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Editor's Pick

Feb 10, 2016

Perfect Waves and Prostitutes: Stories of surfing in Central America

It was quite a contrast in those days.


Jon Coen

We’d be camping on some beach somewhere, surfing until the wind came up, then crawl under our van for shade to read a book in the heat of the day. When the wind died, we surfed again. We’d cook meals on the fire and let the hermit crabs clean the pots overnight. We’d collect the pots in the morning. Paddle out. Surf. Repeat.

And after days of this, we’d usually find our way into some bustling Central American town. I remember the ones in Costa Rica the best. We’d eat fresh fish with rice and beans for cheap, then it was out to a bar and some good-natured fun with western backpacker girls. At some point, there was some degree of nakedness, usually the funny kind.

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Nicaraguan surf pioneer, Shay O’Brien, from Miami, seeks to improve the lives of the locals near his hotel (don’t call it a surf camp) without radically altering the community. © Michael John Murphy

But as the nights wore on, the local charm would wear off. The cute local chica your friend was talking to would turn out to be a hooker. The goofy expat we’d met earlier was just a train wreck escaping his problems back home. And whereas there was someone peddling dirt weed in every town, now we were being offered darker demons. All around were hustlers, pimps, and guns.

It was the 90s and the land grab was on – North Americans, South Americans, Australians, and Europeans buying up farms and coastlines in this Latin world. Unchecked resorts were growing faster than infrastructure. The coastal villages that surfers had turned into simmering party towns were boiling over with vice. The money now streaming in from all over the world wasn’t being reinvested in the community, but supporting the growing plague of corruption. Today, Jaco, San Juan del Sur, Bocas del Toro, Tamarindo and others are rife with casino hotels and sex tourism. And the beach up the coast, the one where we’d slept on the dirt floor of a palapa (simple Costa Rican thatched roof structure with no walls) and enjoyed empty waves, has a paved road to a hotel owned by some foreigner. Costa Rica is no longer cheap (the Guanacaste Peninsula dubbed “Gonna-cost-ya”) and in some spots in Panama or Nicaragua, the cycle is happening again.

“I believe in sustainability and maintaining the local community, but whether you want it or not, places are going to change,” says Tim Daley of New Jersey, who has done backside hacks in almost every Latin American country. © Michael John Murphy

It’s nice to be in a remote spot again

Fast forward to last January. The accommodations are clean and affordable. The staff is friendly, but not awkwardly so. Most importantly, the ceviche, that phenomenal Latin dish of fresh fish “cooked by the acid of lime juice) is amazing. We’re on a photo trip to Nicaragua with Jetty, a US apparel company that I have watched grow in the last 11 years from a few friends printing t-shirts to a business selling to 100 stores in the US and Europe. They’ve certainly “arrived” as you might say, but still maintain that grassroots authenticity. This is a perfect spot to get footage of team riders and work on branding for the coming year. I’m along for written documentation and to schlep extra clothes during the shoots.

While it’s a longer drive through the Nicaraguan countryside from Augusto C. San Dino International Airport in Managua, we all seem to prefer being off the gringo trail. There are a few other travelers about, but its clear from the warmth of the locals that obnoxious Americans haven’t turned them sour yet.

But every day in Nicaragua on this short recent voyage unearths memories of that road trip we took 15 years ago. A few childhood friends and I had bought a big Ford Econoline and went bumping through seven dusty countries for six months. We were rushed by bulls, shaken down by corrupt officials, struck down by bacteria, and engulfed in political debates with Peace Corps kids. We also snowboarded in Colorado, trekked the Grand Canyon, surfed our way through Mexico, visited Mayan ruins in Guatemala, survived El Salvador, got lost on dirt roads in Nicaragua, did six weeks of waves, volcanoes, and jungles in Costa Rica before the long drive home. We slept in a combination of banana-fields, surf hotels, beaches, the van, and brothels (a cheap place to stay when you don’t get a girl.)  It was the kind of trip that shapes who you are.

That same year, just after the turn of the century, Miami surfer Shay O’Brien flew to Central America with his friends. Seeking more powerful waves than Miami had to offer in the 80s, he developed a deep relationship with the barreling beach breaks of Puerto Escondido, Mexico. He and his wife Loretta own the property where we are staying on this 2014 trip. I got to chat with him one evening in the restaurant of his hotel: “That’s where I really learned to surf – where I rode barrels a 7’6 and felt like I was doing something special” he told me. “I was spending two to four months a year there. I had local friends and met other travelers who I would stay with all over the world. It was my version of doing time on the North Shore in Hawaii.”

