Photograph by Alfredo Escobar
Surfer Ramon Navarro
Among the world’s best big-wave surfers, a Chilean and conservationist turns in one of the best barrel rides of all time.
“In my dreams, I’d never thought a wave could be that perfect,” says Chilean surfer Ramon Navarro of the wave he caught off the Fijian island of Tavarua in June 2012. “That was the best wave of my life.”
On June 8, Navarro, who is known as a big-wave specialist, exploratory surfer, and conservationist, paddled into a wave at the barreling surf break Cloudbreak. Thinking he had a smaller wave, Navarro took off deep, placing himself squarely in the gut of the wave as it surged into a 15-foot face.
While there are bigger waves, this wave was a perfect, curling tube big enough to drive a semitruck into. To the onlookers, it seemed as if Navarro would be dragged over the wave, pummeled by millions of gallons of water and slammed into the coral reef just beneath the surface. For several seconds Navarro disappeared inside the tube, only to burst out onto the shoulder in a surge of spray and wild cheers.
Some in the surf community have called it the best tube ride ever. Hyperbole aside, it is certainly a wave that will continue to live on via YouTube clicks and surfing lore. And it almost didn’t happen.
With weather reports showing the potential for huge swells and at the urging of his friend, surfer Kohl Christensen, Navarro hopped a last-minute flight to Fiji from his home in Punta de Lobos, Chile, to arrive at 2 a.m. Two hours later, Navarro was on a boat speeding toward this left-facing break.
An Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) World Championship Tour event was slated to be held the day Navarro arrived in Fiji. After conducting just two heats, organizers called off the competition because of dangerous conditions. This allowed Navarro and three dozen or so of the world’s best big-wave surfers, including Kelly Slater, to enter the water without interfering with the competition.
Typically, the competitions are webcast around the globe. With the day’s scheduled competition postponed, organizers left the webcams running and fans worldwide were treated to a spectacular session.
“It was the most expensive ticket I’ve ever bought,” says Navarro, the son of a fisherman. “I would have paid twice as much for that moment.”
Navarro’s passion for surfing is complemented by his commitment to protecting the ocean around his birthplace of Punta de Lobos. Navarro succeeded in stopping a sewage pipe that would have pumped untreated waste into the bay by reaching out to local politicians and international organizations, and organizing surfers and locals.
With that battle complete, Navarro is in the midst of working with the Chilean government and conservation groups to turn this rugged stretch of coast into a national park, which would stop encroaching development. With the prospect of megadams threatening Chile’s Patagonia region, the population has embraced conservation as a way to bring in tourism. It’s a trend Navarro has embraced to protect his own corner of Chile.
“The Chilean people have been really involved in the environmental movement,” says Navarro. “If we protect our land, take care of our country, we will have a better standard of living.”
“I don’t like politics,” says the 32-year-old. “I don’t want to do it, but there aren’t many places like this in the world.”
Adventure: It’s five months later and people are still talking about your wave at Cloudbreak. It was your first trip there. How did you score such a good ride?
Ramon Navarro: The wave breaks to the left. My home wave also breaks to the left, so I felt comfortable. The water was warm. I didn’t need a wetsuit, so I felt light. It was paradise. When I saw the wave breaking I knew I was going to get some good waves, but I never knew I was going to get a wave like that.
A: Do you think people are going to remember this wave for a long time?
RN: Probably until the next big-wave session [laughs]. Everyone talks about your wave until the next big wave comes. A lot of media and people online were talking about the wave. The wave was big news in Chile, in the newspapers. Still, mostly just surfers know about that wave. I’m still the same guy.
A: When did you learn to surf?
RN: I started surfing when I was 12 years old. I came from a poor family here in Chile. All my family members are fishermen. It was a really good education for me. My mom, my dad taught me to care about the ocean. The first thing I knew in life was the ocean and how to live with the ocean. I was with a friend, and we got a surfboard, and we just jumped in like little kids in a playground. It was easy for me because I knew a lot about the ocean because of my dad.
A: You’ve been active in the Chilean conservation movement. You’re currently working on turning the point and bay near where you grew up into a national park. Why?
RN: For me it’s a part of life. It’s the most beautiful place in the world. We have to do this the right way the first time. If the government doesn’t hear us, or we try to make money, build houses, it will be wrong. The point is empty. Just cliffs and waves. There is so much sea life. I’d like it to be there for the next generation. There are not many places like this in the world.
A: You are still looking for new waves in Chile. How do you go about finding new surf breaks?
RN: We fly a little Cessna down south. There’s not many people looking. There are no roads. No places to land. Maybe a few small villages. We’ve found a couple of spots and are waiting for the right conditions.