Rec & Sports » World Rec

Surf's up in Liberia

Catching waves is an adventure in this West African nation that is recovering from war.

by

MONROVIA, Liberia — At 6:30 in the morning this capital city's Waterside Market slowly stirs for another day of chaotic, bustling activity.

On the north edge of the market, four people in boardshorts exchange jokes as they pass their surfboards over a rusting gate of a dilapidated orphanage, and climb awkwardly to the other side.

As puzzled onlookers on the hill stare down, the hardy crew navigates wrecked buildings, a barking guard dog, piles of trash and raw sewage and climbs onto wet boulders jutting into the crashing sea.

Each surfer picks his or her own path through the detritus, waiting for a break in the waves, before jumping off the rocks into the ocean.

This is Liberia's weekday surf scene.

"The best waves are here," explained 18-year-old Peter Swen, a talented young Monrovian, and a regular face in the tight-knit scene.

"Even though there's a lot of stuff in the water, we are still jumping in to surf the waves. It's kind of a great wave, you can ride it for 200 yards. It's kind of a perfect wave," said the dedicated surfer.

The friendships in the small surfing community of internationals and Liberians helps to make enduring the "stuff" in the water slightly more bearable. Floating plastic waste and the stench of the sewage are variables that committed urban surfers contend with around the world, to varying degrees.

Unique to the Mamba Point wave is that it faces Liberia's largest slum, West Point, where 75,000 people live without electricity, running water or toilets. This last point ushered in the point's nickname "Poopy Point," rarely said without a self-deprecating laugh.

In a country still struggling to rebuild after 14 years of civil war, such conditions come with the territory.

"Mamba Point is a physical reflection of what's going on ... It is kind of saddening, it could just be absolutely gorgeous, and instead, it's one of the filthiest places in town," said 36-year-old American Keith Chapman.

"All I can say is thank god saltwater is a natural anti-bacterial," he laughs.

Chapman is a dentist who has worked on and off here since 2005, and now runs one of the country's only dental clinics, and is working to train Liberians in dental care. The ability to surf regularly was a reason he relocated his family to one of the many surfable beaches that extend out from the city and that offer cleaner shorelines than "Poopy."

Chapman's passion for surf in Liberia — one of the world's poorest countries — led him to become a low-key ambassador for surfing here. His website, surfliberia.com, handles numerous emails a month, all with great interest in surfing here.

"It's neat to have a place where you can not only get really good surf all year round, but you can also plug into the culture, to the community and to the country, give something back, and figure out a way to help," explained Chapman.

While this has yet to translate into significant surf tourism, many believe it is coming.

Liberia is home to arguably the best waves in West Africa, in the war-torn, sleepy fishing town of Robertsport, close to the border with Sierra Leone. While Morocco, South Africa, Senegal and even Namibia and Angola offer greater variety in waves, Robertsport has its perks. With a deep trench offshore, and a set of rocky points facing the exact right direction to pick up storms radiating upwards from South Africa and Antarctica, Robertsport boasts world class waves when conditions are good.

Benjamin McCrumada, 25, lives in Robertsport, where he tries to strike a balance between surfing, school and fishing. Along with his hometown friend Alfred Lomax, and Swen in Monrovia, McCrumada hopes to push surfing in Liberia forward, and improve exposure to African surfing.

"We are the first group of people who are bringing up surfing in Liberia. For me, I am very proud to be part of the group bringing surf to Liberia ... with surfing, we want to bring pride to Liberia, and help carry the country further."

While expatriates often make the trip up for the weekend, during the week Lomax, McCrumada and the Robertsport youth they mentor dominate the perfect waves, surfing with a fine balance of skill, bravado and pleasure. Perfect waves are not the only benefit. Surfing provides modest employment for Robertsport's youth; critical in a country with 85 percent employment. McCrumada earns enough money for school fees through teaching the occasional NGO or U.N. worker. He is helping to build a community campsite geared for surfers visiting from Monrovia for weekends.

In Monrovia, Swen earns most of the money he needs by providing lessons, and — along with Lomax — has recently picked up the skills to do quality board repair. Both are willing to teach anyone who wants to learn the sport that they love.

Skills such as these, Chapman believes, will be essential to support visiting surfers in search of unique waves, who will in turn inject Liberia's economy with the first of its much desired tourism dollars.

For now though, he reminds, Liberia's route to being the surf capital of West Africa is a while off. "You're not gonna come here and get pampered by your surf tour guide and be escorted to the break and have a four-star hotel to stay in," he said with a smile.

You might, however, enjoy the surf adventure of a lifetime.