The Chimerical Vision: A Comparison of Aquatic Safety in Puerto Rico: 1999 vs. 2024

The Chimerical Vision: A Comparison of Aquatic Safety in Puerto Rico: 1999 vs. 2024

Story by Pepe García, Creative Director of the Documentary "La Bruja" (1995), publisher of Surf in Rico Magazine (1996-2001), owner of Stoked Rincón, and member of the Board of Directors of Rincón Water Safety Organization

Note: The following article was originally published in Surf in Rico magazine, edition 3.1 in 1999.

Original Article (1999)

I will briefly explain my vision of the past and future of surfing in Puerto Rico. For me, it is very simple, and I am sure these words will clarify your personal vision, not only of surfing but of culture as well. These words will make you think about your roots and probably create changes in your life from now on, or at least prepare you psychologically for the future.

Our Taíno Indians had a very close relationship with the sea. They were fishermen and spent their time navigating between coastal islets like La Mona, El Desecheo, Culebra, and Isla Nena. Anyone who has navigated these waters knows how dangerous it is to go in a small boat; imagine it in a canoe. The Taínos, like the Hawaiians, had a direct relationship with the sea and were undoubtedly the first surfers in Puerto Rico.

Unfortunately or fortunately, our maritime culture died with the Taínos. Why? Imagine you are sailing from Spain in a not very fast, not very comfortable boat, and along the way, you encounter storms, swells, and throwing up until you are green. This four-week journey was the first experience our Spanish ancestors had to reach Puerto Rico. With this baptism by the sea, it is not surprising that Puerto Ricans live in fear of water. According to Red Cross statistics, 90% do not know how to swim, and according to the Department of Health, there are more than 190 deaths per year caused by drowning or submersion in Puerto Rico. Currently, our beaches are completely neglected, with no security, cleanliness, awareness, or respect for this resource, which is of such importance to our economic development.

In the '60s, a group of American entrepreneurs along with several locals began to develop surfing in Puerto Rico. Notable among them are Gary Hoyt and José Rodríguez. Gary was president of the Young & Rubicam Advertising Agency, and José, considered today as the father of water sports in Puerto Rico, was the first to bring Hobie Cats and Windsurfers to the island. They were responsible for developing the sport, founding the Puerto Rico Surfing Association, and organizing local and international competitions. They are the first generation of surfers in Puerto Rico. Unfortunately, surfing was a very young sport at that time, and the professional circuit did not exist, making it very difficult to make a living from surfing.

Of our first exponents, the most outstanding was Jorge Machuca, a humble but talented young man who opened the eyes of the entire world with his unique style. Unfortunately, an accident cut short his career. However, his achievements captured the attention of a young man named Edwin Santos, who became the first professional surfer from Puerto Rico, winning competitions on the East Coast of the United States, Hawaii, Japan, and other parts of the world.

The '80s was the era of surf shops, with Playero being the most prominent, with its fashion of T-shirts and leather sandals. Playero had stores in Condado, Ocean Park, and Plaza las Américas. By '94, Puerto Rico had 57 surf shops.

Then La Bruja came out (the first surf video made in Puerto Rico), and now in 2000, there are around 108 surf shops in almost every town on the island, including the mountains. The industry is growing rapidly, and today there are surfers like Carlos Cabrero, William Sue A Quan, Otto Flores, and Pablo Díaz who make a living from the sport of surfing. In May 1996, the first edition of Surf in Rico was published, the first local surfing magazine, which has maintained constant and progressive growth, bringing images and articles of our surfers. It now reaches almost 80,000 readers across the island, with subscriptions in the United States, South Africa, Spain, Peru, Colombia, and Brazil, among others.

Now we face a serious problem: Puerto Rico is not prepared for an increase in the surfing population because there is simply no water safety. However, the number of surfers will continue to grow because the waves will continue to break, and our talent will continue to develop and achieve new goals that we once thought were impossible. Puerto Rico is the largest surfing power in the Caribbean, we have the best waves and the best surfers, we just need to get this message to everyone in Puerto Rico: We need a safety system on our beaches. The North Coast of Puerto Rico is an open window to the Atlantic Ocean, one of the most dangerous seas in the world. Be careful.

To conclude, I would like to remind you of a verse from a classic salsa song by Willie Colón and Rubén Blades from "Rincón de los Aburridos": "What good is it to have, and have, and have, and have; If you don't know what to do, nor what to do, nor what to do, with what you have!!!"

I've said it. (He dicho!)

Update in 2024: 

25 Years of Inaction: The Urgent Need to Improve Water Safety in Puerto Rico.

Current State in 2024 In 2024, drownings in Puerto Rico remain a serious problem. During the first three months of the year, 49 drownings were reported, an alarming figure that highlights the lack of significant improvements in water safety (USCG News) (Boston 25 News). Recent incidents include multiple tragedies in areas like La Concha, where a person drowned around 6 a.m., before the lifeguard shift started (Primera Hora).

Luquillo and Fajardo have been the scenes of numerous fatal incidents despite warnings and danger signs installed on these beaches. In Luquillo, for example, a tourist from Minnesota died due to strong currents, and in Condado, several tourist deaths were reported, caught by currents in extremely dangerous conditions.

Rincon Water Safety Organization: A Model to Follow A positive aspect in this bleak panorama is the success of the Rincon Water Safety Organization, which has managed to keep Rincón free of drownings in 2024. This achievement is a testament to the impact a united and committed community can have on water safety. Although lifeguards have not yet been implemented in Rincón, this is part of the plan. Currently, we are waiting to obtain insurance for the operation, a considerable challenge as there is no specific policy for lifeguards. We have requested help from the government, not in terms of money, but to facilitate obtaining this necessary insurance policy to start the program.

Rincón's success shows that community collaboration is key to saving lives. By integrating local businesses and residents into safety initiatives, we have created a model that can and should be replicated in other parts of the island.

A Call to Action It is crucial that both the community and the government take stronger measures to improve safety on our beaches. We need more resources, training, and personnel to ensure that everyone can enjoy the sea safely. It is our duty to our citizens and visitors to ensure that our beautiful beaches are safe for everyone. I invite all those interested in supporting this vital cause to contact me, Pepe García, at rwatersafety@gmail.com. By helping Rincon Water Safety Org., we will save lives.

Final Reflections The history of surfing in Puerto Rico is rich and complex, marked by achievements and challenges. However, safety on our beaches remains a critical area that needs our attention. As the song by Willie Colón and Rubén Blades says: "What good is it to have, and have, and have; if you don't know what to do, nor what to do, nor what to do with what you have." We have the talent, the waves, and the passion. Now, we must ensure that we also have the safety.

Rincon Water Safety Organization: "Safety does not exist until you create it." BWRAG