When Chile first laid claim to the port city of Arica in 1880 following its victory over Peru in the War of the Pacific little did they know that not only were they now holding a key trading location but they had inertly seized one of the best and heaviest waves in the Latin Americas if not the world. With "El Gringo" being highly regarded as one the the heaviest waves in South America it has been sitting high at the top of my bucket list of surf spots to document for a long time now and with the arrival of the APB (Association of Professional Bodyboarders) World Tour to the North of Chile for the 2017 Arican Chilean Challenge it was now high time to cross it off that list.
Much of my well spent youth consisted of watching bodyboard movies on repeat while simultaneously thumbing through page apon page of well worn bodyboard magazines many of which featured El Gringo on a regular basis. As a young skinny salty sunburn grommet I always dreamed of one day visiting the cold shores of Chile and giving this famed wave my best nudge.
Fast forward to twenty odd years later and a slightly older, arguably wiser well weathered version of my teenage self was deep into the South American leg of a two year long journey down the Pacific coast of the Latin Americas. I knew at some point I would make the pilgrimage to the infamous surf town of Arica which sits on the fringes of the Atacama desert in the most northern reaches of Chile. I was hoping to time arrival perfectly not only with peak swell season (June-November) but also with the Arican leg of the World Bodyboard Tour (APB tour).
Nowadays I have morphed more into a surf photographer/surf travel blogger than a frothing bodyboarder and I figured what could possibly be better than documenting some of the best bodyboarders in the world recklessly charging one of the most dangerous waves on the planet? Yup that's right, not much. It was the middle of May when I was busy scoring some of the world’s best left hand point breaks in Northern Peru that I received word that the 2017 Arica Chilean Challenge had been confirmed to be held in a little over a month’s time. So alas I reluctantly left the famed Peruvian point break of Chicama behind me and begun to slowly make my way South along the Pacific coast of Peru to the North of Chile. However, a brief detour to the stunning mythical Inca ruins of Machu Picchu was also in order as quite frankly it would be rude not to but this is a different story altogether. [Continued below]
After surviving a somewhat chaotic bus ride/border crossing from Tacna in Peru I soon found myself standing in the dusty port town of Arica only a night prior to when the contest was due to commence. I was greeted at the local bus station by Ecuador’s number one bodyboarder and good friend Michael Duque and local Arican Dropknee charger Yerko Antonio Vasquez. Yerko was a complete legend for letting me crash at his house for the week. I had met Michael in the surf earlier in the year in the Galapagos islands and we have been good friends ever since. Michael was here as Ecuador’s sole representative in the contest and he was gagging at the bit to try his luck in the trials and hopefully fulfill his dream of progressing into the main event. Unfortunately the conditions were not to cooperate and it was the bad waves conditions that were to thwart Michael’s dream. [Continued below]
On the first day of the contest window the competitors were greeted with a maxed out stormy and dangerous swell in the triple overhead range and ultimately the event was put on hold for the day and rightfully so. Thus the first day of competition was held in very solid and gnarly 8-10ft plus waves. The rawness of the swell was making for very testing conditions for the competitors but there will still plenty of gems on offer if you found yourself in the right place at the right time. Standouts during the early rounds were the usual suspects of Jarred Houston, Tanner McDaniel, Jacob Romero and Dave Hubbard as well as host of South America and local Chilean chargers who were not shying away from any possible chance to boost and take flight on one of the world’s most unforgiving waves.
Legend has it that this widow maker of a wave located on the tip of the Alacrán Peninsula was largely overlooked and left virtually unchallenged right up until the 1970s. The story goes that this wave was first tackled by a brave and adventurous American surfer and thus the spot was aptly named "El Gringo" although in recent times patriotic Chilean surfers prefer to refer to this evil slab as "Flopos". Since then this ominous wave has gone on to forge global notary largely due to the Rip Curl Pro Search surfing event taking place here in 2007 and along with countless events as a mainstay on the World bodyboarding tour (now APB tour) and now also as apart of the WSL (World Surf League).
I had been more than familiar with this wave for much of my life but despite all of the footage and images I had so eagerly lapped up as a frothing grom it still had not prepared me for the moment of which I was to witness in person the wave breaking in all its glory. I had no real perception of its true heaviness and the high danger factor involved when attempting to tackle this beast of a wave. The first thing that really shocked me is how close El Gringo actually breaks to the rugged rocky headland and at times dry rock shelf. There is definitely next to no margin for error here. If one was to miss time their wave exit one could easily find ones self unremorsefully rag-dolled across dry razor sharp reef on the unforgiving end section. However, this grim fact did not deter many competitors on attempting to ride out of maneuvers and barrels on near dry reef, talk about commitment. El Gringo breaks in an a-frame fashion with a super ledgey fast warping left hand barreling monster on one side and a more perfect and predictable right hander on the other side of the peak. The best way I could describe this setup would be to liken it to Puerto Escondido breaking on rocks. Massive a-frame slabing tubes with huge air sections… a bodyboarders paradise. [Continued below]
On the third day the contest was blessed with a mellower and somewhat fun 4-6ft+ glassy conditions and thus making it more than perfect for water photography. Secretly one of my major reasons for making the long trek from Peru for the contest was with the hope of being able to shoot from the water during the event if the conditions and event organizers would allow it.
