Weed, Waves & Rasta
By Patrick "Quashi" Mitchell
Jamaica. The name alone conjures up thoughts of reggae music, spices and high-grade spliffs. Situated in the northwestern Caribbean Sea, Jamaica is full with history, soul and immense culture. This tropical island nation is host to a wide variety of influences. In fact, the country’s motto is “Out of many, one people.” This diversity of tradition is also reflected in its way of life—a “livity” that greatly varies from the British parliament’s traditional ways to its Rastafarians who’ve brought us the sweet reggae music and ganja culture that is now so popular. Remarkably, these days there is a new culture arising out of this little island in the sun—surfing.
Remarkably, these days there is a new culture arising out of this little island in the sun—surfing.
First a short history to bring the whole into perspective
In the late 1400s, Christopher Columbus arrived on the sunny shores of the island and for the next 146 years Jamaica remained under Spanish rule. During this time the island flourished as an agricultural colony (I can see minds turning) where it was known for its spices and trade. Jamaica was taken from Spain in 1655 by the British government and for almost two centuries was the world's largest sugar exporter, which was achieved through the use of imported slave labour, resulting in the very large Black population. Jamaica reached the height of its prosperity just before the British abolished slavery from Africa. When the island finally got its independence, the country was forced to find new ways to support itself and survive. Many industries contributed to the economic infrastructure of the newly independent Jamaica including bauxite, textiles and sugar, but none could match the power of tourism. In fact, it was tourism that brought surfing to the people of Jamaica.
Jamaica's geographical location leaves the eastern end of the island fully open to the vast blue Caribbean Sea and surfable waves.
“In the sixties, when young teenaged rebels were riding the waves of Malibu, Narabeen and Waikiki, making surf history, Jamaica also had its own brave young souls who were riding the waves of Boston Beach and surfing The Wreck on homemade boards fashioned from refrigerator foam laminated with boat resin and fibreglass drapery cloth with black electrical tape to make ‘racing stripes,’” says Anthony Wilmot, lead singer of the Mystic Revealers reggae band otherwise known as Billy Mystic, Uncle Billy, or as I call him, Jamaican surfing’s Godfather.
Billy Mystic has been surfing Jamaica since the early sixties. He has taken what was a simple love for the ocean to a new level—raising a family of hot young surfers and helping to pioneer the sport of surfing to Jamaicans all over the world and at home in his backyard. I say “backyard” not only because the local term for Jamaica is “yard” but also literally as the Wilmot clan lives right on the sands of Cable Hut Beach in Bull Bay, just eight miles outside the country’s capital of Kingston. It was on this beach that Billy and I sat eight years ago discussing plans to build surfing into a recognized sport in Jamaica.
Billy Wilmot, a.k.a. Billy Mystic, Uncle Billy, or the Godfather of Jamaican surfing.
As a young surfboard shaper at the time, I had no idea what I was getting into. Eager to help, I sat and listened to Billy’s ideas on how to approach our goal to bring surfing to Jamaica’s youth and let the world know that we, too, have great athletes who can hold their own in the surfing world’s limelight.
Indeed, Jamaica is actually blessed with an eight-month surf season. The remaining four months of flat time are broken up into short one- or two-week spells.
Because of the island’s location within the Caribbean Sea, as well as tourism’s hub on the flat side of the island where the sea is calm, many surfers were—and still are—unaware of Jamaica’s surfing potential. It is often overlooked when surf trips are in the planning stages in favour of more exposed destinations like Costa Rica or Hawaii. Cut off from the large southward moving swells of the North Atlantic by its larger neighbours Cuba and Hispaniola, Jamaica would appear to have very little potential for good surfing waves. However, on closer scrutiny this is definitely not the case!
Indeed, Jamaica is actually blessed with an eight-month surf season. The remaining four months of flat time are broken up into short one- or two-week spells. The geographical location leaves the eastern end of the island fully open to the vast blue Caribbean Sea and any little bump that may arise over the long fetch results in surfable waves.
Author Patrick "Quashi" Mitchell shaping surfboards for Jamaica at Quashi International.
Evolution of surfing in Jamaica
Everywhere in the world, surfing has developed in a parallel manner linked to the changing styles of surfboards and the way surfers ride them. Jamaica’s surfing evolution was no different. It all started with the before-there-were-boards era (pre-60s), next came the long boards or the before-there-were-leashes era (60s - early 70s), followed by the short boards or the bungee chord era (70s), then the multi-fin era (80s) and now the Quashi Surfboard era (90s - present) in which Jamaican surfers ride their own brand of surfboards made by Patrick “Quashi” Mitchell.
Little did Bob Marley know when he went up the Cane River to wash his dreads that just downstream Billy and his bredrin were getting tubed!
In the early days, The Wreck was the prime south coast surf spot. Situated on the Palisadoes peninsula near the Kingston International Airport, The Wreck got its name from a large ship that grounded itself in the sand creating a perfect surfing break for the early pioneers. Today, however, The Wreck has become a victim of the very waves it gave rise to and is now no more than a pile of rusting metal, and one of Jamaican surfing’s icons.
One of the major contributing forces to Jamaican surfing was the discovery of The Zoo by surfer Terrance “Mush” Muchette. The Zoo is known as the Jamaican pipeline. Situated at the beach of the Donald Quarry School, the waves were created by the Cane River washing rocks and sand out to sea and laying the perfect foundation for what would become the best break in Jamaica. Little did Bob Marley know when he went up the Cane River to wash his dreads that just downstream Billy and his bredrin were getting tubed!
