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​​On the Crest of a Wave

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​​Borongan is on the cusp of reinventing its sleepy town into a Visayas surfing capital. Learning from the cautionary tales of its predecessors, the city is masterplanning its transformation by sports tourism.

Photography by
Story by
Miguel Nacianceno
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The bigger the board, the easier it is to catch a wave. In surfing, the length and volume of a ten-foot soft-top longboard gives the stability and buoyancy you need while starting out.​​

​​In their corner of Eastern Samar, Borongan locals teach themselves to surf with what they can get their hands on—whether it’s a borrowed board shared between four surfers at a time, or a homemade skimboard made of styrofoam or plywood.

​​It is for this reason that the surfing culture in the city is centered more around the shortboard: the machismo counterpart of surfing. At six feet or shorter, the board allows for more explosive movement in pockets of energy, thrashing arms and pumping to make faster turns in larger waves.


​​The dynamic nature of Boronganon surfers defines their hometown: Borongan is a city on the cusp, aggressively carving a name for itself as the country’s next surf destination to hit the map… or so they want to be.​​

​​It was June when photographer Miguel Nacianceno and I visited Borongan. The city is most known for Baybay Boulevard, a two-kilometer coastline with both right and left-peeling waves that runs along a wide stretch of fine gray sand. But in the middle of the surfing off season, the waters were flat without a wave in sight.

​​Parallel to the beach is the city’s baywalk, dotted with colorful eateries to grab a Pale Pilsen and just about any type of inihaw after surfing. What makes Baybay unique is how close it is to everything else. You could walk to everything you need—Jollibee, the hospital, or the City Hall—from the beach within 10 minutes. ​​

​​And yet, what few people there were in the boardwalk during the day were mostly tricycle drivers waiting for passengers. At night, the most action we saw at Baybay were a few locals grabbing dinner and some skateboarders. Elsewhere, it was only a group of seniors playing chess on the side of the street and a rather lively karaoke bar.

Relative to the likes of Siargao, La Union, Baler, and Daet; Borongan is still in its infancy as a surfing capital.

​​The city feels more like a provincial hometown than a tourist destination; Boronganons call their coastal town beautiful, but so would any mother say about their child. It was charming, but any other allure the city may have had needed to be pointed out by a local.

​​In such a sleepy city, the surfer’s paradise Borongan has envisioned for itself almost sounds like a fever dream.

​​Almost.

​​

​​After the apocalypse

​​Surfing as a recreational sport was introduced to the Philippines in the late 1960s—brought by the arrival of US military bases. But its popularity is owed to the godfather himself, Francis Ford Coppola: after filming the acclaimed Apocalypse Now (1979) in Baler, locals took to the boards left behind by the film crew and taught themselves how to surf.

​​As the story goes, when the early Filipino surfers—and foreign surfers in the Philippines—went off in search of the perfect wave, it brought them to Borongan, where they taught the locals how to ride the waters. These days, Borongan claims it’s the birthplace of surfing in Visayas; locals say it was the Boronganons who brought surfing to places like Guiuan, Taft, and Hernani.


​​On paper, Borongan has all the makings of the Eden of surfing: Being along the eastern coastline means the city is exposed to the Philippine trench and with it, a range of surf breaks from river mouths, beaches, and reefs. Here, beginners and hardcore surfers alike can find their dream wave. Somewhere along the shoreline is nature anthropomorphized to break in a near predictable way, into a rolling wave over a sandy bottom or a barreling one caused by a point break.

​​In spite of this, surfing has remained its best kept secret. The reputation that precedes Borongan is one of storms—a collective consciousness stemming from its location in the typhoon alley that is Samar. While the city was struck worst by Typhoon Ruby in 2014, Borongan has managed to avoid the worst of what befalls the rest of the region. It is enveloped by natural barriers: the mountainous spine of Samar and the twin islands of Ando and Divinubo. Before Borongan had lifeguards, Rupert Ambil tells us, surfers would chase the large swells that signaled a storm hours before it arrived.​​

In such a sleepy city, the surfer’s paradise Borongan has envisioned for itself almost sounds like a fever dream.

​​Rupert calls himself a bakasyonista-Waray, he had traded the city for an education and a storied career in journalism, only to return home for the holidays. Whenever he’s asked about his roots, he always had the same reply, “Borongan? Saan ‘yun?”

When he returned to his city later on, he realized it was in need of an identity—one that could eclipse that of typhoons and being the hometown of celebrity Boy Abunda—and he’s making up for lost time by making his love for surfing anchor his city.

