Beat the Drum and Dance Again

A promised land for adventurous surfers, Haïti is a country rich in spirit, rough, resilient, ironic and brave—a place where people confirm the simple joy of being alive. Fuelled up on shaddock grapefruit, strong coffee, and papaya, we explored the palm-fringed coastline of Haïti—our surfboards in tow.

For exploratory surf travel, Haïti is one of the most exciting countries to experience in the Caribbean.

Her uncrowded waves, rugged coastline, thriving informal economy, decorated taptap buses, Creole wit, grace, artistic energy, religious expressiveness in vodou and laughter cannot be extinguished even in the face of adversity, and often come knocking at night playing tunes on bones and whistling dark melodies.

Local girl in Anse á Foleur

Older Sister and Younger Brother, Port Salut

Phil Goodrich, surfing on his Dick Van Straalen shaped carbon fibre Aviso board

Here is a country rich in spirit, rough, resilient, ironic and brave—a place where people confirm the simple joy of being alive. If you have visited Haïti you will understand how this place inspires passion. It is a love like experience—unpredictable, unmissable.
And when you get home you know you’ll be struck by an outpouring of emotion for the place, missing it badly, your heart going out to those still suffering from the effects of the earthquake and cholera outbreak.
Through four surfEXPLORE trips since 2006, we have explored the entire northern and southern coasts. Like Jamaica, The Haïtian summer season has consistent short fetch southeast swell along the south coast, best between May and August.
The November to March winter season sends regular 4-5 feet Atlantic northeast groundswells to the north coast. The August to October hurricane season is volatile, resulting in either eerie calmness, huge surf on both coasts, or a destructive storm tracking right for you.

Old tiles from the French colonial period in Jacmel

Catholic Church in Jacmel

Master of Chill in Le Borgne

Arriving in Cap Haïtian on that first trip in 2006 was unforgettable, her architectural charm and bright paint set by the deep stain of history, experienced as a vibrant ebb and flow of life.

Sunset in Port Salut

We stayed at Cormier Plage, where the flamboyant trees are on fire with smoking orange-red flowers.

Tristan Jenkin, from Cornwall in the UK

Fuelled up on shaddock grapefruit we spent two weeks surfing nearby Ginsu, one of the best waves in the north. The coral reef here is so sharp that Haïtian surfers Russell and Vadim Berhmann (who live in the capital Port au Prince) named the spot after a leading brand of American cutlery. If the wave does not catch you, the razor reef will.

Zed Layson from Barbados, surfing over the razor sharp reef at Ginsu

The soundtrack to this wave could be Charles Mingus’ Haïtian Fight Song. Mingus, the great jazz bassist, wrote this song to imitate the intense lives of the Haïtian people he so admired, and to protest against the legacy of slavery (following the only successful slave revolt in history, Haïti became the first independent black republic in 1804).
From its slow and even pulse, the tune builds and swings, finally into a wail that reflects Haïti’s intense resolution and desire to live life to the maximum.
Throughout, what is beautiful about this track is the tone—slightly and purposefully off the register, as if a weight has to be borne, or a tug from another world is always felt.

One the Beach near Coteaux, with local children

Haïti has been a rigorous testbed for our integrity at surfEXPLORE, and it is a place where you need a solid team—‘ekip solid’ in Creole.
Working with locals Russell and Vadim, and Yanouchka Guerin and Jean-Cyril Pressoir of Tour Haïti, we meticulously explored the entire south coast over a number of subsequent trips from 2008 to 2011—heading west from Jacmel to the impressive left river mouths around Port Salut, Roche-a-Bateau, Les Anglais and finally Tiburun.

Zed Layson, surfing in the Caribbean Sea in Kabik

Local children in Kabik, feeling the thrill of riding waves for the first time

Sam Bleakely, surfing in the Caribbean Sea in Kabik

From Ti Mouillage to Marigot the shoreline is packed with shallow reefs, and in the electric blue waters of Kabik the local kids have been riding prone on wooden bellyboards with expert majesty for over ten years. Today they are rising to their feet with their own surfboards. Surf fever is sparking.

