Surf legend Abdel Elecho’s mission: keep Borongan wild
“If I could have my way, in 10 years this would all be exactly as it is now,” says surfer Abdel Elecho, as three of us stare out at a surfer’s fantasy: a beautiful wave, a long stretch of white-sand beach, palm trees swaying in the constant wind and not a soul in sight. In the year 2018, when every “secret cove” in the tropics has an Instagram hashtag, this desolate and dramatically windswept spot in the province of Samar is indeed a rare and special thing.
My friend Corey Wills and I are hanging out on this deserted beach with Abdel, a pioneer in the Samar surf scene and a local guru to a growing band of aspiring surfers, after an afternoon of paddling out to sea and riding one of the most beautiful waves I’ve seen in a decade of stalking the Philippines for sweet rides. Abdel, who’s generally soft-spoken, speaks with a perceptible tinge of lament in his voice, even as his grin doesn’t waver. It’s easy to understand why he’s a bit concerned — the commercial development that has overrun other islands in the archipelago could easily overwhelm the delicate natural beauty we’ve found here.
Although the province’s eastern front is a seldom-visited corner of the Visayas, hardy adventurers are slowly catching on and finding their way to its rugged coastline and secret beaches. That’s good news to Abdel and his tribe, but they’re also determined to “keep Samar country”, and to make sure that what looks like an inevitable tourist boom doesn’t shake up the vibe beyond recognition. The idea is to promote Samar’s surf landscape as one for the wild ones, right off the bat. “The landscape is wild but natural, people here are friendly, the pace of life is slow and relaxed,” says Abdel, “and we’d like to keep it that way.”
Growing up in typhoon alley
Back in town and over a plate of tasty lechon manok (roast chicken) and a cold Pale Pilsen, Abdel recalls a childhood in Borongan, the capital of Eastern Samar, with the endless blue of the Pacific as his playground. It’s a rather small town with a compact center — one major mall and not much else — and many of its 70,000 residents earn a living as fisherfolk or copra farmers. Both sources of livelihood are heavily disrupted whenever a typhoon comes barreling from the ocean; 2013’s Super Typhoon Haiyan first made landfall in Samar, destroying 95% of nearby Guiuan and snapping all the coconut trees in half.
“Every year, the Philippines has at least 25 typhoons, and Samar usually is directly hit by at least two of them,” he recalls. “I’m 41 now so that means more than 80 since I was born.”
But Pacific typhoons also draw surfers, seeking out the ocean swells driven by the wind. Powerful storms drive enormous walls of water in from the open ocean, where they eventually break onto the beaches, reefs and river mouths of Eastern Samar. These are the same surfing swells that turned Siargao into one of the hottest destinations for surfers on the planet, but the relative remoteness of Samar means a whole lot of unridden waves compared to the competitive lineups further south.
Abdel and his peers recognize the potential of surf tourism to build a third income stream for the province. “There’s an opportunity for the locals to build a career in guiding adventurous travelers and kindred spirits through the province’s secrets,” says Abdel.
We take swigs of beer and quietly contemplate the operative words. Adventurous travelers. Kindred spirits. Those of us with a thirst for the great outdoors and nature’s raw power would feel very welcome here.
An unconventional education in riding waves
The following day, Abdel introduces us to his home break, the spot where he first brushed up on his skills as a self-taught surfer — The Boulevard. A pleasant stretch of beach lining the length of a scenic thoroughfare in Borongan, The Boulevard is shaded by palm trees and dotted with small beach cafés selling grilled skewered meat and cold beer.
“The high school I went to is just across the street, I could see tourists surfing the waves from my classroom,” recalls Abdel.
Watching the traveling surfers sparked the dream of surfing, and a few years later, in 1998, Abdel and his friends bought their first board in Daet, Camarines Norte in the province of Bicol north of Samar. “We shared the board among the three of us. We bought old surf magazines from Manila and slowly learned the basics.”
Within four years, Abdel’s group had grown to 15 surfers — the roots of the Samar surf community that is still growing today. By 2005, Abdel began to branch out of his local and joined the Philippine Surfing Championship Tour, entering contests and traveling across the archipelago. Along the way, he met surfers from other parts of the country. All of them had the same question — what were the waves like in Samar?