​​

​​it comes in waves

​​With all the finesse of the surfer that he is, Rupert masks the technicalities of the city’s plans with a deceptive grace. Experience from covering the worst of the country’s natural disasters for ABS-CBN and Rappler has given Rupert the understanding of what it takes to organize the assets of local government units (LGU) and locals themselves to build the infrastructure the city needs.

​​As president of the Surfriders Club Eastern Samar (SCES), Rupert established  Surf in the City, a surf festival in Borongan in December 2019. This was preceded by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) admitting surfing, skateboarding, sports climbing to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in 2016—a landmark decision for these sports that were always at the periphery, deemed too extreme to be recognized outside of ESPN. It also paved the way for the 2019 Southeast Asian Games to include surfing for the first time in its 30-year history.

​​

​​With everyone else finally catching on, Rupert sought to direct that traction home: At the first Surf in the City, Borongan also hosted the last leg of the 2019 Philippine Surfing Championship Tour (PSCT), the country’s only professional surfing competition. Since then, the city has established itself as a regular host for the prestigious league. Even amid the pandemic, the first leg of the 2021 PSCT kicked off at Baybay Boulevard and the city is set to do so again this December.

​​Borongan has set its sight on becoming the next surfing destination in the region, and in opening the province, the possibilities have come in waves. Together with the LGU, Rupert is betting on sports tourism as a whole—surfing, skateboarding, wakeboarding, skimboarding, wall climbing, beach football, archery, among many others—to bring the city to life. Even if you can’t surf, or if you can’t swim, there will be something for you in Borongan.

The plans are extensive: the national archery team’s coach Joy Mariño and player Pia Bidaure recently visited from Dumaguete, and held a grassroots archery clinic using bows made out of PVC pipes to introduce the locals to a sport often regarded as for the elite. Wakeboarding coach Carlo Dela Torre has come in from Batangas to assist in the construction of a cable wakeboard park, set to be the longest one in Southeast Asia. It will be erected along Suribao River—a rarity among most other waterparks that use manmade bodies of water. Following the city’s Skate Jam competition in 2021, Olympian Margielyn Didal of Cebu—and honorary Boronganon—is advising the city on the design of the soon-to-rise skate park along Baybay Boulevard.

“We want our people to go out and be representative of our place. The best ambassadors na taga-Borongan will be our athletes. The best example of whether your government is efficient and working is how the athletes are supported,” Rupert explains.  “We wanted support because we knew that our kids had potential to become the next Kelly Slater or Rob Machado, or the next local heroes—the next Marama Tokong from Siargao, Jay-R Esquivel of La Union, Niel Sanchez of Baler. We don't have that yet; we don't have the Juan dela Cruz of Borongan.”

Even if you can’t surf, or if you can’t swim, there will be something for you in Borongan.

While constructing local facilities does make for tourism appeal, it also reinforces community development: introducing kids to sports teaches discipline, shapes responsible citizens, and gives them ambition to be at par with their idols.

Part of board culture and other extreme sports is cultivating a local scene, owing to not having a prescribed space—whether that means taming waves or urban terrain. It’s why Coach Joy and Pia made the 16-hour trip to Samar; why Rupert could reach out to Margie over an Instagram DM—they all want to give athletes the support they never received.

It is a bit unorthodox for a local government to be this proactive in helping develop athletes in our country, and not just ones with medals. With little government support, many of our national athletes rely on the private sector to sponsor equipment or overseas training, but Borongan provides facilities to arm local sports with accessibility and progression.



On the shoulders of giants

Relative to the likes of Siargao, La Union, Baler, and Daet; Borongan is still in its infancy as a surfing capital. But it has been more of an upper hand for the city to start from a blank canvas, learning from its predecessors: While most destinations begin at the grassroots—locals making their own initiatives to turn their hometowns into a tourism destination—it has the government’s support to masterplan its transformation.

Tourism is volatile. Boracay and Siargao will tell you this, having been at the mercy of countless lockdowns and natural disasters. But Borongan has grasped that sustainability is the way out of the tourism dependency they have been so cautioned about.

​​Borongan has set its sight on becoming the next surfing destination in the region, and in opening the province, the possibilities have come in waves.

