to stay,” Pierce, who returned to the US in 2012, told the online publication Roads & Kingdoms in 2014. (Pierce declined to be interviewed for this story, saying the Increase in COVID patients in his hospital has disappeared he is unavailable.)
In 2016 Surf Haiti held its first international surf competition. For two days, DJs played music on the beach, local artists advertised their work and restaurants filled with visitors. A similar event took place the following year. The community had the chance to make headlines abroad, not because of political crises or traumatic natural disasters, but because of their talent and entrepreneurship.
Surf Haiti had become “like family” and its members “were connected,” Andris said during a humid and cloudless afternoon near Kabic Beach in August.
It seemed like the tide had turned in this corner of Haiti.
The trouble started in July 2018 in the capital, Port-au-Prince, 84 miles north.
The government had just announced a 50% increase in fuel prices following an agreement with the International Monetary Fund, which sparked violent protests, with protesters ransacking shops and police firing tear gas. The protesters called for accountability, particularly over the remainder of $ 2 billion from PetroCaribe, an oil deal with Venezuela designed to help Haiti invest in infrastructure and social programs.
Economic growth stalled and inflation skyrocketed. The question on everyone’s lips: what does Haiti have to show for the 13 billion dollars from around the world, thousands of volunteers and countless projects?
Tourists rarely came to Haiti – and many Haitians left the country, including Gilles, who moved to the Dominican Republic for two years in December 2019 to find a job and save some money. Today he is trying to set up a small shop for snacks and drinks on the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Although he longed to stay in southern Haiti, he said, “I really want a job and I want to feel independent.”
About a half a dozen of the founders and senior members of Surf Haiti were among those who, after college or job hunting, most of them left for the United States.
When the boards began to break, there was no one to bring new ones. Wax was running out. The visitors slowed down to a trickle, and the children who had waited on the bank for Pierce to paddle on the bank years ago were now in college, with no job prospects and no income.
“The people who were there to motivate and support us weren’t here that often,” said Andris.
And then the pandemic hit. Jules’ bid for the Olympics failed when he did not get the necessary support from sponsors and local authorities in Jacmel. Last year less than a dozen people came for surf lessons, a far cry from the years when so many showed up every month.
In recent months gangs have taken the main route out of the capital and cut it off from the south; few dare to cross it. Another route, a long, steep, narrow dirt road is too dangerous if even a drop of rain falls. Water taxis are limited.
The flow of visitors to Kabic Beach is practically blocked for the time being. The remaining Surf Haiti members say they plan to sell T-shirts with the organization’s logo and handmade souvenirs online.
Now it’s mostly locals in the water, less than half a dozen on that August morning. The regulars teach their younger siblings to surf to keep the sport going. Samuel Andris, Frantzy’s 13-year-old brother, stopped near the shore one morning, pausing to watch the waves build up and trying to catch the smaller ones.
Jules practiced his more advanced movements further out. He learned some of them while surfing in the Dominican Republic in 2019, the only competition he has competed in abroad. After a while he emerged from the water, patted his adopted mutt Brutus on the head, and climbed the steps to the patio of the abandoned house – Pierce’s house years ago. With no job prospects or a working neighborhood gym, Jules spends most of his time doing push-ups on the lawn.
He still dreams of competing in surfing competitions in Brazil, Hawaii and Tahiti.
“It’s like someone wakes up and has to run,” said Jules. “I see surfing the same way.” ●