“They had heard about the Philippine Dream, our famous surf break that had already showed up in a big international surf magazine,” says Abdel. Rumor has it, locals destroyed the camera of a surf photographer who took a photo of the perfect barreling wave because they wanted to keep it a secret. The little unverified anecdote doesn’t help the reputation for fierceness that precedes the Waray, or the Visayan ethnolinguistic group originally from Samar, wherever they go. “Some of them were scared of Samar,” he adds.
After winning some contests on the Philippine Surfing Championship Tour — like the Eastern Samar Surfing Crown — Abdel decided to join an intensive program with the Academy of Surfing Instructors in Australia, becoming one of the first surf coaches from the Philippines to be certified. “My dream job is to help surfers improve their skills and show them the beauty of Samar,” he says.
The Samar winds
Our third day in Samar: Corey and I are ready to get out on the water and find some waves with Abdel. We’re traveling local-style, and in Samar that means a brightly painted tricycle, tricked-out like a racecar. The golden light of sunrise gleams over the tops of palm trees as we head out of town, the three of us crammed into the cab of the trike, surfboards strapped to the roof. Roosters cackle from the shadows of the underbrush.
Our first stop is a secluded beach just outside Borongan. We find a group of local skimboarders lined up on the dark volcanic sand, facing the open Pacific. Eleven-year-old John Lennon (who was too shy to tell me his land name) watches the rhythms of the surf, anticipating the flat spells between the waves. Sprinting across the sand, skimboard at his side, he drops the board at his feet, jumping on the handmade wooden plank in a synchronized blur, all in one motion. Momentum propels him forward and he leans into a curving turn to meet an approaching wave.
It’s a classic surf maneuver, yet I’ve not seen a skimboarder pull it off before. “There still aren’t many surfboards here in Samar, so the local kids usually get started with homemade skimboards,” Abdel explains. Members of the group nod to him respectfully as he heads out to surf with Corey. Even outside Borongan, Abdel is recognized as an elder of the local surf community.
Two hours later, Abdel and Corey return to the beach, happily stoked from their surf session. The wind is picking up and conditions are getting choppy. There’s no typhoon in the forecast, so if we’re going to get good waves, it’s up to Abdel to read the tea leaves of Samar’s wind and weather. Only a local like Abdel can analyze the tide, wind, wave direction, wave size and the phase of the moon and make an educated guess at where the best surfing conditions will be. And if these youngsters do follow in Abdel’s footsteps, Samar’s surf tourism will be in good hands.
The following morning, a gale is howling from the east. There’s a loud, ghostly groaning as the wind blows through the narrow streets. Palm trees are bent sideways, looking like wet mops being shaken out to dry. It’s an onshore wind — blowing in from the sea and collapsing the wave, making it impossible to ride — the worst conditions for surfing. The crisp peaks we saw the night before with the skimboarders have been flattened into frothing mush.
Pulling up the weather forecast on his phone, Corey looks concerned. “Onshore winds for the rest of the trip,” he says with a sigh. “Not onshore everywhere,” Abdel counters, a knowing gleam in his eye. “I know a little spot where we can get out of this wind.” Barely a second later, Jason, our smiling tricycle driver texts that he’s already outside waiting for us — time to go.
With the boards on the roof of the trike, we head out. Only Abdel knows where we’re going. But even if the morning’s conditions are bleak, Corey and I are hopeful as we wind down Samar’s scenic coastal highway — Pacific blue on one side, dense groves of shimmering palms on the other — past tidy fishing villages and copra laid out to dry on the pavement.
As if by magic, the grey clouds clear ahead of us, revealing a cerulean sky. “Make a turn here,” Abdel tells Jason. We turn onto a bumpy road, passing colorful fishing boats on the beach as we venture further and further from the main road. Finally, we reach a beautiful bay, fringed with palm trees and white sand. Except for a lone fisherman tending to his catch in the distance, the beach is totally deserted.
As Abdel leads us to the far end of the beach, every turn reveals a picture-perfect scene of tropical paradise. As he predicted, the wind is offshore and the sea is as clear as gin. Abdel’s secret wave is a curving ramp, arcing along the coast as we watch.
“I’m out there!” Abdel calls, barely pausing to touch up the wax on his surfboard. Within minutes, he’s paddling into a shimmering wall of blue, angling his board to draw a clean line of foaming white water across the glassy blank canvas.
Corey hoots as Abdel streaks by, enjoying every moment of the ride, and the afternoon passes like a dream, trading waves and soaking in the last light of the fading sun. The morning storm is all but a distant memory.
This article first appeared in the October 2018 issue of Smile magazine.