Surf Scene: The Pioneers of Bocas

by Longboard Rob

Imagine having the opportunity to talk to Christopher Columbus, or Neil Armstrong about what it was like to be a pioneer; a person who had done something that no one else had done. I had that chance just before I left Bocas for Europe. It was an honor and a privilege to interview the three pioneers of surf on the Isla Colón: Julio Cotes  Surgeon, Gregory Small and Carlos “Kinga” Samudio.

According to all three, until 1989 no one had ridden the great waves we have on our islands. Julio Surgeon said even in Panama City they thought that those living in Bocas del Toro “rode from island to island on the backs of turtles and played football with coconuts.”

That changed in 1989 when a guy called Sergey Smith brought the first board to the island. Sergey didn’t know how to surf, so the guys would take turns riding the board straight in.

Meanwhile Kinga went to Costa Rica during the “military time” seeing surfing in Limón. He brought back this knowledge with him. By 1993, he, Julio and Gregory were riding the waves at Paunch. They still only had the one board, so they cut down a balsa tree at Big Creek and carved a surfboard out of it. They covered it with rough fiberglass, making the fins out of plywood. They used a rope as a leash, but that almost pulled their leg out of its socket. They experimented with a bicycle inner tube, which worked much better. Kinga added that in those days they had no surf wax, so they used to wax their boards with candles.

For several years it was just the three of them who went from one spot to another riding waves for the first time. The only place that had a name was Paunch, which was a part of Puss Head Point. They got to name the rest. The trash from the island was originally stored in an open field at the point beyond Paunch. They called that point Dumpers. They imagined the waves in that area during the winter as being as rough as a tiger. They saw Dumpers as the head, Paunch as the body and the point before Paunch as the tail; so they called it Tiger’s Tail. They are adamant about keeping the original names.

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Things began to change with the influx of surfing tourists led by Little Wally. He brought other Gringos that knew how to surf, like Dennis and Sully who brought better boards and real leashes. Eventually the word got out about the fantastic waves on the islands of Bocas del Toro. Now it has been glorified in surf magazines. It has been conquered by surfing legends like Kelly Slater.

So for you who are new to the area or surfing here for the first time; there is a history here. The three pioneers are still with us and all three still surf. Julio is a successful business man (Hotel Vista Mar) on the island still surfing with his buddy Sully. Gregory moves back and forth with his family from Bocas to Switzerland. Kinga is one of the best chefs on the island (Hungry Monkey). Of the three, Kinga is the most aggressive. He still rips. The key word to use for all three is RESPECT. Respect the fact that they were the first. They got it started. Those of us who live here full time wait all year for the waves to arrive. Don’t cut us off. Be respectful.

Longboard Rob has lived in Bocas del Toro for eleven years. For thirty years he was privileged to teach middle school and college students in San Diego, California. He is a life-long surfer who at 70 years old is still able to ride the beautiful waves that pound the reefs and beaches on our archipelago. He has traveled and surfed throughout Central and South America. He has completed a narrative non-fiction book about his exploits in Vietnam in 1968. He is working on a manuscript of his adventure in Europe in 1979. For the Bocas Breeze, Longboard Rob plans to tell stories about the histories of people who live in the Bocas surfing community.

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