The thing about islands is that they can be isolating. Islands are removed. Forgotten, sometimes. The other thing about islands is that they’re surrounded by water, and if you’re lucky, some really good surf. Jamaica is one such island and photographer Jon Steele, who has visited Jamaica quite a few times now, refuses to let this place be forgotten. Movements and music and culture of epic proportions have come from this island, and always through the vessels that are this nation’s fantastic people.
The Wilmot family of Bull Bay, Jamaica are such a people and in a recent conversation, the island’s first pro surfer, Icah Wimot, gave us a glimpse of what life as a surfer there is like. The following portraits, by the way, are of the surfers you’d be sharing the waves with, should you have the pleasure of visiting. And from the sounds of it, talking with Icah, you probably wouldn’t be sharing with much of anyone else.

Shane Simmonds

So, there’s been a handful of articles about the surf scene in Jamaica over the years, but I feel like most people imagine Jamaica the way Chris Malloy presented it in A Brokedown Melody (2004). Is that still a pretty true portrayal of your home?

Icah Wilmot: Yeah, well pretty much anything that the world knows about surfing in Jamaica is due to our family. [laughs] Look at it this way; my dad’s the president of the association [Jamaican Surfing Association], my mom’s the secretary and my brother is the vice president and contest director [laughs]. So that goes to show you how close our family is to it. But even today, surfing in Jamaica is fairly underground because the majority of the people in Jamaica aren’t beach people.

And why is that? You’re an island in the sea surrounded by ocean.

Well, unless you’re living in a beach community where your father is a fishermen, Jamaicans aren’t in the ocean. A lot of the towns and business opportunities are centered around tourism and the big resorts where tourists stay are on the north and western ends. The eastern and south-eastern parts of the island is where the best surf is and where our home, Bull Bay, is. The developers didn’t want to make the resorts for tourists there because the seas are rough. So that’s a factor in why so few people surf.

Garren Price

But if a lot of tourism started to happen where the waves were, would you even want that type of exposure? Or are you happy that it’s all on the other end and you’re removed?

Actually we would like a little more exposure on the surfing side. However the resorts are all pretty exclusive to the tourists and they block off beaches so that other people can’t enter. We wouldn’t want that type of development where we live at Bull Bay. But as far as visiting surfers go, they probably enjoy more of the bed and breakfast or small homestay, which is what my family surf camp [Jamnesia] offers. We are trying to set this up in other places around Jamaica too. We’re trying to encourage people who live by the surf spots to open up a room in their homes for traveling surfers so they can make some extra money. But it’s a long process to build that.

Does the government support surfing in Jamaica?

Yeah, mainly due to the pro contest that we’ve been running each year now for about a decade. Every summer it attracts more and more people from different countries. The event is slowly bringing light to surfing in Jamaica. People are coming and realizing there’s not just one spot here — there are tons of different breaks and they’re really easy to access, and the island is small, and the waves are uncrowded…

When the government sees that tourists are actually interested in going to our part of the island and not the touristy resorts, they’re keen. Also, they like that most of the people that come to surf in Jamaica, keep coming back year after year. That’s a big plus for the government; surf tourists aren’t just one-offs.

And what in the surf world today turns on Jamaicans?

I guess it depends on the generation. My brothers and I grew up watching Taylor Steele videos, so we like Kelly, Rob Machado, Kalani Robb and Ross Williams. The newer generation loves all the guys doing crazy airs, so Craig Anderson, the Josh Kerr’s, guys like that. Definitely surfers here keep up with what’s trending and that’s what pushes each generation, even though there’s realistically only about two to three generations here [laughs]. So to answer your question, we love modern performance surfing. Big-wave surfing…not so much, unless it’s some crazy contest at Teahupoo. But we don’t really follow the big wave thing because we don’t get huge waves here unless there’s a hurricane. However, on average, Jamaica is about head high or bigger, like, all the time. Any day in Jamaica you could surf that size.

Wow, not too shabby. Do Jamaican surfers follow the WSL and watch the webcasts?

Yeah we do that. When the contests are going on we definitely gather round the computer monitor in my home, or in the middle of the living room watching it. 

Classic! Is there much of a surf industry in Jamaica, or even surf shops?

There are no surf shops, no companies, no-nothing. We basically rely on traveling surfers that bring stuff in and every time they return, hopefully they carry wax, or sun cure or some fine-grade fiberglass. Because we only get that thick boat-matting stuff in Jamaica. So, if I travel and come home, I always need to bring in wax, deck-pads, leashes, whatever we can’t get here.

Icah Wilmot

Not even a small surf shop? How come?

There isn’t enough of a surfing community to support a surf shop. On the south coast where we are, there are probably around 20 real surfers. Maybe 50 in all. Same for the northern coast, and that’s the surf population for the country. [laughs] But honestly, surfing isn’t really providing jobs for people, so they can’t really surf every day. You have to have a real job on the side.

And what is your regular day job?

Well our family runs a surf camp called Jamnesia, so when I’m home I help do tours, that kind of thing. I’ll drive people around and I also teach surfing at home but I don’t really collect money for that. But my main job is on the BVI (British Virgin Islands). A couple of friends and I run a surf camp on the beach here. So I work and save and then I come home, help out, then travel and do contests. Sometimes I’ll make a little bit of money at an event.

Billy Wilmot, Icah Wilmot from Bull Bay, Shane Simmonds & King Kong or Kong from Boston Bay

I think a lot of people here in the US have a perception of Jamaicans as Rastas or Rastafarians. Is that perception true and what even is a Rasta?

