Fifty years ago this week the World Surfing Championship was held, not in the then nine-year old fiftieth state of the Union, Hawai’i, but in the United States territory of Puerto Rico; not on the North Shore of Oahu but on the shores of Rincón.
This week, millennial as well as diehard baby-boomer surfers congregate in Rincón to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1968 World Surfing Championship. That year’s world champion, Fred Hemmings, will be in attendance.
I originally met Fred, not as a surfer, but as a member of the Council of State Governments, which I chaired in 1999, the youngest and first Hispanic to do so, when he served as the Republican Minority Leader of the Senate of the State of Hawai’i.
Through Fred, I’ve learned a lot about our country’s most recent state, and about how a territory can transform as it becomes a state of the Union. I’ve also learned from him the importance of preserving an incoming state’s culture just as we’ve learned the importance of preserving ours.
I have especially learned that there can be life, public life, after surfing, and surfing after public life.
If something Puerto Rico can learn from the 1968 World Surfing Championship and its champion, Fred Hemmings, is that Puerto Rico has the waves and beaches to host top surfing competitions, and could exploit, to an extent it has not fully done so yet, the potential of being a major surfing destination, especially from Rincón to Isabela. It is heartening to see the Puerto Rico Tourism Company sponsoring this year’s celebration, as well as it did around 2011 with the Regional Rip Curl competitions. They know they’re on to something, but have not as yet picked the wave they’re going to rise to success.
As part of the diversification of the tourism products that Puerto Rico has to offer and the decentralization of tourism activities away from San Juan (as my fellow former senator Eddie Zavala would often remind us: “San Juan’s not Puerto Rico”), I look forward to the day when we find from Rincón to Isabela a level of sustained surfing activities that justify calling Puerto Rico the Surfing Capital of the Americas.
To Fred Hemmings and his colleagues of the waves past and present, bienvenidos, welcome, aloha, and enhorabuena. Have a great stay, Mahalo!