Olas Contras

Story and photos by D.J. Struntz

Twenty years ago, the world was a simpler place. Plagues like global terrorism and SARS were only found in novels. It was a time of geopolitical black and white: Mikhail Gorbachev, Soviet Union, and communism on one side; and Ronald Reagan, the United States, and democracy on the other. For Americans, communism remained the one true evil, a scourge to be annihilated at all costs. As a result, we overlooked some of the best waves on the planet.

Eighties surfers dreamed of Costa Rica, particularly East Coasters, who flocked to her rich shores to discover an endless wealth of waves. While this Central American country may have been the focus of traveling American surfers, her neighbor to the north was the focus of another band of dedicated Americans—ones with much more sinister intentions.

When the communist Sandinistas took power in Nicaragua, it was seen by the White House as a direct threat to stability in the region. Enter Marine Colonel Oliver North, the CIA, and a now-notorious scheme to provide weapons to contra “freedom fighters” who opposed the Sandinista regime. The ensuing civil war cost thousands of lives and almost cost Ronald Reagan his presidency in what became known as the Iran-Contra scandal. One indirect effect of this war was that while Costa Rica was being invaded by thousands of wave-starved Yankee surfers, the miles of Pacific and Caribbean coastlines of Nicaragua remained relatively unexplored.

Even though Nicaragua has been relatively politically stable for the past few years, the stigma of its civil war has lingered like the smell of a rotting corpse. So while Costa Rica continues to be a target of choice for many surfers, for those seeking solitude and a sense of discovery, Nicaragua and her sordid history of communism, warfare, and cocaine trafficking may be just the destination.

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In May 2003, the Yankees once again invaded Nicaragua—this time not armed with M-16s and laser-guided bombs, but bristling with quivers of state-of-the-art, handcrafted, fiberglass and foam wave-killers. Ollie North was unavailable, but Ben Bourgeois, Asher Nolan, Alek Parker, and Brian Toth joined the mission as the first wave of shock troops and deployed to a wave-rich region a few hours’ drive southwest of Managua, Nicaragua’s capital. Days later, a follow-up assault was launched by the South’s famed Outer Banks Confederate Regiment consisting of Noah Snyder, Jesse Hines, and Matt Beacham. While the natives were rumored to be friendly, we expected stiff resistance from the offshore winds that blow for as many as 330 days out of the year. And due to the timing of our mid-May raid, it was a definite possibility that the Pacific Ocean would be laying in ambush, ready to unleash its full fury in a devastating counter attack from the Southern Hemisphere.

Managua’s modern airport only confirmed the troops’ perception of the country’s dark past. Pock-marked machine-gun bunkers lined the perimeter, and like predatory insects, glistening rows of modern Russian-made helicopter gunships sat armed and ready on the flight line. After clearing customs, we were met by our blond-haired, blue-eyed guardian angel—Jota Jota—who would serve as our intelligence officer, guide, and liaison with the local resistance. We quickly learned, after piling our mountain of gear into Jota Jota’s Toyota Hilux, that he believed every word of Toyota’s advertising campaign slogan for the vehicle: Don’t drive it, destroy it. Jota Jota only had two driving speeds, fast and faster.

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Driving out of the city, we entered into what could best be described as a time warp. Prehistoric volcanoes spewing wafting plumes of smoke towered above us. Roads quickly transitioned from paved highway to dirt tracks passable only by four-wheel drive in the rainy season, which lasts six months of the year. Cars soon gave way to ox carts, horses, and bicycles. Send only to Haiti, Nicaragua is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Her people have been subjected to about every insult that nature can inflict, from a devastating earthquake in 1972 to a massive tidal wave that wreaked havoc on the Pacific coast in 1992 and Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Adding insult to injury, Nicaragua’s most recent civil war took the lives of a large portion of the country’s adult men, leaving the majority of the population less than twenty years in age. The Nicaraguan people are, in short, survivors.

As we drove through the rugged countryside, dodging bomb-crater-size potholes, chickens, pigs, and other assorted livestock, the people’s resilience was particularly evident and astounding. In the face of such incredible poverty (and with such a haunting past), you would have expected to see a look of resentment, resignation and misery in the eyes of man and child alike. Instead, dark eyes flashed with pride, hope, and inquisitive friendliness. Old and young never hesitated to wave and smile.

