Against All Odds: The Incredible Story of One Surfer's Battle with the Government

How a humble fisherman's son became one of the world's best big wave riders... and challenged the status quo

Words by Tristan Kennedy | Portraits by Ed Blomfield

“The first thing we knew was when the machines started arriving in town. The government already approved the project under the table [but] they told no-one.”

For big wave surfer Ramon Navarro, watching the diggers and dump trucks roll towards his beloved local point break was a rude awakening.

How did a simple fisherman’s son halt the combined forces of the government and powerful businessmen?

Their plan, apparently ushered through without proper consultation, was to lay a sewage waste pipe out into the ocean. “But the studies they had were wrong. They never figured out about currents, winds or how the sandbars move,” he explains.

Ramon had little experience of environmental activism, but he knew instinctively that something had to be done.

So he united a coalition of local fishermen and fellow surfers to literally stand in their way, stopping the machines in their tracks.

“We brought TV companies, we had a massive campaign. It was in the papers and everything. Pretty much the whole country was watching what would happen.”

In the face of such intense public scrutiny, the government was forced to back down. “In the end the government figured it out and went: ‘Woah, you’re right.’ It was a big win for us, a giant win,” he says, smiling proudly at the memory.

How had a simple fisherman’s son managed to halt the combined forces of the government and powerful commercial interests? “Well,” Ramon says, “you know, us fishermen and surfers know more about the ocean than anyone else.”

His Old Man and The Sea

You can well believe that Ramon knows his stuff when it comes to the sea. When we meet at the UK premiere of a new Patagonia-sponsored documentary about him, his eyes are slightly bloodshot (he’s come out of the water literally half an hour before having been treated to some of the best conditions Cornwall has seen all summer) and his leathery face has the look of a man who’s spent a lot of time around the ocean. In fact, the 35-year-old has lived next to it, in it, and with it his whole life.

He was born in 1979 into a family of fishermen from Pichilemu, a small town on the Pacific coast of Chile. “My family didn’t have a lot of money when I grew up,” he says, but his father taught him to be thankful for what little they had. “If he had a good day’s fishing, he was thankful,” says Ramon.

His father also taught him about the ocean, how to benefit from its bounty and the importance of preserving it.

Crucially, his father also taught him about the ocean, how to benefit from its bounty and the importance of preserving it. “My dad pretty much harvested the ocean. He wouldn’t go there and take everything. It’s exactly like when you go to a garden, he would only take the biggest fruit, the ones that are ready.”

“The most important thing my dad showed me was how to know the ocean and how to respect the ocean,” Ramon says. You might think with that upbringing that a career in or around the water would have been the obvious choice for Ramon. But nothing could be further from the truth.

He’d started surfing in 1993, following in the footsteps of the foreigners who’d begun flocking to ride his local break at Punta de Lobos. But the idea that this niche past-time could ever turn into a job would’ve seemed ludicrous to the young Ramon.

“In Chile, there weren’t any professional surfers,” he says. And anyway his father was keen that he pursue a career away from the water.

“I was expecting to become a fisherman but my dad didn’t want it because it’s such hard work. You don’t get paid that well and every year there are less fish in the ocean. So my dad always wanted me to be a professional something. To go to university and do something better than him.”

Out of the Frying Pans and Into the Surf

And so when he finished high school, Ramon headed off to college to become a chef. In between however, he managed to scrape together the cash to make the pilgrimage to surfing’s Mecca: Hawaii.

There’s a touching scene in the movie where one of his friends remembers the fear in Ramon’s face as they rocked up to the airport. “He had never flown before”.

Once they made it to Hawaii however, the wide-eyed groms were given a bit of a leg-up. North Shore legend Kohl Christensen had befriended Ramon in Chile and picked them up from the airport. “They had maybe 100 dollars between them and no surfboards,” he remembers.

Despite this, with a little help from Kohl and his friends the three of them managed to make their meagre resources last the whole year. And although Ramon headed back to Chile to start the cookery course at the end of it, his perception of what surfing was, and what it could be, had been utterly transformed.

Not only had he ridden bigger waves than ever before, he’d realised that surfing had the potential to turn into a career. Like his father before him, the ocean could provide him with a living. He wouldn’t have to resist its insistent pull.

“I finished that course,” he tells me, “but I never worked as a chef. I finished it in between surfing doing contests.

I finished the cooking course but I never worked as a chef.

“I went back to Hawaii and every year got better. I started winning more money in contests. Every year I would go and try to be better in Hawaii and then go back to Chile and compete and like five years in a row I got national champion. So I started to take it more seriously.”

His chosen career, unlikely as it once seemed, was becoming a reality. Yet even as success and sponsorship started to come in, Ramon’s interest in conventional competitive surfing was already on the wane.

His upbringing meant that the rawer, more purist pursuit of big wave surfing was always going to appeal. And anyway, his local break was Punta de Lobos, where the waves regularly reach heights of six metres. It was inevitable that he would feel the pull of big waves sooner or later.

