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Surfer dudes of Ecuador’s Gold Coast

The Swan
Cutting Curlers

Hawaii has ‘em and so do California and Florida … but, Ecuador? You bet your bottom dollar! And before I’m headed off at the pass by those seeking to point out equality of the sexes … yes! There are not only Dudes but Surfer Dudettes to boot. It seems not only men and women but young and old enjoy the sport.

I’ve never tried it with a board but I’ve body surfed a few big curlers along the way and it is exhilarating to say the least. I didn’t grow up on the ocean or it’s a given I’d have been a surfer dude from the start. Instead my friends and I were water skiers, using only one slalom ski. We spent sunny afternoons skiing on the languid green waters of lakes studded with cypress trees that dripped Spanish moss. I grew up on a bayou and I can ski on a boat paddle. But somehow, that’s not as exciting as riding the big ones coming in off El Mar.

No, it surely isn’t.

I was intrigued by the concept of surfing but not prepared to make photographs of surfers as I wandered the beach at Canoa. Well, I guess I was ready enough, like any photographer worth their salt, but I was ill-prepared in the fact that I had not previously studied surfing. But I kept circling up those little surf school areas along the beach. Guys and gals were supine on surfboards lying on the sun-drenched sand, inland from the water’s edge. They moved their arms in the hot grit like they were paddling out to meet Big Kahuna. A minute or two later, after grabbing the board edges, they would leap madly up. Next, they would cut a profile like they were riding the most monstrous pipelines inbound to a beach filled with a different sea. An imaginary sea of screaming members of the opposite sex loudly cheering them on. It really was pretty cool, like surfer boot camp I guess.

I wanted to do it. I mean sure, I wanted to make a photograph of some surfers, it would be my first ever. But, what I REALLY wanted to do was ride those waves! And, I could tell that I could do it too! I couldn’t imagine one thing in my way. I’m a strong swimmer, actually a certified SCUBA diver, and experienced in ocean waters. I stood on one sandal and then the other as I pondered. I gripped my tripod in one hand and steadied a big camera bag with the other. Where would I stow my photo gear while attending surf school? It was hot and I couldn’t decide what should be next. The heat might have been affecting my decisions. I felt frustrated and not my normal self so I walked all the way back to my hotel room to cool off in the a/c. Chilling for a few minutes while doing a little quick research was my plan.

Once there, I rolled a chilled beverage can across my forehead a couple of times. Cold droplets of condensation dripped off the can and onto my bare leg; a little shiver startled my warm body. I grabbed my MAC and began a search for “Ecuador Tide Tables.” Man, there was more to this surfing action than I imagined. After studying about wave durations and heights and when they would occur, I headed over to Wikipedia. I quickly found out about surfing equipment, the logistics of the sport and about different wave types.

Although I’m a sponge for knowledge, I wasn’t happy about a certain research-born revelation. It seemed that the current tides were not too favorable for creating bigger, longer duration waves. The previous day’s story was different. During this same time of day, the waves had been much higher and longer in their breaks. The opportunities for both surfing and making surfer photographs had been of a much higher quality a scant 24 hours earlier!

I set up my tripod at the edge of the now retreating surf. There were a couple of guys, well offshore, waiting for the right waves to invest their energies in. The surfers were even further away from me now that I had completed setting up. I was grinning as I draped a white beach towel over my camera. Folks stared at me. I couldn’t tell you their thoughts. I was intensely aware of my own, though.

The light was of a good quality, however from a terrible direction. It was falling over the back of the right shoulders of the surfers. Their bodies and faces were obscured by shadows. The waves were half-sized little pipsqueaks compared to those of the prior day. In photography, you must work with the scenes you are given. The scenes before me would have to be milked for goodness; I was holding a poor hand of opportunities. But, I’ve got experience and hope … I’m coming to get some frames. I won’t be deterred. Do you think I’ve ever told an editor, “Gee, the conditions weren’t good so I couldn’t make any worthy photographs even though you spent thousands to get me to the other side of the world. But, there was this girl at the bar…?” Of course not, you’d never shoot another frame for that publication.

I pulled the beach towel over my head just as if I was using some huge old view camera. Only the snout of my white lens peered out. I married my eye to the viewfinder while resting a finger gently on the shutter,  the other hand steadying my lens. I had two subjects and that was it. I was already dreaming of coming back here when the waves were just right and loaded with surfers. But for now, it was time to get lost in the scenes and make those photographs! The shutter curtain opened and closed in several staccato bursts. I could hear the murmur of vendors and beach goers nearby but I was mentally deaf to their sounds. My focus was on the spindly figures and their little boards, far, far away.

Time passed and I was back at my digs in Cuenca, high on the spine of the Andes Mountains in central Ecuador. I had the files from my trip open on my MAC and saw I was able to capture two frames I liked during my quick shoot a few weeks back. It was obvious that if the conditions were even a little better, that could easily be reflected in the quality of possible future photographs. These two photographs are more dissimilar than alike in my opinion. I’m sure my response lies in the chasm of separation in surfing styles. Some of this is born by wave type, some is personality and some is skill. Which surfer are you as you consider my images? Are you “Cutting Curlers” or are you “The Swan”? What’s your style? Pull up a chair, sit down by me for a second and tell me, how do you handle the waves that come your way?