Icah Wilmot from Jamaica, one of the Caribbean region's best surfers

Back in 2008, staying at the atmospheric Jacmelian Beach Hotel we became close friends with Chachou, Jacmel’s first local surfer, taught by Russell and Vadim at a break called Pistons, named after the remaining engine of a wrecked boat. The hotel tragically collapsed in the 2010 earthquake, an event so horrific that the locals simply refer to it as ‘bagay la’ which means ‘the thing’)

Emiliano Cataldi, surfing in the Caribbean Sea at Jacmel

Jacmel’s impressive waves extend west, off-road along the wild coast of Brasiliene and Cap Raymond.

Emiliano Cataldi, Caribbean lineup. No roads in this area, have to take a boat and walk

Phil Goodrich, surfing at an Offshore Caye in the Aquin area

Emiliano Cataldi, early morning in Aquin

The highest quality surf along the south coast is accessed by boat offshore from Aquin and Les Cayes, around Ile Crosse Caye, Petit Baie du Mel, and Ile a Vache.

Emiliano Cataldi and Phil Goodrich, sailing off the Ile á Vache in a traditional sailboat

While staying on Ile a Vache we hastily boarded a sport-fishing powerboat, driven over from Port-au-Prince by Vadim. In the crack of opportunity just before dark, we found a clean, head-high left with a powerful drop, hollow bowl and a tapering wall.
The crew—Erwan Simon, Emi Cataldi, Phil Goodrich and Holly Beck—were slotting cleanly into a tubes.
With barely enough time to get back to the island before dark, we loaded up, oiled the outboard motor and made a beeline for Ile a Vache. Twenty minutes later the engine cut out so cleanly that we expected the worst. As we thought, the motor would not kick in and we could not repair it. An oil leak had drained the lubrication.
The sun dropped like an anchor and the light ran away with it, seabound. We were stranded in black, in-between worlds, and it was too deep for us to drop anchor. In the scramble to get to the surf we had not even prepared a night-light. We had made a basic traveller’s mistake that any scout would howl at. Thick cloud set in and we were helpless at sea in a place devoid of coastguard care.
Luckily we were within mobile phone range. Russell called some people on the island, who agreed to send out their only boat, which ferries small groups back and forth from the mainland at Les Cayes. It should have taken about 30 minutes to find us, but the captain could not read the GPS, and worked only on compass directions.
Our coordinates were useless to him, and we had just a twitchy pocket flashlight with a low battery for guidance. Twice we saw the red flicker from the other boat, and twice it disappeared. They could not see us. We kept calling her captain by mobile phone.
After two hours she finally spotted our near-dead flashlight. Relief welled up. We set up the towrope, relieved to be moving. An island appeared an hour later. We got closer—but it was the wrong island! We set off again to find Ile a Vache. After another hour we finally arrived, our initiation complete.

Offshore island, new waves in the Atlantic ocean

Sam Bleakley, surfing with an audience at Gross Caye

We came back twice after the earthquake, witnessing a positive regeneration, places resurrected in style. Nobody wishes misfortune on Haïti, but brushes with death seem to give her heartbeat a new resilience.
Most recently, in February 2013, we explored the northwest coast from Mole St Nicholas to Limbe. St Louis du Nord was the highlight, with buoyant markets, an open sky and a saturated sun. We stayed at the Hotel Toi et Moi. Her website advertises, “32 large air conditioned rooms with wifi.”
There is no wifi, or AC, and no generator, but there are rooms, and the charismatic owner makes up for the lack of facilities with peppery taso or fried goat (always trust the goat in Haïti). It is candlelit during the evening powercut. Electricity kicks in again and the middle floor becomes a nightclub where experts dance merengue to a medley of kompa horns.

Erwan Simon, surfing in the Atlantic ocean

Sam Bleakley, surfing at a rivermouth on the Caribbean Sea

Crossing the river near Anse á Foleur

At the long curving right reef near Cap Rouge fishermen confirmed that we were the first surfers they had seen. Nearby at Anse à Foleur, some of their colleagues showed us how they use their crude fishing canoes as surf kayaks, paddling into sets with galvanised metal oars. They know the line up intimately.
Once we explored this area, we opted for the radical narrow mountain track to La Borgne to search further along the Atlantic coast to Cap Haïtien. We passed a serendipitous offering on the roadside of red wine, laid out neatly atop a red flag, with a hand-written letter and two candles. A passing farmer advised us that it was an offering to Baron Samedi (the guardian of the grave).
This is the spot where a loved one died in a bike accident. In vodou, service of the lwa and family ancestors involves ongoing ritual responsibilities, and to shirk them is considered both shameful and dangerous.

