Jason Apparicio: Wave Rider

Allan Weisbecker meets Jason Apparicio, one of the Caribbean's top surfers

  • Jason’s friends Darren and Barry prepare to ride the waves. Photograph by Allan Weisbecker
  • Jason prepares to ride the waves. Photograph by Allan Weisbecker
  • Photograph by Allan Weisbecker
  • Photograph by Allan Weisbecker
  • Toco, on Trinidad's north coast. Photograph by Allan Weisbecker
  • Photographs by Allan Weisbecker

As I paddle my surfboard through tepid turquoise on the remote north coast of Trinidad, it’s hard to believe this is the same ocean as the one back home at Montauk Point, Long Island. This is technically the Atlantic, not the Caribbean, and the Atlantic to which I bade farewell two days ago was a frigid, grey 4°C, the shoreline cloaked in late winter white — a remnant of the latest blizzard of the snowiest year on record.

And as if the warm water and deserted, palm-fringed beach weren’t enough to warm the cockles of an old surf-dog’s heart, the waves are head-high and cracking, just as my host for this trip, Trinidadian Jason Apparicio, had predicted. At this moment I am feeling singularly blessed.

These reflections are interrupted as I watch Jason stroke for a set wave (bigger than average) on the outside reef. His take-off is fluid and catlike — in barely the blink of an eye he’s skating his little 6’2″, ultra-light surfboard across the top of a translucent blue wall, its glassy texture lightly burnished by a gentle offshore breeze.

Jason glides to the bottom of the wave, using the drop to convert the potential energy of his high position to kinetic, picking up still more speed in the process. The wave ahead of him is now steepening further, the crest feathering (gathering itself to break on the shelving reef). He’s got to turn, and soon, I’m thinking, get his butt out of there, or the wave’s going to freight train (overrun) him, which at best will mean the embarrassment of a wipeout, or at worst a turbulent collision with the sharp coral bottom.

Come on, come on, Jason, turn, get out of there!

He’s looking way too casual, hasn’t even glanced over his shoulder at the looming crest now about to dump about a ton of white water directly on top of him.

What is he thinking?

In truth, Jason isn’t thinking anything, for conscious thought has no place in high performance surfing. What he’s doing is feeling the wave. Through what surfers call “wave sense” — a combination of experience and the gift of natural-born talent — he is attempting to find harmony with this primal force of nature. This search for harmony is the essential aesthetic of surfing.

The luxury of philosophical musings is all well and good, but out here in the real world of violently cascading water and jagged reefs, it’s obvious that Jason has waited too long to make his turn. In another millisecond his ride’ll be history.

Wait! Like a coiled spring, Jason’s now unleashing his own power, burying his inside rail, and with his body leaning out over the water at an impossible angle, he’s turning his board straight up, pointing it right into the wave’s gaping maw. Then, with a fluid shift of his weight, he uses the energy of the breaking crest to turn himself right back down toward the bottom, whence — barely a heartbeat ago — he’d just come.

This manoeuvre — a carving turn off the bottom, a vertical climb to the wave’s breaking crest then a reversal of direction and a near free fall back down — is repeated twice in a flowing, graceful rhythm.

Now the wave is “walling up,” steepening to vertical then beyond that, to concave, Jason shifting his weight forward for more speed. He’s not fooling around here, this section of the wave means business and there’s at best two feet of water over the serrated, unforgiving reef.

I can’t help but let fly an appreciative hoot as he tucks himself into the small tubular space inside the wave, grinning wildly as he flies right by me, so close I can hear the whisper of his planing board over the roar of the wave, like tearing silk. I crane my head, looking back toward the beach to see if he made it. Yes, he pops over the back of the wave and is quickly stroking back out to do it all again.

Caribbean surfing has come a long way since I first explored the area as a teenager in the mid-1960s. There were just a handful of local surfers in those days, young guys inspired by the Stateside pioneers — mostly from Florida and New York who came to the islands in search of uncrowded, warm-water reef breaks.