Nicaragua : Laying down roots

Shay saw a change in Puerto Escondido in the mid-90s: “The surf companies came in and just made it a circus. By 1997, it no longer had that feeling of adventure. I think Puerto went through a bad time and this place I loved …

I was over it.” The next year, he was in Bocas del Torro, then a somewhat uncharted collection of islands and bays on the Caribbean side of Panama. There, a fellow surfer told him and a friend about Nicaragua’s empty waves and prevailing offshore winds. They found waves at the end of every dirt road … with no one around. At one point, O’Brien did find himself in a hotel with a few other surfers who turned out to be the Americans that separately created the original surf camps in Nicaragua. “None of us had any real business ambition. We just wanted to surf. I respected all of those guys,” he remembers. The same year that my friends and I crossed from Honduras into Nicaragua finding a volcano covering the severe poverty in a morose gray ash, Shay O’Brien and his crew rented a 4×4 and decided to drive down every dirt road that led to the beach. They continued to drive to more remote regions until one day, from the top of a hill, they spied a beachbreak with a rivermouth, an island just offshore and whitewater everywhere. He and his friends likely did something that few surfers will ever get to do. They discovered a surf spot. They surfed the thumping peaks alone, like gleeful children. “It was great, but I can’t say we were the first ones to surf it,” admits O’Brien, “Some people surf a wave and jump up and down and say, ‘Look at me.’ And they promote the place. And it doesn’t count unless they put it on Facebook. But that doesn’t mean they were the first to surf it. But we surfed here for three years before we saw another surfer.”

A little more work. Fifteen years ago, you could stretch your wallet pretty far by camping on the beach and building shelters from the blazing sun. Saved your colones without burning off your cojones. © Jon Coen

They put down roots and let them grow organically

They had seen the ass backward development of other beaches in Central America and wouldn’t be responsible for the same. But that wasn’t everyone’s plan in Nicaragua. Shay O’Brien: “A few years later, I’m in Miami, and I see flyers stuck on cars promoting a surf camp in Nicaragua. And I just knew these weren’t real surfers promoting it. There’s a respect among them because they love to surf. But there’s another kind of surfer. He’s the guy who casually surfs. He doesn’t know the history and he doesn’t care about the culture. For him, finding a new wave is finding money.” Two years later, there were surf camps in Nicaragua – prepackaged tours, shuttling people to the camp and then out to the waves, booked through offices in California. “It was just corny,” Shay remembers, “And the guy who had promoted it – I saw him in the line-up zero times!”. And while Nicaraguan towns are not as far along in their overdeveloped Central American counterparts, some coastal areas are sprinting toward self-destruction. And this is a cycle unique to anywhere in the developing world. “Its hard to speak to the ugly. We’ve all seen it. It’s a double-edged sword. Tourism brings employment, opportunity, and an avenue to leverage both,” offers California native Bo Fox, of Waves Of Optimism a.k.a., Project Woo. Fox is speaking from the Philippines, where his group is gauging the viability of long-term community-based development projects in the region most affected by recent Typhoon Haiyan. Woo has joined with two similar NGOs, Surf for Life and Waves of Hope. They channel traveling surfers to communities to work on health clinics, businesses, education, gardens, renewable energy, and other projects. A week earlier, Fox had been in Nicaragua at the inauguration of a new high school just minutes from Shay O’Brien’s hotel. Built by the efforts of these surfing groups and supported by the Nicaraguan Ministry of Education, it will allow 150 students to continue their education. “We’re not in the business of ensuring that locals can compete with the foreign businesses. However, we do support and have headlined entrepreneurial trainings geared towards supporting such individuals with technical tools to be successful and capitalize on such opportunities” says Bo Fox.

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Travel today is generally easier, cleaner, quicker and more generic than the 90s, but countries like Nicaragua still hold that Central America authenticity for those who get off the Gringo Path. © Michael John Murphy

Bumping Rails: The double-edged sword of surf travel

On our own recent trip, I traveled with Jetty team rider, Tim Daley, from Brigantine, New Jersey. Daley is a full time fire fighter, sponsored by Jetty, representing the company for free clothes, promotion of his talent, and the occasional surf trip. He has traveled and surfed 16 different countries and notes: “It happens. Places get crowded and locals get jaded. If you go to Bali, the locals will just take off like you’re not even there. Hindus will burn you!” he laughs. “But everyone you meet in these developing countries are so genuine” he admits. “They want to meet you and talk. I believe in sustainability and maintaining the local community, but whether you want it or not, places are going to change. I hate to think that way and I will always work for the opposite, but when we visit a place and try to do the right thing, there are ten more people with money who are going to come in and do the wrong thing. But things also work in cycles. Eventually parts of Costa Rica will just look ghetto and no one will want to go there. Then they’ll return to simple ways.”

For myself, although this is a working trip, it’s pretty relaxing compared to my earlier voyages when $40 had to last the week. And while there are few things in life more liberating than surviving on dollars a day and making your own luck, it’s nice to have a bed and not be looking over your shoulder for the next bandito.