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After two hours of butt-numbing, spine-crushing mayhem, we finally reached our base of operations. For some of us, this would be our home for the next 21 exhausting days. Tucked into a hillside overlooking the frontlines, Jota Jota’s camp was ideally situated for rapid response to any attack the Pacific might launch. Surveying no-man’s-land with a powerful telescope from inside the command center, our worst fears were realized. The Pacific was on a full offensive. Lines of assault waves were stacked to the horizon.

The fighting that ensued was so intense and fierce that many of the details have been lost, or would be too traumatic to recount. This much we can tell you: the troops fought with all the skill and daring they possessed and with all the energy they could muster. The fighting raged daily from 5:00 a.m. ’til dark—the continuous onslaught of offshore winds giving little chance for rest and recuperation. Often the troops were even denied a chance to eat their daily meals and were forced to fight on rations of cookies and bananas hastily grabbed from unsuspecting tiendas. Rest was hard-won because the highly dynamic battlefield shifted locations constantly.

Directly in front of our firebase sat “The Beachbreak.” Although it looked deceptively small from the thin strip of black volcanic sand that served as our forward base of operations, we quickly learned that this was a ruse. Camouflaged by distance were wave after wave of six-to-eight-foot heaving, grinding, and spitting barrels looking for any opportunity to smash boards or bodies. Day after day, the troops casually threw themselves into the pit of the enemy, pausing only to take shelter in the numerous, cavernous tunnels to escape the ferocity of the tropical sun.

As the offshore winds largely denied the troops the benefits of aerial bombardments, the fighting was hand to hand, face to face. Nowhere was this more frustrating than at a nearby battlefield we called “The Wedge.” In a classic example of misdirection and diversion, the waves would sneak past the watchful eyes of our sentries only to come roaring back after rebounding off of a volcanic ledge, forming textbook left wedges that reeled down a strategically placed sandbar. After negotiating the drop, the troops immediately confronted a warping barrel section, and only after this was conquered could they attempt to race toward the oncoming sections in hopes of slashing the heart from the enemy. When, on occasion, the ever-present offshore winds lost interest in our seemingly routed scouting party, the troops were able to put on an awesome display of aerial superiority, but these occasions were very few and far between.

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While in the end, all combatants emerged unscathed, many a trusty weapon was abandoned or destroyed for the cause. The Pacific shattered board after board, rapidly reducing gleaming quivers to fragmented remnants, patched frantically with hastily applied battlefield tourniquets.

Poetry, folklore, and the heroic figures from her past form the passionate lifeblood of the culture of Nicaragua. Thus, tales of the ferocious struggle during these days in May will likely be retold by locals for years to come. All who participated left complaining of symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and to a man, vowed to return once again to seek their vengeance against the Pacific Ocean. All who participated were similarly touched by the warmth, friendliness, and hospitality of the Nicaraguan people. Surfing Nicaragua, as the troops discovered, is not just a job, it’s an adventure, and it probably isn’t for everyone. If you crave the comforts and luxuries of home—stay away.

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However, if you crave hair-raising, four-wheeling missions in search of the perfect wave, don’t mind the occasional scorpion or ant colony invading your room, or yearn to partake of the Nicaraguan delicacy juevos del toro, then start planning your mission immediately. Tread respectfully, and you will be welcomed by a proud people with nothing left to give but their hospitality. Tread carefully, and you might just survive your own personal war with the Olas Contras.

, patched frantically with hastily applied battlefield tourniquets.

Poetry, folklore, and the heroic figures from her past form the passionate lifeblood of the culture of Nicaragua. Thus, tales of the ferocious struggle during these days in May will likely be retold by locals for years to come. All who participated left complaining of symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and to a man, vowed to return once again to seek their vengeance against the Pacific Ocean. All who participated were similarly touched by the warmth, friendliness, and hospitality of the Nicaraguan people. Surfing Nicaragua, as the troops discovered, is not just a job, it’s an adventure, and it probably isn’t for everyone. If you crave the comforts and luxuries of home—stay away.

[IMAGE 5]

However, if you crave hair-raising, four-wheeling missions in search of the perfect wave, don’t mind the occasional scorpion or ant colony invading your room, or yearn to partake of the Nicaraguan delicacy juevos del toro, then start planning your mission immediately. Tread respectfully, and you will be welcomed by a proud people with nothing left to give but their hospitality. Tread carefully, and you might just survive your own personal war with the Olas Contras.