Icah Wilmot, one of Jamaica's top surfers. Photo: Ishack Wilmot
Leaving the Kingston area heading east, you’ll come to the town of Bull Bay where Billy and his family host Jamaica’s first surf camp. Jamnesia offers everything that the surf-starved traveller could want—from nice beachfront rooms to flat sandy spots to pitch your tent if that is all you can afford; good food from the onsite Shaks restaurant; surf movies, good reggae music (remember, the camp is located at one of Jamaica’s famed reggae band member’s home!), as well as all things Rasta. Jamnesia is the place to go to really get to know the locals.
Bull Bay is also a haven for Rastafarians and many of the different houses of Rasta are based in and around this small beach community.
Bull Bay is also a haven for Rastafarians and many of the different houses of Rasta are based in and around this small beach community. Think about it, how many places in the world can you find epic waves in warm tropical water, great food, inexpensive accommodations, and the possibility to sit and “reason” with a Rasta on the intricacies of life? Billy and many of the surfers in Jamaica are Rastafarians so all over the island, when you meet up with a Rasta, you may hear him say, Ah, you one a de surfahs wit Mystic.
Some of the pleasures of Jamaican culture.
Jamaica Surfing Association (JSA)
Most youths taking up the sport these days learn about it from the Jamaica Surfing Association (JSA). The JSA serves as the governing body for the sport of surfing in Jamaica to the International Surfing Association (ISA), which is the world’s governing authority for surfing, body boarding and all wave-riding activities. The ISA is dedicated to the development of all wave-riding sports around the world and provides guidance and advice to its members on matters such as competition, judging, coaching, surf schools, and other areas of development. Jamaica, however, is still in many ways finding its own way.
The JSA, however, knows very little about the sport and must work under a government that is itself learning from Billy and his crew. There is little access to information about surfing in Jamaica—no surfing magazines, no television shows with old footage of surf exploration or perfect Hawaiian barrels. In the absence of outside influences, Jamaican surfing has simply developed its own culture—a Rasta-inspired sport with its heritage and roots looking to Africa, as well as Hawaii where the sport began.
In the absence of outside influences, Jamaican surfing has simply developed its own culture—a Rasta-inspired sport with its heritage and roots looking to Africa, as well as Hawaii where the sport began.
I once sat and reasoned with a Rasta bredrin in Bull Bay who very convincingly suggested to me that surfing came from Africa. When I asked him if he surfed, he laughed, inhaled strongly on his spliff and responded, “How you think all a we got here?” Then he proceeded to tell me that in Jamaica, Rastas don’t deal with “weed” as that is something that grows in the back of the house or out in the garden, Rastas deal with “herb.” Herb is the power of the people and the healing of the nation. Rastafarians consider herb their sacrament. It is with this same mental “overstanding” and depth that the JSA, Quashi, and the Jamaican surfers deal with the sport of surfing. It is more than just a sport; it is a lifestyle far removed from the Beach Blanket Bingo stereotypes of California and other areas of the globe. For Billy and the Jamaican surf community, surfing is the healing of the nation. Surfing is helping the youth of Jamaica stay off the streets and away from the crime culture that is slowly taking over.
Left: Ivah Wilmot. Top: Imani Wilmot. Bottom: Lighthouse beach.
The other side of Jamaica
Heading east out of Bull Bay, the coastline opens up. This side of Jamaica is pristine. Before you reach Morant Bay, you’ll pass by Makkas, a hollow left-hand wave breaking over a shallow reef, as well as, Prospect, Long Bay and many other breaks along the way, some with no names. Few people get to see this side of Jamaica, which makes it perfect for the travelling surfer. You see it was left off the tourist map when the Jamaican government began its tourism development and planning. And it makes sense. When the British owned Jamaica, they wanted to establish tourism by building hotels and utilizing the beautiful beaches that were calm and peaceful. Jamaica’s east coast was too rocky—and had too many waves!
Indeed most tourists only see the well-known and crowded areas of Negril, Montego Bay and Ocho Rios. Little do they know that just east of St. Ann is another paradise—a surfer’s paradise. For decades, Boston Beach in the parish of Port Antonio was well-known by tourists for its absolutely perfect white sand beach, crystal clear blue water and its famous jerk pork. It was also Jamaica's first internationally recognized surf spot.
“Visitors to the famous beach witnessed local fishermen returning from sea and surfing their boats in on the powerful driving surf rolling into the cove and took the news back to eager ears. Surfers returned (from abroad) to ride the waves, dropping in and sliding left as the fat peak wedged off the outside rock, or charging the thick right on the other side of the tiny protected bay,” describes Billy.
The new millennium is here and a sport that was not even thought to exist in Jamaica is slowly rising to the crest. Every day exciting developments unfold for Jamaican surfing with fresh faces in the line up—young and old, male and female. New surf spots are discovered and conquered while old ones are lost in the recent fury of the Caribbean hurricanes. I was unlucky enough to witness the prized break, The Zoo get annihilated by the torrential rains and thirty-foot seas brought on by Hurricane Ivan, the strongest hurricane in 2004. But not before I got the only video footage of Billy Wilmot catching and riding the largest wave in recorded Jamaican surf history.
The full potential of Jamaican surfing has yet to be realized. Jamaica has a rich history and now there is a new culture being defined by the youth of the Jamaican surfing fraternity. We must truly give thanks. Rastafari.