I stuffed the camera under my shirt and ran. I ran uphill through the woods to our bus on the highway. Our one ally, the bus driver, was waiting there smoking cheap cigarettes as the orange sun sank behind the polluted, oil-driven Baku. That sunset was the shot that lured us into this mess, and we were missing it because our hands were almost literally tied.
Risk and Adventure
We knew from the start there would be risks. It was a trip offering adventure, discovery, and a degree of danger. It’s what we wanted. Our surfers were hand-picked for it: an unforeseeable journey and the first to document pro surfing in the Black and Caspian Seas.
Locals said people drown weekly from poor swimming and strong currents. I was more afraid of being mistaken for Armenian spies in Azerbaijan -- a paranoia Azeris have with outsiders. There was never a time I thought we’d die, but at one point I expected to be shot at. And when we finally did get into trouble the only person to save us… was a bus driver.
Two years back it was just a vacation idea, but the potential for more lingered in our minds, and the idea of being pioneers for surf in new places was an irresistible temptress: a trip from Bulgaria to Azerbaijan in search of surf.
Then photos and charts rolled through our inboxes: four-meter waves off Baku and barrel riding in Bulgaria. In our heads we saw a wild, rugged voyage across the South Caucasus. A 3500-kilometer mission in two weeks. We would drive in a cliché surfer van. Pitch tents on the beach. Awake to the smell of a fizzled-out campfire. Swim with dolphins. Film local secrets. Capture uncharted waves off the beaten surfer path. We wanted it all.
The visas came later. Then the Facebook page. Then the athletes: pro surfers Gary Saavedra (Panama), Perth Standlick (Australia), and Ian Walsh (USA). The dates were set, the mission took form, and the trip began in Sofia, Bulgaria, as the first documentary filming pro surfers in the Black and Caspian Seas.
Bulgaria: Brawls and Roadside Booty
We thought the street parade of people with Bulgarian flags and plastic beer bottles were soccer fans. I had just met Perth in our run-down hostel that reeked of a gas leak, and joining some Balkan hooligans seemed like a good way to kill some time before the others arrived. It wasn’t until we bumped into the riot police a few blocks down that it dawned on us: these were protesters. The son of a Roma clan leader was unjustly let off the hook after being charged with manslaughter, and people were pissed off.
We bailed just in time; violence would erupt later on and hundreds would be arrested for fighting police with small bombs, knives, bats, pipes from vacuum cleaners and kitchen meat hammers. That was our intro to Balkan culture. But our spirits were innocently high and confident as our international crew arrived and met for the first time. With hunger for discovery and fingers crossed for surf, we began the six-hour drive east to Bourgas the next morning.
The RV would smell like a toilet, only play MiniDiscs, and eventually slow us down.
With the lack of beach beauties and luscious greenery, we felt less like a surf project and more like a caravan full of visionaries. We drove across the country in a valley, with nothing more to watch than dead sunflower fields and hitchhiking farm workers. The distant mountain ranges were stunning, but it was the roadside hookers appearing from underneath the trees and highway signs that felt most foreign.
For transport, production was stubborn for something that would “blend in” with the landscape. So our silver surfer van would never have a horn, the driver’s window would fail on us and the side door would eventually break. The RV would smell like a toilet, only play MiniDiscs, and eventually slow us down. But hey, at least we never drew unwanted attention... except for that one time, at the border, when our photographer rammed the RV into a patrol booth.
We hit surf upon arrival at Harmani Beach, just south of Bourgas. Perth immediately began ripping at a point with a decent right-hander. Skeletons of blue iron that once held umbrellas gave an eerie feel as we filmed. Beaches in Bulgaria were like ghost towns this time of year, with empty condos, closed terraces and abandoned building sites. Blame it on the recession or the off-season, but things felt dead, and creepy. And despite being a foreign crew with pro surfers and bulky camera equipment there wasn’t, and would never be, a crowd at any beach we visited.
Once Ian and Gary joined us on our second and third day out, we found points with waves breaking shoulder high to overhead. The best surf of the trip was in Lozenets, Bulgaria, but we were working with a short-period wind swell and always in the fetch. Even though the water density of the Black Sea would work against the surfers and the waves would lose power fast, the pros delivered. Perth felt at home on these waves; they reminded him of Bondi, and his creative edge with surfing made the sets just look better. Ian’s big-wave background showed in beautiful power turns and an overall smooth, fluid style. Gary worked his waves, pulling two, three and four moves in one go.
Before the communist party ended power in 1990 surfers were using foam from refrigerators to make their boards.
Surf culture in Bulgaria was almost nonexistent. We’d watch a topless woman pack her kiteboard gear before seeing another surfer in the water. Locals said there were about 50 surfers in the country and one shaper, and before the communist party ended power in 1990 surfers were using foam from refrigerators to make their boards. As a few local surfers watched Ian, Gary and Perth rip their spots a new one, I overheard some admit they never knew these tricks could happen on their waves. Floaters, barrel rides, frontside and backside airs, 180s and 360s -- they were setting the bar for a future Bulgarian surf scene.
