“Nobody goes hungry here in Puerto Rico. Everyone is well fed,” Bobby Dozier said.
Dozier sits on a wood porch in his backyard that overlooks the hilly green landscape of Rincón, Puerto Rico, a quaint town of less than 16,000 people on the western side of the island. It’s a hot and humid day, and the sky is a hazy blue-gray.
There are “some great people here in Puerto Rico,” Dozier said. “They’ve really accepted me, and I think they accept most people with open arms. And they’re just wonderful people. They give you the shirt off their back.”
Dozier is a Virginia native and has been a full-time resident of Puerto Rico for over 30 years. He came to the island for the first time to surf, and he decided to move to Rincón permanently for a few reasons.
“I had established many friendships [with] both local and other North Americans who came down for the winter. And I really just loved it here,” he said. “I love the climate, the people, surfing of course was a huge part of it.”
While he doesn’t ride the waves much anymore due to injuries and long business hours, Dozier said, “I had a good 50-year run where I just ate, drank, and slept surf.”
“I am in a place I want to be, around people I really love, with great climate,” Dozier said. “I’m in an industry that has been my life, has given me a very good life. It put me on a good path.”
Dozier opened Mar Azul Surf Shop in 2006 to rent and sell surf and paddle boards. He had been managing restaurants for several years prior and then “got between a rock and a hard place.”
I saw a glimmer of opportunity and ran with it, and here I am 13 years later still going strong,” he said about opening his surf shop.
But after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017, Dozier said he was out of power for 90 days and lost a significant amount of business.
“Our business was completely wiped out,” he said. “Tourism was completely wiped out. Even though we were ready to receive tourists by the Christmas season, really nobody came last year. Maybe in February and March at the end of the season we did receive some tourists, but numbers were off 80%.”
Even though there was a small spike in tourism in early 2018, Dozier said it was “not nearly enough to make up for the rest of the months. Basically the 2017-2018 tourist season was a wash, but tourism came back strong in 2018-2019.”
Even though surf tourism in Rincón is back, the waves weren’t great until now.
“The winter of 2018-2019 was was the worst season for surf that anyone can ever remember,” Dozier said. “It has nothing to do with Maria, just weather patterns. However, we are experiencing very nice, above average surf this month of May.”
Dozier’s shop is attached to his home. It’s a concrete structure with storm shutters, so it fared well during the hurricane. Owning his property and not having children helped Dozier and his wife financially after the hurricane.
“Our business is small, but we have three entities: Board rentals, retail, and vacation rentals. We have separate apartments that we rent short term. Usually at least one entity pulls the weight when others are down,” he said. “We have emergency funds. We have been blessed with many years of good tourism, and we were smart with our money. We put it away for a rainy day, and indeed the rain came.”
Dozier said other people in Rincón were not so lucky after the storm. They had to close their businesses or move to the states.
“We were in a position where we were able to help those in need,” Dozier said. “We personally received a lot of relief items in which we were able to directly distribute. One of the most fulfilling things in the world is to be able to help others in need. Sometimes just the most simple things bring the biggest joy to ones in need.”
There was a significant amount of damage to Rincón after the storm, and tourists avoided the island, but surfers got back into the water soon after Maria struck.
“We had a nice run of waves about three days later. As the hurricane moved away it sent swells back at us, so we had a really nice week of surf,” Dozier said.
“Some of the best waves I’ve seen in Rincón ever,” said Gabriel Canals, a Puerto Rican native who’s been surfing since 1993. When debris in the water cleared three days after the storm hit, Canals surfed at Playa Domes.
Alberto Padilla, a 41-year-old Puerto Rican who’s surfed his whole life, echoed that. He said waves after Hurricane Maria were 15-feet-tall and “perfect.” He surfed “15 days with the same six guys.”
Ross Kunkel moved to Puerto Rico in 2014 with his wife, and he described what it was like to see the land from his surfboard in the water after Hurricane Maria.
“The part that was really weird to me was when you’re sitting on your board and looking back at the land, it’s just lush, green, beautiful rainforest. But then after the hurricane it was very apocalyptic-looking,” Kunkel said. “There wasn’t a single green leaf left on the island. All you could see was brown, dead trees.”
Mara Rosado, a Puerto Rican native, said there was “nothing after the hurricane.”
“No water, no power, no money, no gas. A lot of people desperate,” she said.
Rosado learned how to surf when she was 13 at a surf school in Isabela, Puerto Rico. Hurricane Maria didn’t affect her surfing schedule.
“I think surfing was what kept us sane because that’s the only thing you could do,” she said. “You could go surfing and you had no other responsibilities. There was no work or anything, so just surfing is what kept us living.”
After Hurricane Maria, there were no tourists in Rincón. People were out of work, so the locals and full-time residents had the water to themselves.
“If we were sad about not working, we would surf by ourselves and we were happy at least in the water. It wasn’t terrible. We were surfing, having fun,” Canals said.
Rosado said the hurricane eliminated barriers in Rincón.
“After the hurricane there was like no ‘social’ you know what I mean. Nobody was better than the other one because nobody had money,” she said. “So we were all the same. Everyone was helping out it each other. It was really nice, like people should be everyday.”
When surfers weren’t in the water, they were giving their neighbors a helping hand.
“After the hurricane, everyone was helping each other,” Canals said. “Neighbors were helping each other with their yards, or you were helping strangers if they needed help, or they were helping you if you needed anything. If you needed a tool to cut down a tree, they’d let you borrow, stuff like that.”
Padilla said the surf community of Rincón is “like a family.” The bonds that formed after Hurricane Maria have had a lasting impact on Rincón.
“That kind of got the community together a lot more than before, and of course the outcome after everything was done, you made more friends,” Canals said. “Community came together, and it’s still together in a way.”