Surfer leads new generation into the waves

Photos by Thomas Rodriguez

Michael Moreno goes airborne demonstrating his surfboarding skills at Ratonera, a rocky shoreline near the Charles Darwin Research Station.

Michael Moreno goes airborne demonstrating his surfboarding skills at Ratonera, a rocky shoreline near the Charles Darwin Research Station.

SANTA CRUZ, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador — There’s a red danger flag snapping in the wind at Playa Brava.  Michael Moreno stands in the soft white sand, his arms crossed, watching his class of young surfers sitting on their boards, waiting for the perfect wave.

This strip of beachfront in the Galapagos Islands is famous for its beauty and its rip currents, which makes swimming here against the law.

But it’s where Moreno, 29, brings students from his Swell Surf School, the first formal surf school in the Galapagos, at least once a week.

“It’s the best beach for first-timers and for experts,” said Moreno, keeping a sharp eye on that day’s 25 students.

From the shoreline, he calls out instructions to the class of 12- to 18-year-olds.

“Here comes another, start paddling!” Moreno urges them in Spanish.

Juan Pablo Yanez carries his board across the beach to get into the waves at Playa Brava.

Juan Pablo Yanez carries his board across the beach to get into the waves at Playa Brava.

While the beginners stay relatively close to shore, those with a few years’ experience under their boards confidently paddle out to where the waves can reach 8 feet – and even higher depending on the season.

As the swells begin to pick up, Juan Pablo Yanez paddles fast to catch a 6-foot wave. He jumps to his feet; the board cuts to the left, gliding over the water with elegance.

“Surfing makes me feel free from the world,” said 16-year-old Yanez, who Moreno says is one of his best students. “I want to go professional to represent the Galapagos.”

That’s a new way of thinking for the young people growing up in the Galapagos, the chain of Pacific islands 600 miles off the coast of mainland South America. They frequently saw tourists and professionals taking on waves, but were warned off by parents worried about potential dangers lurking beneath  the surface: rip tides, sharks, manta rays, jelly fish and sea urchins, Moreno said.

But those fears are diminishing. “When surfing started, it gave more confidence to people to go in the water,”  Moreno said.

Moreno has spent his whole life on Santa Cruz, the most populated of the Galapagos islands with about 20,000 people. As a teenager, he hooked up with an older group of guys who became known as the first generation of locals to ride the waves.

One of them, Victor Vaca, used to sell last-minute excursion packages in Puerto Ayora, the main town on Santa Cruz. With the the sport’s gain in popularity,  he has turned his tourist business into a surf shop.

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Victor Vaca runs the only surfboarding shop in Puerta Ayora. He was one of the first locals to get into surfboarding.

“Ten years ago, people didn’t know much about surfing,” says Vaca, whose business doesn’t have a name but is recognizable for the surf boards lined up outside. “Foreigners began coming to ride waves and showed  us how to surf. A group of young kids started to see this. One of them was Michael Moreno.”

In 2011, Moreno approached the local government with an idea: Let’s start an after-school program for teens who want to give surfing a try.  Twenty-five kids signed up the first year.

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Before letting the youngsters get into the water, Michael Moreno makes them do warm up exercises on the beach.

Swell Surf School runs from May to November as an after-school activity. Although the class is open to males and females, boys outnumber girls 4-to-1. The occasional tourist joins the classes. The students gather at 3 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, following Moreno’s monthly schedule of workouts and beach outings.

Playa Brava is the easiest surf spot to reach from Puerto Ayora.. Carrying their boards, it’s a little less than a mile-and-a-half walk along a stone trail through the national park to get to the beach.

Not so easy to get to is Ratonera, a rocky shoreline near the Charles Darwin Research Station.

Ratonera sits right off the bay where cruise ships dock and fishermen return with their daily catch.

Carrying their boards out to deep water, students scurry across slippery rocks.  “Ratonera is a little more difficult to surf in, but you can always see sea turtles swimming around you,” said 15-year-old Matheo Jazi.

Moreno sits on his paddleboard, moving among the teens.

Donning snorkeling gear, assistant Alejandro Calderon dives under the water, on the lookout for sharks, stingrays and poisonous sea urchins.

“None of my students have been hurt by these,” Moreno said.

At Ratonera, young surfers catch the waves against a background of sailboats and fishing vessels.

At Ratonera, young surfers catch the waves against a background of sailboats and fishing vessels.

Because of the shallow reefs, Ratonera is also a great place for Moreno’s students to train for competitions. Since 2012, the Galapagos has hosted four competitions a year, one each on Santa Cruz, Isabela, San Cristobal and Floreana islands.

There are bigger international competitions on the mainland of Ecuador, which governs the islands, but it’s too expensive for the teens to get there. Only one of  Moreno’s students has competed at the international level so far. This past year, Yanez boarded a plane for Salinas, Ecuador, and came in third in his age group.

While most of the teens see surfing as a hobby, a few are ambitious to go pro, said Julio Isurieta, who has been surfing the world-class waves off San Cristobal Island for 17 years.

“In the last four to five years, there’s been an increase in the number of young surfers,” Isurieta said.

That may be because the teens are seeing more international professionals, like Kepa Acero and Mick Fanning.

The Galapagos is on the must-surf list for top-notch competitors these days. In 2014 and 2016, Surfline magazine featured the Galapagos in its “Best Bet” column for its world-class waves and great year-round weather.

“Surfing has definitely risen in the past four years here,” said Eric Asencio, a local surfer on Santa Cruz. “Outside of Michael’s school there are still a lot of surfers. His school is just bringing in a younger generation.”

Since Moreno’s Swell Surf School opened, another surf school has opened on Isabela Island, the biggest of the Galapagos islands.  Moreno’s school has expanded to year-round, although he doesn’t have the government’s financial support for part of the year.

When school is not in session, the parents pay Moreno $25 a month to continue instructing their sons and daughters.

Each surfer has a different motivation for hitting the waves. For Yanez, the 16-year-old student who wants to go pro, it’s a chance at glory and fame. For Calderon, the assistant teacher, it’s a feeling of freedom. “All I need to do is catch one wave to have that feeling,” he said.

And for Moreno, surfing has brought a sense of family.  “It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are from or what you do,” Moreno said. “If you’re out there with the rest of us, you are family.”

After two hours of surfboarding, the students walk the 2.2 kilometers through the national park and carry their boards home.

After two hours of surfboarding, the students walk the 2.2 kilometers through the national park and carry their boards home.

More like this: Galapagos 2016 | Galapagos Diary

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