On This Day: Andy Irons Wins The Rip Curl Search Mexico
Fifteen years ago, Andy Irons stood on the winner's dais for the Rip Curl Search Mexico, having easily dispatched of Taylor Knox 16.86 to 11.33.
Despite AI's win, the event is better known for its backstory: the quality of the surf and the exposure it brought to the then-little known wave of Barra de la Cruz.
By the turn of the century, the surf world had largely wised up to the deleterious effects of harried and unplanned development that followed in the wake of surf discoveries. That such discoveries were often in developing countries without a regulatory framework to cope made the intrusion all the more unsettling to locals. Some profited, many didn't, which created winners and losers where none existed before, while the environment was almost always disregarded.
Surfers could point to examples all around the developing world, starting with Kuta and heading outwards. A mix of concern for vulnerable communities with concern for their own surfing experience brought a change in the travelling mentality. No longer were new discoveries openly publicised on the screen as Bruce Brown as Alby Falzon had done, or even written about such as Peterson and Naughton in Surfer. Cryptic was key, nothingness was better.
Which is why the 2006 Rip Curl Search Mexico caused such a stir. Just when it seemed the surfing world had moved beyond putting secret spots on the front cover, the ASP went and turned one into a Championship Tour event. Rip Curl justified their move with a cash donation to the local hospital, though the amount was questioned by Chas Smith in an article for Stab that's no longer online and in the following Surfer article by Kimball Taylor.
It could be argued that the cost of exposure - either negative or positive - shouldn't be judged in the immediate years that follow, but that a longer view needs to be taken. Traditional life may be unsetlled, the changes were perhaps always going to come, only it happened sooner and faster than expected, but ultimately, did the net positives outweight the net negatives?
Next month, the CT returns to Barra de la Cruz again and we'll hopefully get some sort of an answer to that question.
I first walked into Barra de la Cruz in 2000, floating in upon the whispers of a Puerto Escondido native who, over beers, conjured a dream wave in the jungle. And I suppose I found the village as sleepy and forgotten as the two Australians had. At the time, Pablo Narvaez was away working in California, which meant there were no local surfers or any suggestion that there ever had been. I remember the luminous rocks, as suggestive of form as a ruined monument buried to its shoulders in sand. I remember the current as steady and sure as a treadmill, and the feeling, on kicking out so far down the line, of actually having gone somewhere—of having traveled. While enjoying the golden light of evening on the beach, a fisherman approached. We exchanged pleasantries, and then he asked, apropos of nothing, “Where will you sleep tonight?”
I shrugged. “On the beach.”
“You can’t sleep on the beach. The mosquitoes will come out of the wetland and eat you alive.” The man looked at my few possessions. “Where is your food?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Is there a restaurant?”
He chuckled. “You are stupid,” he said.
I nodded. We watched the sunset. Afterward, with a grimace, he said, “Come with me.”
The fisherman walked me back into the village, where he negotiated with a family who then swept the shit out of their bamboo turkey hutch and placed a cot inside for my comfort. Then my new friend delivered me to the home of an elderly woman who fried up some tilapia and served it with tortillas as hard as the stone mortar the corn had been ground in. That night, lying on the cot, I listened to the complaints of the turkeys who’d been evicted on my behalf; they waddled, gurgled, and pissed just outside the bamboo.
In Pablo, the two things—surfing and environmentalism—weren’t necessarily linked, but had evolved, shifted, and traveled together like species of migratory birds heading south. A recent crisis in the village, however, seemed to pit one against the other.
Ever since, I’d taken an interest not only in the wave, but in the pueblo of Barra de la Cruz. I thought it was an opportunity to understand what discoveries like that wave can do to a place over the long haul; I had Kuta Beach and Puerto Escondido in mind. But the example of Barra de la Cruz turned out to be special because its people had long instituted a form of democracy based on native principles and had consolidated into a recognized comunal in 1964. Each leader of a household carried a vote, and no land transactions could be conducted without the unanimous consent of the voters. Sales to any non-citizens of the pueblo were prohibited. To my mind, this communal government that appointed citizens to all positions—from night-watch guards to president—might serve as a bulwark against piecemeal, corporate, and federal tourist schemes. The town just might be able to work in its own self-interest.
Examples of why this may be important lay up and down the coast, from Puerta Vallarta, where residents of the fishing village at Punta de Mita were forcibly evicted so a five-star resort could take their place, to nearby Huatulco, where inhabitants were pushed off their coastal land but invited back to work as maids and gardeners for 70 pesos ($6) per day. From Ixtapa to Cancún, if tourists showed interest, outsized development was sure to follow.
Barra de la Cruz stood in contrast, possibly because of its democratic roots. But how long could it sustain itself?
Word of the wave quietly grew until 2006, when the surf-themed clothing company Rip Curl proposed an internationally sanctioned event to the council at Barra de la Cruz. Some in the council voiced concern about the exposure an international event would bring; some believed they were not ready. But the people wanted a medical center. If they got a structure in place, the government would provide a doctor. They needed $30,000 to build it. Negotiations between the international company and the villagers were uneven. In the end, Rip Curl paid Barra de la Cruz a fraction of the medical center’s cost, which equated to less than 10 percent of what it would have cost to permit an event at Trestles at the time. On the issue of exposure, Pablo claimed that he and the council asked Rip Curl not to name Barra outright, which is why, on the webcast, it was called “La Jolla.” Regardless, no one expected what happened next: Some of the most incredible point waves any Association of Surfing Professionals event has ever seen arrived in perfect step for the event.
“Those were the best waves I have ever seen at Barra,” Pablo said.
The actual location of the Rip Curl Pro Search “Somewhere in Mexico” spilled across the Internet with the speed of fiber optics, and it instantly became one of the most sought-after surf destinations in the world. To accommodate visitors, the town council built a large cabaña on the beach that housed a popular restaurant, and a set of bathrooms just behind. The road to the coast was gated and a small fee was charged for entry. Proceeds from the restaurant and gate fee initially brought good things to the pueblo. The medical facility was finally completed and the road into town paved. Citizens were becoming proud of their little town. The beach cabaña evolved into a symbol of their new economy. So when not long after the contest the historically wild river mouth that emptied near the point began to threaten the cabaña with erosion, Barra’s council decided to move the entire river to the east. According to a local surfer named Cesar, this is when sand began to disappear from the break. The river, Cesar indicated in hindsight, was the source of the wave’s magic. Without a periodic infusion of river sand, a hole soon began to develop in the sandbar. A tropical cyclone exacerbated the situation, and by 2010 the most phenomenal sand point the pro tour had ever seen was a shadow of its former self.