Turkey: A Flavorful Lull
Two in the morning and we were stuck in traffic. Istanbul is a whirlwind of manic city life, a bubbling cultural melting pot. The lights, the people, the Arabic hits booming from car stereos. We passed the days filming at vibrant nargile bars, the bustling grand bazaar, and around the outside gardens between the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofia. Mosques studded the skyline with domes and minarets. Fishermen stood shoulder to shoulder along the glistening Bosphorus Strait.
The food in Istanbul was bliss. First were the potato stands serving up spuds with a mountain of toppings. The kebab kitchens used spice rubs that massaged our palates and tomatoes with enough flavor to shamelessly eat like an apple. Fresh figs. Almonds over ice. Olives and cheese the world envies; it was hard not to eat everything we saw.
We soaked up culture like a sponge, but the Black Sea was as flat as a pancake, and the trip’s direction began to flounder in our Turkish tea. Production wanted to leave Istanbul and bring to life their rugged vision of the trip, but the surfers would always take a fun night out if the Black Sea weren’t working. Some wanted to leave the project altogether because map updates showed a dead Caspian Sea. The surfers were getting bored, and we just didn’t have the answers to our frustrating uncertainties.
But like any successful expedition, we put differences aside and pressed on. We set off for the Turkish coast and camped on the beaches two hours north of Istanbul. We stayed just outside of Sile, a fishing town quiet and provincial, with gentle locals and fresh produce from the farms. Trash littered the beaches, and we’d never see surf, but it was a relief to escape overwhelming Istanbul. The red sunsets, bonfires, and sheep on the road enhanced the feeling of being somewhere familiar, yet we were so far, far from the surf world.
Even in a city with 13 million we couldn’t find a surf shop. People in Turkey don’t surf. We eventually met two cousins who quit their desk jobs to start the country’s first surf camp and board-shaping business. But business was slow. And the only competitive surfer from Turkey said his surf sessions get interrupted by coast guards boating out to rescue him.
A few days later, while the rest of us pressed on to Azerbaijan, a swell would hit the Turkish coast. Gary would be the first pro surfer filmed in action in Sile and Kerpe. Conditions were still based on wind, and waves varied with every set, but it was a good thing Gary didn’t score a visa to Azerbaijan -- he was making history in Turkey. Scoring two film days of surf with the only surfers in the country was hopefully the start of something positive.
Azerbaijan: Counting Beach Cows
Whenever we mentioned surfing in the Caspian Sea, the usual reply was that it couldn’t be done. If surfing was at its infant stage in Turkey, it hadn’t even been conceived in Azerbaijan. At the airport, the surfers were getting looks like they were killers with massive body bags. And now, Ian and Perth would be the first pros to ever be filmed surfing this body of caviar-rich water.
We thought Istanbul was nutty, but Baku was bonkers. Take a city with an old Muslim foundation trumped by heavy Soviet rule and blast it with oil wealth and Western influence -- that’s Baku. There were so many cars that people drive into oncoming traffic just to move ahead. The air smelled of exhaust. Gas was fifty cents a liter, and the usual vehicle pileup looked like this: Lada, Lada, super expensive sportscar, Lada, Lada, Lada, super expensive SUV, Lada.
Azerbaijan never fell short of tripped-out scenery. When our crew drove three hours up the coast, the bus passed small lakes outlined in salt piles. Oil pumps tapped sluggishly below the crusted earth. The climate would suddenly shift dramatically, and we would pass farmland with rich soil and produce stands on the road. Along the coastline were blackberry bushes, boarded-up cafes and snack shops. Cattle sunbathed on the beach. Cement blocks the size of Stonehenge tilted on the shore.
The coast was a straight line and we only had one day, once chance, to find something that could work. But all we saw was side shore, windswept surf, then Ian and Perth spotted a river mouth that created enough transition to shape the waves. They threw on wetsuits and went for it. The water looked dirty and uninviting. After a session Ian said his board felt strangely slick, and Perth mentioned an ear infection. We’d later learn that this spot was one of the most polluted areas of the Caspian Sea. The waves didn’t completely suck, though, and the footage looked striking for a surf film. We even drew a two-man crowd in the SUV that appeared on the beach like a ghost.
Chasing the Sunset
Back in Baku, the sun was fading behind the Vegas-style skyscrapers, the massive Communist apartment blocks, the smoke stacks and oil rigs spewing out dirty riches. Production hit trouble at dusk when our director began filming the epic, symbolic sunset. That’s when the gold-toothed officer approached us. He thought we were spies hiding out and filming in the forest.
That’s when I ran for our bus driver, expected to be shot at by armed and suspicious guards who only knew two English words: “passport” and “delete.” I don’t know what the driver said, but we were forced to erase shots of the area before bailing. He demanded us to delete more, but we resisted. We never did film the Baku sunset, but in the end we didn’t need it.
Gary, Perth and Ian paved the way for surfing coastlines that have potential along the Black and Caspian Seas. What blindsided us was just how well we could handle the wild uncertainty of exploration. But the vision of success was always there and we would succeed; we made our documentary. We charted new surf spots that were meager, but had potential with good timing. Locals are in the best position to catch these windows of great surf, and although it might never draw a global scene, it may be just as well -- they’re not ready for it yet. Surfing in these waters has a lot of room to grow, and is for the passionate adventurers only.