And as Fox explains: “Surfers are explorers by nature and often times we are the first points of foreign contact. As such, this affords us the opportunity to affect positive change. Woo’s model for community-based development is dependent on local participation and engagement. Building from trust, we’re able work intimately with all the stakeholders, including the visiting surfers, using education as a way to involve them in the process.”

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Traveling surfers are extremely influential to young locals in Central America. Some surfers leave a positive message about protecting the ocean while others just leave vices. © Michael John Murphy

The locals are religious people

Drugs and prostitution are a big deal to them. The O’Briens have now been living in Nicaragua for 14 years. “The objective was to start a hotel. We didn’t want to call it a surf camp. We kept it simple and let it grow by word of mouth,” says Shay. Loretta, his wife, adds that there are no televisions on the property. The ceiling of their restaurant is not covered with broken surfboards. They’ve maintained a family atmosphere. The bar offers last call at 9 p.m. O’Brien won’t allow anyone to smoke herb in plain view and when the odd surfer has returned from the city with a prostitute, he informs them that they are both to be gone first thing in the morning. “This is a rural area. The locals are religious people. I’m not going to have a young local girl that works for me being stressed out by some guy smoking his jibber at a table, or having a woman here who’s obviously a hooker.” O’Brien has taught many of the locals to surf – including how to be respectful in the line-up. He feels that the type of surfers his place attracts has a positive influence on the kids. On the other hand, he admits that he has had to sell several properties from his nine acres to provide for his family, properties which will see houses erected where more surfers will stay, further crowding the line-up. “I can’t change what I’ve done. It will have an impact on the surf spot, but it’s nice to see people come here and enjoy themselves while respecting the locals.” The O’Briens recognize that they are not Nicas and do not have the right to turn the nearby fishing village inside out. They employ locals at fair wages and seek to be good role models to young workers. They also learned long ago that while charity may be well intentioned, it can be harmful when not thought out. “We found that if you hand a pair of sunglasses to a kid for free, it’s not fair to the next kid. So every month we put together raffle bags that the schools distribute to deserving students. It’s a lot of stuff our guests donate. We throw in candy and school supplies. You see the parents, aunts and uncles wearing the clothes and that kid has such a sense of pride for giving that to his family. That kid earned it instead of just getting a hand out.” Loretta adds that the students do a song for them each time they present the bags. “I still get choked up every time we do it,” she admits.

This recent trip included a good morning of fishing. We took out two pangas, mostly trolling a mile offshore and hooked up two snappers, a mackerel, one little tigerfish, and a mean looking barracuda. They’ll all be eaten between our crew and the captains’ families tonight. We get dropped off just outside the break, swimming with our tackle and coolers to the black sand beach. The wind is offshore, and the tide is filling in to reveal fun little bowls. We’re surfing within ten minutes. For now, there’s no mega-resort looming. A few local kids will have a better future thanks to the new school. No one is peddling tacky crap on the beach. The village isn’t going hungry and no one’s daughter is going to be pimped out tonight. All is good in this little corner of Central America.

This story features in the Fall Issue 01 of The Outdoor Journal

Feature Image: One thing has changed dramatically since the author’s first journey through Central America. The locals are killing it these days. © Michael John Murphy

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Feb 20, 2019

The Death Zone

World champion free-diver Pierre Frolla sinks without air to depths unreachable by most scuba divers. One day he nearly didn't make it back to the surface.



Pierre Frolla

This story originally featured in print, in the fall 2015 issue of The Outdoor Journal

Deep down under the sea, so far away from where you live, I have been through the last seconds of my life.

In 2005 or 2006 (oddly I don’t remember), I had the worst accident of my freediving career. After being world champion in variable weight apnea with a dive at 123 metres, where I used a weighted sled for descent and returned to the surface by pulling myself along a line and using my fins, I was training to go deeper.

“No matter what happens to you, you’re stuck underwater. There’s nowhere else to go.”

In my sport, risks are quite important. Imagine you’re running a 400-m race. You start way too fast, and after a few hundred meters you’re out of breath and you just can’t go anymore. What do you do? You just stop, walk a bit and slowly catch your breath again. When you’re free diving, no matter what happens to you, you’re stuck underwater. There’s nowhere else to go.

The basis of my sport is quite simple. Going beyond 100 meters is mythic. Only a few hardcore specialists, including the “no limit” guys can go beyond that. Athletes use a weighted sled to dive down and an inflatable bag to return to the surface. This means that the free diver reduces his energy loss to the max, and that’s exactly why he is able to go so deep. The world record is held by Austrian Herbert Nitsch: 249.5 metres on June 6, 2012, in Santorini, Greece. The problem is that at those depths, water pressure is unbelievable! At 100 m, for example, the pressure is about 11 kg per square centimeter of your skin. Consequently, the volume of air inside the human body is pressured and reduced too. Take an empty but sealed plastic bottle: If you get to this kind of depth, it’ll greatly deform. That plastic bottle is a metaphor for your body. This also means that if water manages to seep somewhere inside you through your mouth or nose, it will do so with such force that it’ll destroy everything in its path. Drowning is inevitable, and no Apneist can be saved in such case, even if experienced help quickly intervenes.