I have to admit I was pretty nervous when I first approached the event organizer Alex Leon for permission to shoot from the water and I made my best effort to make it sound like I knew what I was doing. Surprisingly he gave me permission to shoot as long as promised to respect the competition zone and stay out of the line of sight of the official event water photographers. I was half frothing and half shitting myself as I had not previously shot from the water here and I was totally dreading the super sketchy rock-off required to enter the wave arena. The last thing I wanted to do was to get obliterated in front of a crowd of 300 plus people yet inside I knew I had to get out there regardless. El Gringo is a wave I had always dreamed of experiencing from way back when I was a frothing little grommet and I would totally kick myself if I did not take up this once in a lifetime opportunity.
Nervously yet patiently I sat next to the rock-off spot praying that I would pick the perfect moment for a well timed swim out and not a free trip to literal obliteration on the dry rock shelf. I had spotted a good looking lull and with a rush of blood to the head I made the split second decision to make a break for it and I blindly plunged into the narrow rocky keyhole channel and the frigid waters of the Chilean Pacific coast. Instantly the freezing water knocked the wind out of me and I was being rapidly surged over almost dry rock shelf by the fast out flowing water. It felt like I was being washed out to sea by white water rapids that you would only usually experience in a flooded river. After fortunately only having to duck under one wave I soon found myself sitting safely although somewhat breathless in the channel next to professional surf photographer Pablo Jimenez ( who for the record is a complete legend), the hardest part was now over.
Over the next three hours I proceeded to witness some of the world’s best absolutely tear this epic wave to pieces while I tried in my vainest to capture every fleeting moment of epicness while simultaneously keeping an eye out for the rogue clean-up sets that would completely closeout the entire channel from where I was shooting from. Shooting from the water gave a much truer perspective of how heavy this wave really is and how thick the lip of the barrel can get. It was a truly humbling experience to be out there in the middle of the all the madness and witnessing all of the epic action face to face. It is all too easy for one to critique the riders from the safety of our computer screens but this experience definitely gave me a new found respect for the level of commitment that the riders have by putting their body and safety on the line just for that one chance of glory. [Continued below]
This session was one of the major highlights of my surf photography experiences to date. To be out there rubbing shoulders with the best in the business at my childhood dream wave was a moment I will never forget and definitely a dream come true for me. After the days surfing had finished I was even lucky enough to blag a free ride back to shore on the contest jet-ski and thus avoiding the somewhat sketchy return on the rocks. That’s it! I had done it! I had achieved my childhood dream of shooting from the water in Arica and had even made it safely back to shore in one piece. STOKED!
I was so grateful to the APB for being so cool as to allow me to capture all the action from the water and achieve this dream. The APB may of received some bad press in recent years but despite a few setbacks I felt that they did a very solid job in Arica. As I was there with my friend and APB competitor Michael Duque they allowed me to witness the event from inside the competitor zone. I was literally sitting shoulder to shoulder with some of the biggest names in the sport. What really blew me away about these pros is how down to earth, approachable and friendly they all are. I was just some gringo that had randomly rocked up to watch the event and I soon found them greeting me, introducing themselves and shaking my hand all despite my best efforts to keep a low profile and give them space.
Another observation that really blew me away was the great level of comradery that exists between most riders. Despite being close competitors and arch rivals I witnessed a high level of genuine respect and friendliness between them all. Even when riders had not made their heats they were still more than happy to encourage and hoot on their rivals and were stoked for them when they progressed. Such a high level of sportsman ship was great to witness and I firmly believe that you would struggle witness such genuine comradery and mutual respect among competitors in the professional stand-up surfing world. While I am not much of a bodyboard groupie these days it was still a great experience for me to witness such an amazing contest with some truly awesome people – oh and snaveling the odd free massage intended solely for competitors was just an added bonus…just please don’t tell Alex!! [Continued below]
The swell was to jack-up again for the final two days of competition and with the final day being held in epic 6-8ft plus glassy as f@%k flawless conditions. The conditions were up there among quite possibly some of the best waves I have ever witnessed in my life and to be able to score waves of such quality in a contest like this is truly epic indeed. Some truly amazing surfing went down during the day in dream bodyboarding conditions but in the end only four remained being Pierre Costes (France), Iain Campbell (South Africa), Roberto Bruno (Brasil) and local Chilean Alan Munoz.
A good sized local crowd had turned up to witness the final which is teastment to the amazing popularity and support bodyboarding experiences in Chile and South America. An abundance of top level bodyboarding was being showcased to apease the rowdy crowd who were happily laping up every dramatic moment. Once the dust had settled reigning 2016 World Champion Pierre Costes was convincingly crowned victor. The Frenchman was absolutely unstoppable on the final day and capped his winning performance with long deep barrels and a ridiculously huge air forward 360 spin. None could argue that the Frenchman thoroughly deserved to experience the sweet taste of victory thanks to his next level performance in next level waves. [Contiuned below].
The contest was a great spectacle to behold and featured insane levels of bodyboarding in some truly epic conditions. I feel the success of the 2017 Arican Chilean Challenge will do the public image of bodyboarding and the APB tour a whole world of good. I had an amazing time in Arica and it is such a special little town with friendly people and not so friendly waves. It was great to finally realise my dream and make it to this famed wave for the contest. If you ever get the chance to visit Arica and the North of Chile definitely snap it up but please do not forget your big wave boots and a solid set of gonads!