Local fisherman near Coteaux on the Caribbean Sea

Here, death is confronted and dramatized, made social and shared. The old farmer remembers a time when Haïti’s president Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier dressed like Baron Samedi in black hat, dark suit and coattails, reminding the population that he held the key to the cemeteries and could decide who would be the next inhabitants at will. We paid our respects to the offering.
“Be careful on the track to La Borgne,” said the farmer. “It’s dangerous.”
Blood racing, we started the mountain ascent. Bajan Zed Layson offered a lesson in the art of using second gear—working the clutch on the four-wheel drive—the engine purring.
Stones lined a narrow route the colour of a lion’s mane that gradually deepened to red. Behind the mountains there are more mountains, and behind them, more mountains. This is the geography and the psychology of Haïti. We were very quickly very high.
Courting danger Erwan and I climbed in and out of the back seat, moving stones and guiding the tyres through tight sections with only an inch to spare and the valley below calling for our deaths.
The REV of the throttle and elastic sound of clutch between first and second gear was broken by the CLINK of stones and KA-PUNK of rock against chrome, phonetic like Creole. We reached the summit, out-of-breath, pulled up the handbrake, and celebrated both the views and Zed’s driving.
Downhill, the grip of dry stone was replaced by mud on stupidly narrow passes. It became unpredictable, now seriously frightening.
“I’m worried these tyres will let us down,” said Zed. “They’re not designed for wet terrain—too wide, and the wrong treads.”
Minutes later we lost traction. It turned into a full skid, heading anxiously towards the edge of the track with a drop to level the whole trip, life included, to a zero. BRAKES. Alive. Hovering on the edge. Erwan and I pounced out.
“The passenger side wheel is off the track,” we pointed out, looking over a drop to Baron Samedi’s backyard.
I looked up at Zed. His pupils dilated to the size of coins. John Callahan was frozen in the passenger seat. I walked around to the driver’s side and checked the full extension of the handbrake with Zed. He stepped out, before John delicately climbed across to the driver’s side, cat-like.
Three wheels, somehow, kept the car stable on the track. We gave blessings, perhaps aided by our respect this morning for the vodou offering by the roadside. As if summoned, three farmers arrived, and helped push the wagon safely back on the track.
Senses now razor-edged, we navigated more edges that fell away into oblivion, to meet the sight of a staggering, drawn-out rivermouth, widening and spreading all the way to the Atlantic, and the lost town of La Borgne.
Stimulated on strong coffee and papaya we surfed La Borgne and drove further east to Chouchou Bay, along a coast we explored only by boat on our very first trip in December 2006. There are marvellous new roads, and more being built.
We arrived by Limbe island where, in 2006, John shot the cover image used on Haïti: The Bradt Travel Guide (2013) of Jamaican surfer Icah Wilmot stepping off the boat with his surfboard into cobalt water to ride a shallow reef break. It feels fitting that Haïti’s first lone travel guide has a surf exploration image on the cover.

New waves in the Atlantic ocean, this spot had never seen surfers before

Ewan Simon, surfing in the Atlantic ocean

Sam Bleakley, surfing in the Atlantic ocean

The country remains a promised land for adventurous surfers, further confirmed by the massive concentration of waves we’ve now ridden between Saint-Louis-du-Nord and Cap Haïtien.

Emiliano Cataldi, new waves in the Caribbean Sea

Walking down the hill to new waves, no one surfing

We know we will return to this beautiful body and rake along its coastline, surfboards in tow, tough as iron in the celebration of Haïti’s courage.

Emiliano Cataldi, surfing with an audience, village children near Coteaux

Again, what we love about Haïti is that she was born not just in revolt, but in revulsion at the idea that one person can enslave another, and in return for this realisation the Haïtian spirits said—we will never double-cross you, as long as you keep the faith of this beautiful double-cross world.
Ou bat tanbou epi ou danse anko.
You beat the drum and you dance again.

The restored Iron Market in Port au Prince

Morning on the Atlantic ocean at Cormier Plage

Words: Sam Bleakley / Photographs: John Seaton Callahan
A surfEXPLORE story

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