At great depths, nitrogen becomes narcotic and leads to what is called nitrogen narcosis. This kind of intoxication from staying in great depths for too long is the same as when you drink too much. In other words, you lose total control of your body and mind, and you become unaware of potential dangers. Acting like that underwater can kill you, as the slightest mistake will have incredible consequences. In my personal training, I mix apnea in variable weight and other constant weight dives, where I dive only with the force of my arms and legs.

Today, my team and I decide to put the weight to 118 m. I know I can go down 115 m, but we want to push a little, as it’s part of training. Once down, I’ll have no choice but to go back on my own. I also know there will be a small parachute and an oxygen tank hooked to the sled, but neither will be for me. The bottle empties very slowly and inflates the balloon. Both serve only to return equipment back to the surface. It’s easier for us to work like that rather than starting a counterweight system.

If I want to live, I have only four seconds to start my ascent. But I am stunned and unable to move. I think about my team: What will they do when they go down to find me, lifeless and filled with water?

I feel my legs sinking knee-deep in a soft, thick and viscous material.

I begin my descent. I pass my midterm diver. Very soon, it gets dark. I do not have glasses because they would serve me for nothing in this environment. So I stand, with my eyes closed. I’m relaxed and sinking slowly in the water like I’m used to. I feel the pressure now, but I also suddenly feel the sledge slowing. Then it stops, softly. Usually it stops dead. When I realize that something is wrong, I feel my legs sinking knee-deep in a soft, thick and viscous material. It is almost as if moving sands are closing in on me at 112 meters below the surface. It is actually a mixture of clay and silt, a mound a few meters higher than the sonar onboard the boat. It wasn’t identified even though it stood in the stack axis of the descent of my sledge. It’s nobody’s fault; sonar is not so precise.

In no time, I understand what’s happening to me. I’m stuck. I cannot get my feet outside the box, and I know there’s no exit door. I simply do not have enough oxygen to both work my way out of this with strength and go up as I have expected, swimming, with my hands and fins. If I want to live, I have only four seconds to start my ascent. But I am stopped, stunned and unable to move. I think about my team: What will they do when they go down to find me, lifeless and filled with water? I’m dying; that’s it. Today is the day. In 15 seconds, I will have consumed all the remaining air I was keeping for my ascent. I am also a few seconds away from being caught by nitrogen narcosis. I will go crazy right before dying.

“Did I become a vegetable?”

Suddenly, I have an idea. The parachute. Yes! I trigger the opening of the small air valve, which then rushes into the parachute. It’s working but it’s slow and long. So I wait, very still, with my eyes closed. I have no other choice. I try to relax. Everything at 112 m is multiplied by 10. One consumed oxygen molecule at the surface is equal to 10 or 12 molecules consumed at that kind of depth. One second is equivalent to 10 seconds. Time and life are both very cruel at the bottom of an ocean. I am now barely conscious. Finally, I remember feeling the chute tearing me away from my trap like a champagne cork. The ascent back to the surface, back to life, is way too long. When I reach the surface, I have strangely not entirely lost consciousness, but my body no longer responds to my brain. Did I become a vegetable? My team, frightened, retrieves and saves me. If I had not been so well-trained, I would not have survived this scary adventure. Instead of the planned 2 minutes and 40 seconds that I went down under water for, I stayed 3 minutes and 50 seconds. In the boat, I gradually recover and quickly regain all my abilities.

Pierre Frolla reascending to the surface, following the guideline with the sled and parachute attached to it.

A few years later, I’m on a movie set doing 60-m free diving over and over all day long, and an air bubble is created in my brain on one of these repetitive dives. But instead of being redirected into my lungs, it remains stuck in my head. When ascending, inevitably, this tiny compressed air bubble suddenly decompresses and its size gets multiplied by six. I immediately lose consciousness. Later, I wake up in a hyperbaric chamber. I stay there for eight and a half hours. But when I wake up in that box, I cannot feel my body. I’m unable to move. For hours, I do not know if I will stay quadriplegic or not. This awakening in the box is one of my worst-ever memories of free diving. I do not understand what is happening to me. It takes me 30 minutes to remember that I was free diving and to deduce that I certainly had a bad accident.

Apnea is an extreme sport. I’ll remember it always. Yesterday I dived to 113 meters. I’ll do it again tomorrow.

Photos by Franck Seguin

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