Itwas the kind of scene you’d expect to see on the North Shore of Oahu or the Gold Coast of Australia: three surfers bobbing in the water as a 4.6m swell rolled in. One of the surfers paddled into it, snapped to his feet and suddenly he was riding it — millions of liters of the ocean’s energy barreling him forward. He turned, speeding left, flipping right, then crouched down and held the sides of his board, launching himself 1.5m off the crest. He flew, spinning into the air, drops of water fanning him like white lace, and landed with perfect ease on the wave as it settled back down and lapped toward shore.
Only this wasn’t Pipe, Indo or any other famous moniker the world’s nomadic surfing community bestows on its favorite pilgrimage spots. This clean, perfect, enormous wave was rolling in to a little-known surf destination — the east coast of Barbados. And the only audience that these three surfers — professionals from Hawaii and Florida in town to shoot a documentary for billabong — had was an empty, palm-tree-lined beach.
Tucked in the southern corner of the Lesser Antilles, Barbados is the easternmost island in the Caribbean. The island’s west coast is its famous side: powdery beaches, water as clear as if it were poured from a tap, manicured estates, really manicured resorts and even more manicured golf courses. That part of the island is known as the Platinum Coast, so named for the color of its sparkling coastline and its preferred credit cards. That is the Barbados of the travel agencies and guidebooks. But it’s only half the story.
The eastern coast of Barbados is a whole other world. Sequestered from the posh resorts by hectares of sugar cane fields, thick, verdant forests and trees full of wild monkeys, this is Barbados’ rougher side. “You could spend all your time in the west and never know the real Barbados,” said Melanie Pitcher, a surfing instructor and owner of Barbados Surf Trips. “The east is run by the locals, not the tourists.”
The main town on this side is Bathsheba. Bathsheba looks as if it was once the playground of mythical creatures — enormous limestone boulders are casually strewn in the shallows, as though giants were playing catch and paused for a break. The wind barrels in relentlessly off the Atlantic, sweeping the hillside and everything with it: the mountain face is hollowed by the warm blasts, palm trees arch backward, their seaside fronds thinned from the constant howl, waves endlessly roll in from the vast ocean. It’s a coastline carved by centuries of wind blowing from thousands of kilometers away, great gusts of salty air like tempests heaved by the gods.
With isolation, of course, come characters. This is a place where people have names like Buju, Yellow and Chicken. Where you pay deference to Snake, the founding father of Barbados surfing. Where people know to avoid “dropping in” on Smoky’s wave if he’s having a bad day.
But the real celebrity in town is Soup Bowl, the island’s biggest wave. “When soup Bowl is good, it gives you goose bumps,” Pitcher said. We were sitting on the deck of the sea side bar on the main (well, only) road in town, finishing a lunch of fried flying fish with rice and beans, watching the swells curl into massive walls of water. There were no surfers out, but a few people were sitting on the shoreline taking in the show. “When it’s breaking clean, people come here after work and stand on the beach to watch. It’s pure magic.”