I first spoke with Corey McLean after learning about his coffee table book project. Corey was in Peru with his team, attending a surf contest where his Cuban friend and one of the subjects of his movie, was competing.
Corey first went down to Cuba in 2014 and by happenstance met two surfers who wound up being the subjects of his feature length film. When the news that U.S. and Cuban relations were improving, he convinced his partners at Makewild Films that they needed to get down there and film a documentary on surfing in Cuba. They left the US with an idea, but no real plan for the movie.
Since the films’ conception its been 3 years and 5 trips. They’re producing a feature length film, which Corey tells me is a “chronicling of change through the lens of surfing. Surfing is synonymous with a lot of things that young people go through in Cuba and surfing is just the story that [they] chose.” The movie explores life in Cuba through the eyes of the two surfers that Corey met back in 2014, Yaya Guerrero and Frank Gonzalez. The biggest hurdle for the small community of surfers, centered largely in Havana, is the unwillingness of the Cuban Government to recognize surfing as a legal sport. In Cuba, there aren’t necessarily laws outlawing specific activities such as skateboarding and surfing, but the lack of something on the books recognizing them is what works against them. These quirks persist today, but date back to the fall of the Soviet Union, a time when thousands of Cubans fled the country. Without any idea of what surfing was, surfers seen in the water were often times mistaken for refugees trying to escape, and were often arrested. Their goal is documenting a consistent wave, because oddly enough the government doesn’t even recognize that there are surfable waves anywhere on the island nation. While there are clearly waves in and near Havana, it takes storm swell and cooperating winds to create favorable waves. This governmental snag sparked their journey and the creation of their coffee table book, THE CUBA UNKNOWN: An Exploration in Times of Change.
Armed with data from Google Earth, Corey and his team grabbed their new Cuban surfing friends and found a willing guide, Pedro. In his capable vehicle, a 1957 Land Cruiser, they headed southeast from Havana to Guantanamo. They hypothesized that consistent waves could be found near the infamous Guantanamo Bay, rather unsurprisingly their efforts were thwarted by both the Cuban and American military and they were told to leave the area. Backtracking, they made their way north back to Guantanamo and then back south, west of the military base. It was here they hit pay dirt. There wasn’t a significant swell in the water, but even then they found world-class, never before surfed, head high waves. They spent time surfing at a shipwrecked battleship, a reminder of the Spanish American War, and scoured the coastline via Rt. 20 (which runs the length of Cuba’s southern coast from Santiago De Chile to Pilon, covering about 130 miles). They found some 15 other spots in the area, just west of Santiago De Cuba, a truly amazing reward for their efforts. For their Cuban friends, this was a monumental moment. It proved that there are consistent waves in Cuba and could serve as the evidence needed to convince the Cuban government to recognize surfing as a legal activity. Since that trip, Frank, Yaya, and their friends have returned, reporting back that this area holds up in swell at least double overhead.
Their movie is due out sometime in late summer/fall of 2018, but their coffee table book is ready to ship for Christmas. While the movie tells this amazing story of the Cuban plight, the book is a documentation of their travels, including beautiful photos of their trip south, as well as maps, directions, and information on the surf spots they discovered in the 3 years they’ve spent exploring Cuba’s practically uncharted surf scene. To purchase the book, you can back their project on Kickstarter now.