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Brothers by Water

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Tied by the same dream, the Esquivel brothers of La Union have raised the standard for Philippine surfing, pushing the whole community to new heights.

Photography by
Tarish Zamora
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“Team, kung sino makatalo sa akin sa heat, may bagong Vans na sapatos.”

Rogelio “Jay-r” Esquivel Jr. sends this message to Team La Union to bait the other surfers to beat him in competition. Whoever gets the better score in a head-to-head heat with Jay-r will get a new pair of Vans sneakers.

This would have been an easier feat to accomplish had it been any other surfer to strike a deal. But this was Jay-r Esquivel, the best longboarder in the country.“Bata palang ako, sobrang competitive na ako sa kahit anong sports,” shared Jay-r in an interview with Grid. “Ang sarap kasi sa feeling nang nananalo.”

International media spell his surname “Esquievel” with an extra “e” due to a typographical error on his passport. For the sake of this story and at Jay-r’s request, we will spell Jay-r’s family name the way it should be spelled: Esquivel.

The World Longboard Tour

Scoring a surfer riding a wave is largely subjective. However, there are parameters that help the judges keep the numbers within close ranges, devoid of bias. First, there is the measure of commitment, which is mutually inclusive to the degree of difficulty of the maneuver performed. Next, the key elements of speed, power, and flow. Making full use of the longboard’s length, which begins at nine feet and above, is also critical. The variety of maneuvers combined. The innovation of style. The positioning of the surfer as close as possible to the critical section of the wave when surfing. All are scored within a spectrum of 1-10, with 10 being excellent.

Jay-r Esquivel made history as the first Filipino to qualify for the prestigious World Longboard Tour, where the title of World Longboard Champion is crowned. To do this, he first had to win at home. When the World Surf League (WSL) ran the La Union International Pro in San Juan in January 2023, Jay-r defeated surfers not only from the Philippines but also from France, Indonesia, Korea, and Japan.

He then went on to compete in the Padrol Longboard Classic in Halfway Beach, Bali, claiming the title of the best longboarder in Asia. By the time he arrived in Huntington Beach in July, the toughest competitors in longboarding already knew his name.

When Jay-r was up against Ben Skinner, arguably the best longboarder in the United Kingdom, we thought his chances of advancing were slim. But Jay-r threw down an 8.27 score with a hang-five to hang-ten combination that displayed not only full control of the board but also beautiful railwork transitions. Surfing matches were decided by totaling the top two scores in 30-minute heats. Jay-r racked up a total heat score of 15.44 against Skinner’s 10.50.

In the Quarterfinals, Jay-r faced off with North America Regional Longboard Champion, Richie Cravey. Momentum was with Jay-r as he breezed through their bout. It was only the Hawaiian powerhouse Kaniela Stewart, or “Kani Tsunami” as they called him, that put a stop to Jay-r’s winning streak.

A Semifinals finish on his debut competing in California waters was enough for Jay-r to leave his mark in the world of longboarding. And he was just getting started. He then flew to Australia where he finished ninth in the Bioglan Bells Beach Longboard Classic. Colder and heavier conditions proved too much for Jay-r but he fared better in the Surf City El Salvador Longboard Classic, where he upset two-time WSL Longboard Champion Piccolo Clemente from Peru and Japan’s rising star, Taka Inoue, in the elimination rounds. Reaching the Quarterfinals, Jay-r would bow out of the competition to John Michael Van Hohenstein from Hawaii.

Still, Jay-r’s outstanding performance earned him a coveted spot in the World Longboard Tour Finals held in Malibu, a historic bedrock for surf culture. Not only did it serve as a springboard for innovation in surf styles and surfboard design in the 1940s to 1960s, but it was also the site for beach blanket gatherings where people from all walks of life came down to the shore to watch surfers take off on what was called the “original perfect wave.”

Filipinos from all over the U.S. flocked to Malibu to cheer on Jay-r, complete with lumpia, barbecue, and the Philippine flag waving in the wind. By this time, he had been on competition mode for over ten months, spending time away from home in unfamiliar climates. Jay-r faced stiff competition in the 40-minute heat against Tony Silvagni from the U.S. and Edouard Delpero from France, and he concluded his World Longboard Tour campaign settling for the World’s #8.

The Esquivel legacy

In the water, Jay-r doesn’t say much beyond ‘hello’ and ‘good morning.’ He lets his surfing speak for itself. Even if you’ve never met Jay-r before, from the coastline, you could tell him apart. He was the best surfer on the horizon.