As a response, Rupert has created programs for local surfers to make a living out of the sport. With the LGU and the Department of Tourism, SCES has trained and produced seven surf judges and eight surf instructors accredited by the International Surfing Association, and in turn recognized by the IOC. Local surfers have also undergone training from Red Cross Philippines so they can be employed as lifeguards by the LGU. As the SCES has been registered under the Securities and Exchange Commission since 1998, over 70 displaced Borongan surfers were also able to receive government ayuda during the Covid-19 lockdowns.

To prepare for their planned tourism boom, Borongan is also on the path towards food sufficiency: When the pandemic struck, Mayor Dayan Agda launched Dukwang Agrikultura, a loan assistance program to help fishermen, agricultural and livestock farmers—who make up the majority of the city’s 69,000 residents. Within the year, Borongan went from importing most of its produce to being subsistent in pork and exporting to the rest of the region. Its next step is to be sufficient in rice production, after receiving devolved irrigation systems from the National Irrigation Administration.


In 2003, the whole of Samar Island was declared a terrestrial protected area as part of the government’s environmental conservation and disaster risk reduction efforts. In accordance with this, Borongan has introduced modern agrarian practices to upland farms, and converted tree poachers into forest rangers. The LGU has also established fish and coral sanctuaries to parts of their waters. With fishing banned in Monbon and Ando Island, the LGU has provided ecotourism livelihood opportunities to affected barangays in the form of a giant clams nursery and a diving school.


The great equalizer

Surfers are territorial by nature. After all, theirs is a sport that is hyper-local like no other, with waves dictated by geographical location. Surf spots were well-kept secrets until social media, cheap travel, and surf tournaments came to the fore. Nowadays, word spreads quickly, and new spots are taken over by visitors starved out of waves from congested destinations like General Luna. A scarcity in waves gives birth to localism. As Outside Magazine puts it, “Every wave you catch is one less wave for me.”  

But Borongan believes that Baybay, its playground, has enough to go around in the season. Along the beach is Borongan’s iconic surf tower. On our last day in the city, this is where I sat with Jeric Alconaba and Edgar “Taybo” Calvo, both lifeguards and surf instructors, as well as Danica Lebrilla, who won Best Local Surfer in last year’s Surf in the City at the age of 13.

Jeric explains that only Baybay is open to tourists—visitors would have to be accompanied by a local to surf in any other spots like Sabang—a favorite for all three—the white beach at the end of the seawall that makes fast rights during Amihan. There’s also Pirate’s Cove, a reef break with hollow lefts, and an hour away from the city is Llorente, where beginners can appreciate its sand-bottomed peaks.

Nowadays, word spreads quickly, and new spots are taken over by visitors starved out of waves from congested destinations.

This act of semi-gatekeeping is not to be confused with greed: Part of it is to save their beaches and rugged coastline from commercial development; to preserve Borongan’s wild beauty as one of surfing’s last frontiers. But beginners can also pose a danger—to themselves and others—without enough knowledge and ability to control their boards. This is especially true for posers, as Taybo puts it—those who are only in it for the pictures.

As is in every surfing subculture, respect is earned. The surf community in Borongan is tight-knit and they are young; surfing families consist only of two generations, between father and son. Most are self-taught. Taybo knows this well; he is the first of his family to pick up a surfboard, surfing everyday, studying older surfers and YouTube videos to teach himself how to ride the waves, until local elders acknowledged his potential and took him under their wing.


As we talk, Jeric and Taybo fix their gazes on the water’s horizon. Mid-sentence, Taybo mentions there’s low pressure activity (LPA) nearby. I take a moment: There’s nothing different in the air, not one I can feel at least, and nothing noteworthy when I train my sight on where they’re looking.

But I don’t question it. Taybo had said this so matter-of-factly, serious in a way I didn’t expect from the jovial 17-year-old. I come to realize that every surfer is part meteorologist: to be able to read the waters, all surfers must be aware of weather patterns, wind direction, bathymetry.

True enough, two surfers appear in a rush within the hour. The dead season for surfing in Borongan lasts three months in a year; on a June afternoon, locals are quick to chase after even a hint of a swell. It felt like a moment of kismet that Baybay had waves on our last day here, like we couldn’t leave without seeing a hint of what Borongan was like in action.

Danica, who has been sitting beside me this entire time, quiet and shy unless coaxed into answering, is now restless. From the sidelines, Rupert catches this and asks her if she has her board.

She doesn’t. And even if she did, this wave wasn’t hers to ride.