By the late 1970s, the Caribbean began to emerge in its own right as a producer of world class surfers. Jason Apparicio is one of the latest of this crop of ultra-hot Caribbean wave riders.

As we relax on the beach after a satisfying couple of hours in the water, he begins to talk about his background, and how he got involved in surfing. Soft-spoken and articulate, his words are punctuated with thoughtful pauses, his manner unassuming.

l’m surprised to learn that Jason was born in England. “My Mom and Dad are Trinidadian” he hastens to add, his pride in his country evident, “And we moved back to Trinidad, to north Santa Cruz, when I was two.” Although he started surfing in Trinidad in 1987 when he was 12, his formative years as a surfer were spent in Palm Beach, Florida, where his Dad moved the family after securing work in the accounts department of a large hospital.

Over the years Florida has produced some of the hottest surfers in the world. World champion Kelly Slater hails from Melbourne, just up the beach. With surfing, as with any other sport, a high level of ability in those around you is bound to act as an inspiration.

Jason agrees. “When I started entering surf contests in high school in Florida, I was immediately forced to push myself in order to do well.” He returned to Trinidad in 1989 to lead the national team to France for the World Amateur Contest. Although the Trinidad and Tobago team was young and green, and their showing unremarkable, Jason was a standout placing 19th in his division: impressive for a young man who had only been surfing for two years.

The experience of competing in the world contest stood him in good stead when he returned to Florida; the following year he placed 5th in the Florida National Scholastic Surfing Associations rankings, and 2nd in the highly competitive Palm Beach County. He then travelled to Texas to face the challenge of the United States Amateur Championship where he placed 14th in his division, beating out a host of well-seasoned surfers from the Fast Coast, California, Puerto Rico and Hawaii.

In 1992, at age 18, Jason made the decision to turn pro.

When I ask what his parents thought of his growing dedication to the sport, Jason smiles, rolling his eyes. “Mom and Dad weren’t all that pleased. They were mainly interested in my doing well at school.”

I smiled, having been through the same sort of parental pressure at his age; the big difference, however, was that back then (in the stone age of surfing) there was no pro tour, no media attention, no endorsement deals, In short, there was no money in the sport. Now, the top surfers all make six figures (US dollars); Kelly Slater not too long ago signed surfing’s first million-dollar endorsement deal.

Out on the water, Barry St George, Jason’s longtime surfing buddy, has picked up an overhead wave and is tearing across its face, working his board rail to rail keeping himself in that ethereal locus of maximum speed where the unbroken wave pitches forward in a burst of pure, water-born energy.

Barry is world class in his own right, and I remark that he’s about as aggressive a surfer as you’ll come across anywhere. Jason nods “Barry rips he says. “Truly.”

The difference between Barry’s style and Jason’s is marked. Jason tends to take a fluid, graceful approach to his relationship with the wave; Barry attacks seemingly impressing his own will upon it. With his Rasta dreadlocks flying and a rooster-tail of spray raised with each carving manoeuvre, Barry is a wild man in the water. They both push the limits of control, but Jason moves like a dancer, Barry like a gymnast.

Given the strictly stylistic differences in surfers who have reached the highest levels of ability, how does one make a judgement as to who is “better”? It is a problem which, with certain purists of the sport (myself included), raises questions about the validity of surf contests.

Jason is quick to agree. “On any given day, with a couple of guys surfing at their peak, it becomes a subjective thing, a matter of personal taste.” As Barry finishes up his ride with a flying kickout, Jason picks up a handful of sand and pauses. “There are frustrations in making a living as a professional surfer, and contest judging is one of them” he says, contemplating the grains as they sift through his fingers. “Plus a lot of things you deal with have nothing to do with what goes on in the water. But you deal with them. It’s part of the life”.

Part of the life of a pro surfer is qualifying to compete with the top-ranked guys on the World Championship Tour (WCT). To accomplish this goal, in 1993, Jason set his sights on the World Qualifying Series (WQS), held in various venues on the East Coast of the United States. To do this he needed financial sponsorship for travelling and living expenses.

