Words and images by George Harper (@georgeswims), who swam out to capture some of the biggest surf ever seen in the Dominican Republic thanks to Hurricane Teddy
The Dominican Republic is the home of many amazing waves, a lot of them unknown and unridden. With the warm crystal clear waters of the Caribbean, it’s a paradise and still off the map in terms of surf destinations.
I’ve been living here for the past year in a small town called Cabarete, famous for windsurfing and kitesurfing due to the trade winds. I’ve spent my time getting to know the island and its people.
This place is different than anywhere else I've visited. The people are warm, caring and happy, even if they have very little, and it quickly feels like home with a community that genuinely looks out for one another. Selflessness is second nature.
Spot guide: Dominican Republic
Local surfers always talked about the epic swells that hurricane season brings in September, so I wanted to stay here and see what that was all about, I was due to go back to my home country of England to shoot a wedding but COVID changed those plans. After a long wait and an unusual year spent quarantined, escaping for early morning surfs to avoid the police, mother nature brought us the greatest gift of all.
September 23 2020, I got a message at 5am from pro surfer Manuel Selman, saying: “Puerto Plata, it’s going to be all time”. I got my camera equipment and he picked me up, we drove 45 minutes to Puerto Plata. It was still dark when we arrived but the sound from the ocean was haunting. As the light revealed the monstrous peak peeling as big, clean and perfect as anyone has ever seen, we realised today could be the day to make history in the Dominican Republic.
Manuel phoned a few local surfers who liked surfing big waves, Andres Flores and Cameron Dietrich.
I watched these waves breaking out back and I knew it was big, but with no point of reference it's always hard to know the size we were dealing with. The idea of swimming with my camera scared me but I also knew that I couldn’t watch such beautiful walls of perfection go undocumented as it was lining up to be the biggest swell surfed in the Dominican Republic.
We didn’t have the necessary safety precautions despite our best efforts, we aren’t used to getting consistent big swells here, but we were faced with temptation that was too difficult to turn our backs on, and with a lot of experience amongst us, we felt confident.
We headed out to the lineup, and watched the first set roll in.
The longer I sat out there, the more captivated I became with the waves. I felt calm, I knew at some point I would take one on the head but I was amazed at what I was seeing, and the beauty and power of it overcame those feelings of fear, I felt blessed.
The first surfer to go was Andres Flores, Andres has spent many years following big swells and surfing big waves, he paddled out on a beastly old gun, heavy and 10’4”, he was loving it. Andres Flores has surfed Jaws, Nazare, Maverick's, and many more big wave spots, he travels around the globe doing what he loves whilst spending his downtime at home here in the Dominican Republic.
The next surfer to go was Cameron Dietrich. Cameron is a life-long water sports professional with an academic background in Marine Sciences. With more than 30 years experience living in the Caribbean and Hawaii, Cam has explored well over 90 countries, travelling the world to find the best waves to ride. As one of the biggest sets of the morning lined up, he took the drop.
After four hours in the water and a few sets on the head, I swam in with the help of Andres Flores as I battled against the current.
We were greeted on the shore by all the surfers from Cabarete as they continued to watch in awe of the beauty breaking 1km off the shore of Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic.
For anyone who ever wondered, we do get waves here, and although it may not be as consistent as other famous surf locations, there are uncrowded world class waves to be surfed, in a beautifully diverse country.
I spoke with Manuel Selman about what he’s been up to in his first year out of surf competition in 15 years, and about the Puerto Plata Swell.
“It’s been a very interesting year, we had a good run of swells over the winter which kept me from going into the coming season, but then early March the pandemic hit. All competitions were cancelled and we were quarantined, it was the first time in 15 years I wasn’t traveling and competing around the world.
“Now is my favourite time of year, with the hurricane swells coming in consistently, September is always the magic month for good waves. We saw the swell coming from Teddy, and it looked like it was going to be a good one. We got a crew together last minute, had our life vests and photographers, headed to Puerto Plata because I know its the wave the holds the most size here, it always delivers on big swells.
“We went at 5am to tackle the big right hander, so yeah, it was pretty fun. The first day was big, faces of 30-35 feet, I borrowed an 8’8” from a friend who came up from Santo Domingo, and he then came out with my 7’4” and we switched in the water. I couldn’t really take the set waves on my board so I had to sit a little inside and take those waves.
“Luckily for me I didn’t get any sets on the head. I had some clean fun ones but I definitely need to order a big board and be 100 per cent prepared with my own equipment next time. Andres Flores and Cameron Dietrich murdered it out there, charging, it was pretty cool. We were all looking out for each other, we had no jet skis, no boats and its a long paddle out, approximately 1km.
“We also had George out there with his camera, floating around with his housing so mad respect to the photographer, and yeah, we’re just going to keep looking for big surf in the Dominican Republic!”