By Will Henry
On a rainy night in a small town on the north shore of Tenerife, I met up with a group of local guys to play some music. Back home I sing lead vocals in a garage band, and I love the chance to play with different musicians around the world. Music, much like surfi ng, is a connection that crosses almost any cultural divide. On that particular night, Angel Lobo, President of the Canary Islands Surfing Federation, invited me to sit in as a guest with his reggae band and jam a few tunes. As I entered the home of one of his band mates I was awestruck by the artwork covering the walls – surf shots from spots all over the island, most of their colors faded with age, but all revealing a surfer with a classic surfing style, fading bottom turns, slashing turns, and laying back into beautiful, azure barrels. Angel pointed out one shot that struck me as particularly beautiful – a surfer pulling in backside to a gorgeous, wide-open barrel, laying back casually into the face. “Where is that?” I asked. “That is La Fitenia,” replied Angel, “one of the waves we lost in the ‘80s, so they could build an artifi cial beach for the hotels in Las Americas.”
Angel introduced me to the other guys in the band, both older than me with graying hair and beer guts, but with an obvious sparkle in their eyes. I asked them who the surfer was in all the pictures. “That’s me,” said one of them, the drummer, whom I will call Frankie. Angel went on to explain that Frankie was once the most revered surfer on the island; that Tom Curren used to stay at his house when he came to town, and that his picture had appeared in many surf magazines over the years. All the same, it appeared that the years had not treated him well. He was walking with a cane, and had just had surgery on his throat, which he explained would hamper his ability to sing that night.
We played music until the wee hours, and what can I say, we connected – the instruments came together and we made beautiful sounds, song after song, as I filled in on vocals. At the end of the night, it was like we were old friends. In the car-ride home, I asked Angel what had happened to Frankie’s health. Angel told me that he hadn’t surfed for a very long time. First he lost his favorite wave, La Fitenia, despite leading a local effort to try to preserve it. Next his girlfriend left him, tired of his obsession with waves and music. The loss of both of these true loves broke his heart. He fell into depression and alcohol abuse, and eventually stopped surfing altogether. The band drifted apart, and Frankie became just another bum on the seedy streets of las Americas.
“But he is turning his life back around,” said Angel. “He has put the band back together, and I know that soon he will be surfi ng again. Your visit tonight was good for him. It reminded him of how surfing can help to heal his wounds.”
The next morning, James and I paddled out to a surf spot in las Americas known as Spanish Left – the best wave left on a coastline that once held twice as many spots. Most of the waves in this region were destroyed by a frenzy of development in the 1980s in an effort to cater to the onslaught of tourists arriving from Europe every winter. The Canary Islands receive more than twice the number of visitors per year than the Hawaiian Islands, despite having half the landmass. The impact on tourist zones like las Americas has been devastating to the natural environment.
There were about fi ve surfers in the water and all were vibing us hard. Stink-eye and numerous insults in Spanish were fl ying our way. I struck up a conversation with one of the guys, who regarded my attempts at diplomacy with evident suspicion. I told him that we were on the island to meet with the government, to try to save the wave at La Enramada, and that the day before the Ministry of the Environment had agreed to deny the marina proposal that was threatening it. He didn’t seem to believe what I was saying. “They are even thinking about removing the seawalls at La Fitenia,” I told him, and he turned to me with a scornful look.
“That’s a bunch of shit,” he said. “They will never change this place. Las Americas is ruined, and they will keep going until the rest of the island is the same.”
“Don’t you think you can do something to stop it?” I asked.
“We’re surfers. You think they listen to us? It’s a waste of time,” he said, and paddled away. I sat for a while in the lineup and considered what he had just said. If every surfer took his attitude, it’s true, we would stand no chance at preserving what’s left. But on the other hand, I’ve seen what can be accomplished when surfers come together. I decided to try another track, trying to convince one more local surfer to see some hope for the future.
“Hey,” I said to him, “I saw a picture last night of the wave at La Fitenia. I was playing music with an old-time surfer, a guy named Frankie – you know him?”
The guy’s eyes bulged out. “You know Frankie? That guy’s a legend! No way, you know Frankie? You jammed with him?”
“That’s right,” I said, suddenly feeling important. “I also saw that photo of him in the barrel at La Fitenia. What a perfect wave that was. Frankie told me the reef is still there, and there’s a chance we could bring the wave back. I mean, if the government is willing to consider removing the seawall, that’s a good start, don’t you think?”
He paused for a few seconds to digest what I’d just told him. “I guess you’re right. Wow, you hung out with Frankie? Listen,
man, if Frankie’s behind it, you have my support.”
The dark mood in the water lifted almost immediately, and we shared waves and stories with the local guys as the sun set over the horizon. Between sets, I thought about what we had accomplished on this trip. Even though we had witnessed the ugly side of surfing, and a tourism industry that had spiraled out of control, we had also seen that there is hope for a better future for surfers. Tenerife, like other tourist destinations that are popular with the surf crowd, was a place that had finally come to acknowledge the importance of surf tourism to their economy.
They also had apparently realized their mistakes, especially in las Americas, and were looking for ways to fix them. The government officials that we met with, while not surfers themselves, were truly interested in what we had to say about preserving the coast. They seemed to recognize that experienced surfers are, for the most part, experts on issues that relate to the surf zone.
The officials were doubly intrigued by my suggestion to consider removing the seawalls around the island, which most people considered an eyesore, and replacing them with artificial surfing reefs. The logic was perfect: the rocks are already there, and all you would have to do is spread them out, submerge them and place them in the proper form, and voilà! Not only is the ugly wall gone, but in its place is a gorgeous wave, and another reason for surfers to come here on vacation.
In a perfect world, every government would protect each and every one of its surf spots. Frankie’s story of love lost, and thousands of others like his, should never be allowed to happen again. No one should lose a lover to a wealthier man, especially if that man will take away her beauty and hide her from the world. Maybe we’re not too far away from a world where our governments realize that, the more surfers there are catching good waves, the more happy people there will be.
Will Henry is founder and director of Save The Waves, an organization that protects threatened surf spots around the world. He lives in Santa Cruz, California where he also writes, plays music and raises his family. You can find out more about STW at: www.savethewaves.org