“Media attention is the key to getting sponsorship,” he says.

His strong showings in the United States and World Amateur Championships resulted in his being featured as an up-and-comer in Surfer magazine, the sport’s most influential publication. Financial sponsorship from a clothing company and a surfboard manufacturer soon followed.

“The support I got from BWIA was also very important” he emphasises. “At first they let me fly at half-price, then, when I started making strong contest showings in the pro events, they gave me free tickets. I’m very thankful for their help.”

In spite of the fact that he was only able to compete at eight of the 12 venues on the East Coast Tour, Jason garnered enough contest points to place 24th in a field of 250, making him the number 1 Caribbean-based surfer. Jason’s international accomplishments did not go unnoticed at home in Trinidad and Tobago either; he has been national champion for three years and a nominee for the Sportsman of the Year award.

That same year Jason improved his pro standings by placing 9th on the WQS held in Brazil, beating some of the best of an international field. This showing resulted in financial sponsorship from Angostura and Dragon Sunglasses.

The monthly salary and expenses provided by these companies — along with the continued support of BWIA — enabled Jason to compete on the European Tour in 1995, where he placed consistently in the money in contests held in France, Spain and Morocco. These successes resulted in Quicksilver, a prestigious US-based surf and swimwear company, signing him on as a team member.

Jason invested part of his contest earnings and endorsement money in a trip to Hawaii that winter, spending three weeks on the North Shore of Oahu, a stretch of beach that is to surfers what Everest is to mountain climbers. It’s a place where you truly find out what stuff a surfer is made of. I know, having lived there for two years back in the late 1960s. I remember days when the surf was so big and scary that standing on the beach was enough to give a sane person the shakes.

I ask Jason how he handled the pressure. What I’m really asking is, did he paddle out when it got BIG?

“Let me put it this way,” Jason responds with a grin, knowing exactly what I’m getting at “I brought seven boards with me and by the end of my trip, I’d broken six in big surf.”

Eyes bright, Jason describes his first go-out at Pipeline, considered to be the most dangerous surf break in the world. “It was breaking on the second reef (meaning it was BIG) and on my first wave I didn’t make the drop, got mashed on the reef and broke my board.”

Welcome to the Pipe

“That first wave got my attention all right. But I swam in, grabbed another board and paddled right back out . . . and I made my next wave — a big, mean barrel. It was the wave of my life.” Jason pauses and I sense he’s reliving that ride. “I was surfing with the legends of the sport,” he says, his voice low and intense, “and I held my own.”

Last year Jason ran 19th out of 250 in the European Tour, doing particularly well in France (5th out of nearly 200), Reunion Is land (7th) and Portugal (9th). He won his national championship for the third year running. He can now surf his way around the world, choosing his own competitive schedule. Not a bad life.

“In truth, I’m not that interested in the professional surfing scene as such,” Jason says, pausing to watch Barry rip on another overhead wave, with Darren Farfan, another hot Trinidadian buddy, picking up the one behind it. “The contests and the money and the endorsements and all that allow me to spend a lot of time in the water. All I really want to do is surf.”

I look around. Jason and I are the only humans on this pristine, tropical beach, Barry and Darren the only guys riding the perfect waves breaking on the reef. No contest judges, no mob of spectators, no phalanx of surf writers and photographers to impress.

Just the sea, sun and sand, and a few friends to share them with. Soul surfing is what we used to call it Jason nods. “This is what surfing is all about.”

I’m thinking that this would be a good place to end the interview but Jason still has something on his mind. “A very bad thing happened in Hawaii,” he says, and his voice has an odd, quiet edge. “A friend of mine was killed surfing. A guy I knew from the pro tour. Donnie Solomon. He made a mistake in big surf and he drowned . . . He was a good surfer and a good friend.”

Jason wants to say more about his friend Donnie Solomon but the words catch in his throat. He forces a smile and gets up, looking around at this little piece of paradise. Then he picks up his board and paddles back into the surf.

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