“We have big swells once a week, or like solid swells once a week. In front of my house there were big waves so I started getting more into the big waves.” But once again it was Hawaii that really flicked the switch. “In Hawaii I was always watching big wave guys and it was something different and just amazing you know? It’s way more intense, it’s way more nerve-wracking.”

There was a sense of community that appealed to Ramon too. “There’s not that heavy competition you have on small waves and you have way more connection with friends in the water cos you have to take care of each other.”

Yet to be accepted by the community, to become established as a big wave rider in Hawaii, he’d have to earn the respect of the North Shore – an almost impossible task for an outsider.

A Question of Respect

But Ramon is nothing if not good at overcoming obstacles and in his quiet way he set about working on it, eventually staking his claim to a place among the greats in the most spectacular style possible – at the Eddie Aikau Memorial event in 2009.

Only 28 surfers are ever invited to compete in ‘the Eddie’, named for the legendary Hawaiian lifeguard and surfer who died in 1978. The contest has been held only eight times since his death due to a pre-condition which states that it can only take place if open ocean swells reach a minimum height of 20 feet.

Simply being there was an achievement in itself for Ramon. He was the first Chilean surfer ever invited to compete. And as Kelly Slater says in the documentary “he still wasn’t a super well-known guy in the surf world at that point”. But all that was about to change.

Ramon lined himself up on an absolute monster of a wave, one that (in the words of a fellow competitor) “turned the horizon black”. He dropped down the near-vertical face and disappeared behind a wall of white water… then he emerged out of the barrel at Mach 10 to incredulous cheers from the crowd.

“All of a sudden,” says Slater in the film, “within five seconds, everyone knew who Ramon was.”

Remembering the wave and its aftermath, he says in the film: “I wanted to break down and cry. Just thinking about everything I went through to be someone in Hawaii…” He had made it.

In the years since, Ramon has gone on to ride waves that he considers better. One, a monster at Cloudbreak in Fiji, which earned him a second Ride of the Year nomination in the XXL Big Wave Awards, was “the most perfect wave I ever rode. It was the biggest wave and the best wave.”

But while those achievements are undoubtedly impressive Ramon’s latest battle is arguably his biggest yet.

Punta de Lobos Por Siempre

Unfortunately the sewage pipe saga in 2007 turned out to be just the beginning of the assaults on Punta de Lobos. Ramon’s been fighting to protect his local break against the attentions of private investors and property speculators ever since.

“In Chile you can buy land and make it private and nobody can go there. [In Pichilemu] there was more and more construction and they started building over everything.

“The last piece of land is Punta de Lobos [and] we almost lost it. So that’s why we are making this campaign happen.”

The website for Punta de Lobos Por Siempre (Punta de Lobos for ever), the campaign Ramon heads up, explains: “At least one large-scale condominium project has been proposed.

“If these plans are left unchecked, Punta de Lobos could be transformed beyond recognition—with multigenerational subsistence fishermen being replaced by private access developments and construction crews.”

Ramon tells Mpora: “They’ve had three investors already and everyone is trying to build something there. Every time we’ve stopped it.” Now the campaign is working on a more ambitious plan – they’re raising funds through crowd-sourcing to buy the land outright.

“We’ve worked really closely together with the local community and this time we want to put a final stop to it. Just buy the land and keep it like that forever.

Ramon doesn’t have the air of a natural activist. It’s hard to imagine him shouting into a loud-hailer or striking a pose.

“We want to show the government an example of how this can be a beautiful beach with perfect waves and how it can push the economy of a place too. Because 90 per cent of my town makes its living from surfing now. Surfing and the tourists come to surf.”

Ramon doesn’t have the air of a natural activist. He’s softly spoken and with a gentle smile. It’s hard to imagine him shouting into a loud-hailer. Or striking a pose, Russell Brand style, at the head of a march.

He was never really interested in politics growing up and at the time was largely unaware that Chile was under the thumb of Augusto Pinochet, one of Latin America’s most brutal dictators. “My family never got into politics,” he explains. “We weren’t in the big cities, we were just close to the ocean. And those big things never happened close to the ocean”.

But if activism wasn’t ingrained in him from a young age, the love of the ocean was. He’s found himself forced into taking action by the assault on all the things he holds dear. And although he’s not a natural smooth-talker, Ramon has something more important. A steely determination to succeed.

It’s the same quality that’s enabled him to paddle out in the biggest swells, to drop into the waves that no-one else would, to earn the respect of the North Shore and to make it as a pro surfer.

It’s this quality that has made this quiet, humble man a force to be reckoned with in Pichilemu. The coastline his father taught him to love as a child is threatened and he’ll do everything in his power to fight it. Which, for the developers lining up against him, must be a scary prospect. Given the odds he’s overcome in his life so far, you’d be a fool to bet against the fisherman’s son.

If you’d like to donate to Ramon’s Punta de Lobos Pro Siempre campaign, please visit their crowdfunding site.

Patagonia’s documentary about Ramon Navarro, The Fisherman’s Son, is out now and available to watch for free on Youtube.

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