Well, my family and I are Rastas, but I think the thing that a lot of people don’t understand is that Rastafarianism is actually pretty similar to Christianity. It’s like the same religion, but with Christianity, their Book says that they’re waiting for the Messiah, like, “He shall return.” Rastas believe that He has returned as the Emperor of Ethiopia. But in Jamaica, the majority of the people are, say, 70% Christians and around 30% or more, are Rastafarians.

And what about the weed-thing. Does everyone in Jamaica smoke?

That’s probably another misconception. Yes, a lot of people do smoke, but not everyone. Like, I don’t. But also a lot of people who smoke aren’t Rastas. They just smoke because they like to smoke and most of the reason why smoking weed is so big in Jamaica is because it’s probably the cheapest place in the world to get it. For instance I’ve seen what people pay for weed in the BVI, and what they would get for $20 USD, is what you would get for about the equivalent of 20 cents in Jamaica. [laughs] Weed is actually a lot cheaper to smoke than cigarettes, which is why people smoke weed in Jamaica. And how much better is weed than a cigarette?

Ivah Wilmot

Do you feel like Jamaicans look at surfing differently than other people in other parts of the world?

You know, not really — surfers are surfers. And I think anywhere you go in the world, surfers are into the same things and follow the same kind of lifestyle. I don’t think that we, as Jamaican surfers changed our lives by surfing. I think the only difference between us and other surfers in other parts of the world is that we grew up surfing just by ourselves. So as kids, we were the only kids we knew who surfed — which was like a dozen of us.

And at the same time it was kind of a unique thing to get into, because in Jamaica there are thousands of kids trying to get good at soccer or cricket, but it’s so hard to make it in those sports. But with surfing, there were so few of us doing it that it gave us many opportunities to travel and see some of the world outside of Jamaica. So in that way surfing changed our lives and we kind of became local celebrities in a way.

Icah Wilmot passes a traditional Jerk chicken/ Pork stop which is most popular. There are tons of them on the island all with different varieties, flavors and some of the best food I've ever eaten.

So, surfing is actually helping some kids to get out of Jamaica?

Well, it’s not quite at that level yet because there is no industry, or surf shops or businesses investing in surfing here. We do have some kids now that are surfing really well, but as far as pursuing a career in surf, I was the first kid to attempt that. I guess I’m kind of like the lab rat in that sense. [laughs] As soon as I finished university, I went and hit the road, traveled and did a bunch of events, went on photo shoots and worked my ass off, living on ramen noodles just trying to surf as much as I could. And it worked, but because there is no industry for surf in Jamaica, it is VERY hard to get the support from national brands.

But you have some sponsors?

Yeah, right now I’m signed with Body Glove, and then there’s Reef, Freestyle, Smith…Insight sponsored our family, too.

Ackeem Phillips

Even though there’s no industry or surf brands in Jamaica, are you guys still pretty content?

Yeah, we’re happy here but as far as the future is concerned I would like to see more local businesses involved with surfing because there are a lot of local companies around that could make surf clothing. We have everything else made in Jamaica whether that’s boardshorts, bikinis or other surf clothing, but there’s no “The Jamaican surf brand.” No company here has stepped up to do that.  But at the same time, surfing is slowly getting more popular here but it’s still not to the point where it can flourish.

Our surf camp Jamnesia is the closest thing that we have to a surf shop on the island because whenever I travel or my dad travels, we always bring back wax, leashes, deck pads and other supplies to give or sell to whoever needs here.

Enoch Matteson

Do you use your unique look as a marketing tool as far as getting sponsors?

Sure, I’ve used my look to my advantage, whether to market myself as a uniquely Jamaican surfer, but regardless, it’s still super hard to get support. Like REALLY hard, no matter how I look. Like, you know how it goes; you’ll meet with some people and they’ll say, “Yeah, we’re gonna hook you up, we’re gonna do this and that, and get you on ads,” but then when you ask to, well…do something — it’s always the same thing. “We’re not making any money in your region,” or “there’s no industry there.” We kind of get hit by that every single time and that’s the issue. Which is why we need development of surfing in Jamaica: So outside brands will see that it is profitable to support Jamaican kids here. This is what we’ve been working on for years, but it’s a long slow process.

Shit. I can’t imagine how tough that is. What about style in Jamaica? Do Jamaican surfers look up to the same guys for style in surfing?

There aren’t a lot of traveling professional surfers that come through here, so the young kids have their local guys they look up to, and usually: I am that local guy [laughs]. But I think I’ve developed my surfing to suit competition. So I think with my style I try to emulate Mick Fanning. Really good turns, trying to send lots of spray. I’m not the one doing the big airs.

So you’re telling me you’re the Mick Fanning of Jamaica.

[Laughs] No, I’m just not the one doing all the big airs. Definitely, kids here are following all the latest surf videos on Instagram, Youtube, or Vimeo just like anyone else. We just don’t get to see any of it live. Like, maybe in California, Dane Reynolds paddles out a mile from your house and you can watch him surf…but that doesn’t happen here in Jamaica. The issue is that we’ve got some great surfers but we’re basically only pushing each other. And that competition is important but to see a good pro whose level is well above everyone else’s — that is something that we need here. That’s the only thing we don’t have consistently in Jamaica. We have a ton of surf though…

Ronnie Jarrett