The Chocolate Tide is rising: A global gathering of Black surfers is a “homecoming”
Huntington Beach, dubbed “Surf City, USA,” attracts surfers from all over, but there isn’t always much diversity among them. Last month, droves of Black surfers, onlookers and other participants gathered at Huntington Beach for a surfing competition and a day-long activities as part of the second annual A Great Day in the Stoke.
“The event is very purposeful,” said founder Nathan Fluellen, 42, of the Sept. 16 celebration. “Being a Black surfer, there’s not many of us. When you’re out there normally on an everyday basis, you usually don’t see it.”
Fluellen told AfroLA he first thought about creating A Great Day in the Stoke when he surfed with South African Zulu boys as part of his travel show. “While filming with them, they were super lit, and they inspired me to continue surfing,” Fluellen said in a 2021 interview with Voyage LA.
After attending several memorial paddle-outs with Black surfers in the wake of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery killings, Fluellen said he wanted to shift from the Black community’s shared trauma to celebrating Black people and what they can do in the water.
“We needed the opportunity just to come celebrate our existence and love for surfing, and not it being a reaction or protest to somebody that was terrorized,” Fluellen said. “That was really the inception of just having a homecoming-style event.”
“We have people from all over the world—New York, Africa, the Midwest… We see our friends online, and we never get to see each other until we come to A Great Day in the Stoke,” said Jade Curley, a 41-year-old crane operator in the film industry. Curley competed with South African pro surfer S’nenhlanhla Makhubu whom they follow on Instagram and won the women’s shortboard competition.
Eyeing crowds gathered on the shore and near the pier, Curley said that they don’t have a purpose without surfing.
For many of the surfers at A Great Day in the Stoke, all of their outside responsibilities leave them once the waves hit their boards.
Florida resident and counselor Amber Yoder, 37, is a mother of four. “When you become a mom, you’ll start to lose yourself,” said Yoder. But, when she gets in the water to surf, she begins to feel grounded. “I recognize [that] I want to breathe,” Yoder said, “I want to feel alive, and I become a better mom, I become a better wife.”
Surfing created a place of comfort for her to open up about her feelings and to also connect with her inner child: “I’m the person that I was when I was a kid.”
Yoder began surfing when she was 18 years old. After dabbling in several land sports in her youth, she became focused on surfing after her father, who swam a lot, according to Yoder, gave her a surfboard.
From time to time, Yoder surfs with her husband, Shane Yoder, 39, who came to support her at the event.
Yoder herself does not usually compete, only having participated in a couple events, claiming that it’s “because [she’s] not a great surfer.” In the past competitions she did attend, she felt as though she was the underdog due to the lack of diversity. With A Great Day in the Stoke’s emphasis on surfing in the Black community, she knew it was a great opportunity to showcase that anyone can surf.
“The reality is unless we start showing women [… and] people of color that we can do this, they’re not going to know.”
Yoder took her surfboard to Huntington Beach’s waves for the women’s shortboard division and placed third place overall.
A Great Day in the Stoke’s mission is to provide a safe space for Black surfers to compete, have fun and share their love for the waves.
Real estate investor and men’s shortboard fourth-place winner Colby Isabel, 32, does not typically compete in surfing competitions, viewing them as merciless. But he said, “This one is less about cutthroat [and] who’s going to win, more about supporting each other.”
After rounds, Isabel said surfers gave each other tips on how to improve their moves to achieve the best results in the water.
“This event, in general, is an us event. It’s not a me event,” he said, citing surfing in America to be perceived as individualistic.
Aside from the competition, Isabel found comfort in seeing other Black and Brown people enjoying the ocean. Similarly, shortboard surfer Joel Navarro, 23, who is Latine, said that bringing everyone together was more of a gathering than a contest.
“This one’s different in the sense of camaraderie,” said Navarro.
Why Huntington Beach?
A Great Day in the Stoke’s location is meaningful beyond the city’s surfing reputation.
Huntington Beach is also home to anti-Black extremist groups. In 2021, the Huntington Beach chapter of Black Lives Matter planned a counterprotest to a rally led by the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan at the pier. The pier has been a hot spot for white supremacist groups to rally, especially since protests rallying for police reform after George Floyd’s murder.
But event producer of A Great Day in the Stoke Charity Bailey explained the organizers chose Huntington Beach primarily because it’s known as the world’ surf capital, not so much to make a statement.
“If all the surf competitions are here, why not?” said Bailey.
The history of African waters
In the days before competing at A Great Day in the Stoke, pro surfer Julian Williams, 23, commented on the origins of surfing in Africa during an interview with Rolling Out.
“Black people have been surfing in Africa for thousands of years,” he said. “It just has never been talked about as much as it is now. It’s in our blood.”
Williams’s goal is to become the first Black surfer from Hawaii to qualify for both the longboard and shortboard professional tours. He was born and raised on the islands long-believed to be the origins of surfing.
But the narrative around Polynesians being the first to surf was mythologized by research from UC Merced associate history professor Kevin Dawson. The earliest accounts of surfing pre-date Native Hawaiian accounts and can be traced to what is today Ghana.
Gold Coast parents would “tie their children to boards and throw them into the water,” according to documents from 15th century goldsmith-merchant Michael Hammersam. European colonizers reported Africans traversing to port markets and catching waves on paddleboards called padua. An 1861 account from American colonial politician Thomas Hutchinson describes fishermen in Cameroon riding six-foot long canoes, the average size for a modern shortboard.
Events such as A Great Day in the Stoke acknowledge this history, pivoting from predominant focus on white competitors.
Although surfing originated in Africa, European colonization helped whites dominate the sport. Event organizer Bailey said contemporary whitewashing was popularized through Hollywood depictions of surfing, “It became a sport that we were excluded from, so it’s good to take that back while we can.”
Reclaiming through learning
Modeled after the Black gatherings A Great Day in Harlem and A Great Day in Hip-Hop, A Great Day in the Stoke highlights the African diaspora’s love for and desire to broaden surfing within its ranks.
Framed primarily as a competition, A Great Day in a Stoke isn’t afraid to show the African diaspora how to surf in order to build the skills to compete. The Sofly Surf School hosted two surf lessons during the event, both of which were at full capacity.
Sofly head instructor and competitor Sahfilli Matturi, 33, led the lessons. “A lot of people came out that didn’t know how to surf,” Matturi said. “When they come to me, I literally just give them all the tools that they need to be able to go out by themselves and get comfortable in the water.”
Matturi also led last year’s surf lessons and has had students reach out to thank him. “At the end of the day, I can only hold [their] hand so far. You got to put in the hours, you got to go practice, you just got to hone your own skills.”
Jesse Campbell, 54, volunteer and entertainer, came to A Great Day in the Stoke to take surf lessons with Matturi. Although hesitant, Campbell was urged to do it by event creator Fluellen.
After traveling to different surf cities in the world and putting his own daughter in surf lessons at eight years old, Campbell felt motivated to learn how to partake in the sport himself. As a first timer, he said he anticipated what could happen when he surfed. He worried about instability on the board, not knowing the depths of the water and how cold the water might be. Nevertheless, Campbell said it “does [his] heart well” to see a large community of Black surfers together.
“These Black surfers, surfers of color can go throughout the world and join in with other races and represent that inclusive unity of surfing and humanity.”