But he wasn’t the first surfing prodigy in the family. The Esquivels are from La Union: the northern surf capital of Luzon. Perhaps the laid-back nature of Elyu's beach breaks and main surf break, Monaliza Point, diffuses what sibling rivalry might have formed as the brothers share the same sport. But gentle waves belie the athleticism it takes to be graceful on a longboard.

Ronie “Poks” Esquivel, Jay-r’s older brother, was La Union’s original surfing superstar. Despite being born with only one leg, Poks outsurfed anyone. He became a focal point in Australian surf media and his crutch on the beach became an icon. In a Philippine Inquirer headline, Poks was hailed as the “Prince of Tides.”

“Naaalala ko kay Kuya Poks yung pagtuturo niya sa akin sa surf. Tinuruan niya rin ako kung paano ang mga gagawin sa mga competition,” Jay-r reminisces about his early days in the sport and the guidance his brother imparted.“At saka naaalala ko pa na ginagaya ko yung [one-legged] stance niya dati,” he recalled with a nostalgic smile.

On July 12, 2012, a week after Jay-r’s 16th birthday, Poks Esquivel died of a heart attack at the age of 27 and a light in La Union went out. This light would be rekindled through Jay-r and his younger brother, June.

It was also Poks that taught June, eight years Jay-r’s junior, how to surf, though he says he was too young to remember anything else about him. At the age of 12, June was La Union’s most promising grommet, ready to follow in his older brothers’ path. But he would suffer from a skull injury sustained in a vehicular accident. The pressing question arose: Would June be able to surf again?

“Nagpahinga ako ng 4 years. Sobrang tagal ko nga pong hindi naka-surf, hanggang nuod-nood lang ako,” June recounted. “Sumubok ako ulit mag-surf gamit ang isang bodyboard. Sinabihan ako ni Kuya Jay-r na parang shortboard lang din iyon.” Despite warnings from doctors, June knew his body best. “Gustong-gusto ko na mag-surf ‘non!”

The brothers’ bond is unmistakable: Once an Esquivel makes up his mind, he becomes unstoppable. Poks still surfed to his heart’s content. Jay-r demystified global competitions, sending home the powerful message that Filipinos were superior athletes. Patient June persisted. Today, the youngest Esquivel is a top contender in the 2023 NextGen Pilipinas Surfing Nationals, the national surfing competition sanctioned by the United Philippine Surfing Association (UPSA), which serves as the official National Sports Association (NSA) for surfing.

But June faces another challenge: In order to become champion, he had to beat the reigning champion, his brother Jay-r.

Battle of the Brothers

On the day of the La Union Pro Finals, the culminating leg of this year’s UPSA nationals, June was up against Benito Nerida in the Quarterfinals. Benito, with international surfing experience and a national ranking of #5, posed a formidable challenge. However, the ocean favored June, giving him ample opportunities to score.

Meanwhile, Jay-r was engaged in a tight match against SEA Games Gold Medalist, Roger Casugay. The swell had dropped and, contrary to popular belief, smaller waves were harder to surf in competition. But fate would have it that both June and Jay-r would advance to the Semifinals, emerge victorious against their opponents, and meet head-to-head in the Finals.

As soon as the buzzer went off, June got to work, spotting a decent wave, pivoting with full control, cross-stepping to the nose to hold a long hang-ten across a steep section. The judges gave it an 8.75, the highest single-wave score of the entire tour.

Not to be outdone by his younger brother, Jay-r got on the next wave to drop a 7.0, falling short of June’s score. Both would score 6.75’s soon after, but June was still in the lead.

Then the ocean fell silent. No waves came until the dying seconds of the match. Jay-r, paddling fervently for any bump in the water, came up empty-handed. June raised both hands in victory, his older brother paddled towards him and the two embraced, yielding to the arbitrary nature of the sport.

Surfers can devote their lives to training, but in the end, the ocean decides. Surfers like Jay-r and June possess a unique gift—attuned to this divinity of timing and the art of wave-reading. No other sport in the world carries the same sense of sacredness.

Surfing made its debut in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and will run again in Tahiti for the 2024 Paris Olympics. Only short boarding or radical wave riding on boards of six feet and below was considered on both occasions. However, the winds carry an exciting message for the Esquivels and the Philippine surfing community—longboarding is slated to be part of the 2028 Olympics.

Jay-r and June Esquivel share the dream of making it to the Olympics. Despite having fought many battles, their real journey has just begun and more Filipinos are following in the Esquivels’ cross-steps.

The sun sets in La Union as a new chapter in the Esquivel legacy begins. That night, June posts an Instagram Story of his brand-new Vans sneakers.

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