The two newcomers stretch near where we are. Miguel asks to take their picture, but they’re too focused on searching the waters for a pattern just big enough; mapping out in their mind’s eye each movement so as not to waste a single wave.


Picture paddling to the surf line, the area of open water where waves break. They take a pause to sit on their boards and read the waters some more, make adjustments. When it’s time, the surfers paddle quickly to catch the rising wave. As the wave breaks, they jump from their bellies to their feet, crouching on their boards until they can ride. Now, picture the exit: will they lower themselves back down and paddle out? No, they get tossed above the wave—but not too close to shore or to any rocks.

Picture doing it all over again.

Only when they’ve had their fill will they tell the other surfers that there are waves along Baybay. That is, if any are left when they’re done. Taybo tells us the surfing community has a group chat for this exact purpose.

That’s part of the surfing etiquette visitors must understand before surfing in Samar—or anywhere else, really. Unless it’s an A-frame, only one person surfs each wave. While paddling out, steer clear by passing where the waves don’t break while returning to the line. The person closest to where the wave breaks has the right of way.

This system of waiting your turn to have a go at the waves exists because of the lack of hierarchy in surf culture. Maybe people will heckle you if you waste a wave, by not bouncing fast enough or if you were thrown off-balance, but for the most part: “It’s a culture built on respect, where we’re all equal. Regardless if you’re a woman or a man, if you’re old or young. There’s no poor or rich in surfing,” Jeric explains in a mix of Waray and Tagalog.

After all, it takes a village to surf in Samar.


Brandale “Batoots” Balid is the sole surfboard shaper of Borongan. We visited his workshop, Pokdaw Surfboards, as our last stop before making the four-hour drive back to Tacloban for our flight. Batoots is one of the oldest surfers in Borongan, but only began shaping in 2013 when Yolanda had destroyed many of the locals’ surfboards beyond repair. He started out learning from other boards, observing cross-sections to find the secrets of other shapers, before making his own designs, and sourcing materials from the network he’s built all over the country.

Since then, his surfboards have built a reputation across the Philippines and even beyond. It was his work that made headlines as the best token given to Presidential candidate Leni Robredo during her Samar campaign sortie, Pink Wave Ha Este. He made nearly all the surfboards used by competing locals in the Surf in the City competitions.


At a time where you can buy surfboards in bulk from Alibaba, his are a mark of rare craftsmanship: because Batoots is a veteran surfer—and a Waray surfer at that—he understands how his boards cut through these waters, and can customize each one to the surfer’s build and style. Many of his clients leave all their repairs to him, not trusting anyone else with their board.

“Alam ko yung mga alon,” he says. “Gusto [ng mga cliente], magpagawa sa marunong magsurf. Alam ko yung takbo ng iba’t-iba klaseng board. Alam ko yung bilis niya; kung paano siya mag-curve.”

Work slowed when materials like resin and fiber glass were hard to source during the lockdowns, but even more so in February, when Batoots had a heart attack that ceased his shaping entirely. Though he has recovered, things haven’t been quite the same. Nowadays, he has been looking for successors; he teaches locals, allowing them to do minor repairs and shaping. His daughter has yet to take after him, but she has taken to surfing. The local government is looking into providing a shared facility with a CNC cutting machine to augment his apprenticeship, preparing the next generation of shapers.

Meeting Batoots that day had been a spur of the moment decision, but he was the kind of person I hadn’t known I was looking for throughout the trip: For all the plans the local government has been making to establish sports tourism as the future of the city, it can only do so because of people like Batoots, who have been shaping Borongan surf culture in more ways than one.

While waiting for our flight at the Tacloban Airport, I browse through Taybo’s Instagram—one of the things he’d picked up from his idol Jay-R Esquivel at the 2019 Surf in the City was the need to market yourself. From his posts, I learn that he’s one of the few longboarders in Borongan.




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While it is easier to ride a longboard, mastering it takes a lifetime—requiring high levels of skill, balance and agility. Even on screen, it is hypnotic to watch him glide, cross-stepping down to the nose and back in a dance, curling his feet on the edge in a Hang Ten.

Making a turn on a longboard means to maneuver more weight: A surfer needs to hold their turn longer, modify the weight of their lean on the edge to match the board matching the water. Outpace yourself, and you will face-plant on the water.

To longboard is to move with purpose, slowing down time so you can battle it out to ride the wave until the last second, as it takes you further out the sea. That’s Borongan, it’s the city moving with its people—ebbing and flowing with nature. I have no doubt they’re going to go far.

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