Kreyol Chronicles: Surf Haiti with the Boys of Kabic Beach

July 14, 2017

Words by Jesse Serwer
Photos by Christopher L. Mitchell
Model: Sara Charles

Kabic is Haiti’s first and, thus far, only surf community. On a typical afternoon, you might find a dozen or so local boys and young men riding the swells at this picturesque, banana tree-lined beach east of Jacmel, on the country’s southeastern coast. Increasingly, they are joined by foreigners who make their way to Kabic after learning of it through news coverage, AirBNB referrals, and old-fashioned word of mouth.

This weekend, July 15th and 16th, Kabic will welcome riders from about a half-dozen countries, including the USA, France, New Zealand and the Dominican Republic, to its second annual International Surf Festival. The event is being staged side by side with the inaugural Kabic Fest, a three-day music festival featuring live performances from notable Haitian acts like Boukman Esperyans, Kreyol La and J. Perry.

This year’s surf festival marks a milestone for Surf Haiti, which is at once a surf team comprised of Kabic youth;  a small business that rents boards and offers lessons to visitors; and a community development organization tasked with keeping the beach clean. The group’s core members, who are all under 25 and mostly in their teens, will graduate from participating in the festival to running it themselves.

The story of Surf Haiti begins in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, with the arrival in Kabic of Dr. Ken Pierce. An emergency physician from Hawaii, Pierce carried a surfboard along with him on an aid mission in hopes of imparting his knowledge of the sport and its benefits to those he came across. “Traveling and surfing around the world has taught me that surfing provides a viable economy everywhere that it is embraced,” Pierce says. “My hope was that Haiti would be no different.”

Arriving in Haiti’s Jacmel area to serve as the director of an orphanage, Pierce found himself at Kabic, one of several beaches within the Cayes-Jacmel (Jacmel beaches) area, and noticed its surfable waves.

“The local kids who are bored [would] find a way to distract themselves on the waves,” says Lionel A. Pierre, a Jacmel-based software developer who serves an advisor and mentor to the kids of Surf Haiti. “They started doing natural surfing on pieces of plywood before they were exposed to proper equipment. Dr. Ken saw the boys in the water, and he connected with them and started to teach them formal surfing, which they were already drawn to.”

Sam Jules, 18, is the Surf Haiti team’s most talented and accomplished surfer. 

Pierce rented a house on the beach and, with the help of Joan Mamique, a Frenchman who’d also moved to the area in 2010, he began teaching a group of about six boys to surf. He enlisted Allen Potter, a friend back in Hawaii, to assist him with the logistics of forming an organization that would raise funds and resources to establish a surf outpost in Haiti. (As of now, there are no places to buy or fix surfboards in Haiti). Donated surfboards began to trickle into Kabic, while Pierce’s guesthouse became a beacon for foreign aid workers living in Port-au-Prince, as well as international surfers passing through Haiti.

“It became a non-profit association of people whose goals were to protect the natural resources and cleanliness of the ocean and beach at Kabic, in order to foster a surf haven,” says Pierre. “They wanted to grow surfing out of that area in order to make that a stop on the international surfing map.:The idea being that the area, and the country, would benefit from some of the tourism money.”

Dr. Pierce returned to Hawaii in 2013, and Surf Haiti has since gone through several iterations. Mamique took over the organization in 2013 before focusing on a guest house, Haiti Surf, he opened to cater to surfers and other travelers coming to Kabic. However, the goal, Pierre says, was always to turn Surf Haiti into a self-sufficient organization through which the youth of Kabic could control their destiny and develop skills enabling them to benefit from their community’s status as a burgeoning tourist destination.

“My role has been to provide guidance, helping them think of this thing more as a business and less as a group of friends who do stuff,” Pierre says. “Getting them the training and knowledge they need to be independent.”

Sara Charles, Jacmel’s Reine de la Culture et du Tourisme (Tourism and Culture Queen), takes in the surf at Kabic

More than six years after Dr. Pierce arrived at Kabic, it is his original pupils, now grown up, who are teaching surfing at Kabic. From a shack across the road from Kabic’s La Reference restaurant, one can rent boards and sign up for lessons from the core Surf Haiti team, which includes Samuel Jules, 18, the champion of last year’s surf festival and Kabic’s best rider; Guy Alex Jean, 20; Emmanuel “Mano” Andris, 25; Frantzy Andris; and Gilles Wolvenson, known as “Woly G.”

“There is a brotherhood there,” says Pierre.“They grew up together.”

Kabic is not the only place in Haiti to find surfable waves. The counry has beaches with equal or better swells. What it does offer is easy accessibility from a major road, and a well-maintained, clean shoreline — a too-rare combination in a country where limited transportation infrastructure and a lack of sanitation services continually challenge progress. Ringed by hills covered in lush banana and papaya trees, Kabic provides a scenic counterpoint to the refuse-strewn beaches found near many of Haiti’s population centers.

“It’s a heck of a view when you are out sitting on a board far enough, and you look at the island and see these tall palm tree-covered mountains growing out of the sea,” Pierre says.

It’s also just a 15-minute drive from the city of Jacmel — Haiti’s cultural capital (“Ville Creative”), known for its papier-mâché artisans, mosaic tiles, colonial architecture, and one of the Caribbean’s most unique carnival celebrations. Jacmel is a must-visit on any trip to Haiti, and it has a way of charming everyone who visits into staying longer than they’d planned. It’s become a magnet for aid workers who choose to stay in Haiti after completing their programs, as well as young Haitians raised overseas who have chosen to return to their parents homeland.

Samuel Jules and Gilles Wolvenson, known as ‘Woly G,’ man the Surf Haiti rental shack. 

Among the latter group is Pierre, who moved to Jacmel from Florida with his young family nearly three decades after leaving Haiti with his parents. A software developer who runs an IT solutions company based near Miami, he came to Haiti three years ago with the aim of developing an IT hub where Haitians can serve international clientele without having to move abroad.

“I wanted to put my blood, sweat and tears into trying to do something in this country,” Pierre says. “Going to Haiti and trying to make a difference was something I had to do.”

With Kabic Fest, Kabic is reaching its potential as a destination that can lead the way for tourism in the new Haiti. While the surfing festival brings international appeal, the music festival is expected to draw attendees from across Haiti, including many who, presumably, will gain their first exposure to surfing, a sport unheard of here until recently. The event was organized with the support of Haiti’s Ministry of Tourism.

“They want people to come see what’s going on,” Pierre says of the Ministry. “They want the area of Kabic to benefit from tourism that does not require infrastructure they don’t have. It’s socially responsible tourism, adventure tourism, tourists who want to sample the local lifestyle.” For the Surf Haiti boys, “They want to send out an invitation to the world: Come exchange with them. If you are a good surfer, teach them. If you are a bad surfer, take a lesson. They are cool kids and they are starting to learn how much of an impact they can have on their area.”

Recently, LargeUp photographer and Jacmel resident Christopher L. Mitchell spent an afternoon at Kabic with Samuel, Woly G and Sara Charles, Jacmel’s reigning Reine de la Culture et du Tourisme (or Queen of Culture and Tourism, one of several honors bestowed on local young women during Jacmel’s Kanaval), capturing the unique vibe of this classic Caribbean beach.