This article is a part of a series created by United Voices, a new AFAR immersion program that brings together local content creators and AFAR editors for workshops, reporting stories, and experiencing a destination together. We make our debut in Puerto Rico.
With incredible summer weather, surfers in Puerto Rico can easily adapt to the different swells that hit the island’s coastlines and ride its waves almost all year long. But Puerto Rico’s identity as a surfing destination is also rooted in the local surfing community, the pillars of which are surfboard craftsmen.
Composed of locals who have spent their entire lives surfing and studying the island’s waves, craftsmen use their experience as inspiration to build beautiful surfboards by hand. Not only are their designs works of art that have been personalized for the needs and skills of each customer, but they are also a relevant symbol of identity for any local surfers who own these boards.
There is a certain sense of pride among local surfers to ride a surfboard made in Puerto Rico, especially within an industry that is heavily influenced by international brands. But it wasn’t until the beginning of 2023—when I received my first custom hand-shaped surfboard from Machete Shapes—that I truly understood that sense of pride, which sparked my curiosity enough to visit and document the works of local shapers Mika Ramírez, Néstor Ramírez, and Migue Flores.
High quality and performance that runs in the family
Finding Machete’s workshop feels like discovering a secret hideout in the middle of a deserted patch in the heart of Isabela, a town in the north of the island known for its scenic beaches and high-quality surf. Upon arrival, all I could hear was a loud shaping machine competing with the sound of a podcast interview from American shaper and big wave rider Gerry López. Following the noise, I sneaked through the back, spotting Mika covered in foam dust, hyper-focused on his work.
Mika is the third-generation shaper in the family. Following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Néstor, and his father Guaili Ramírez, Mika was born into the surfing world. Now, hooked on creating custom surfboards, Mika aims to create a connection between himself and his clients in the shaping room and in the water.
After greeting me, he showed me around his workshop, which was divided into three rooms dedicated to a specific part of the process: shaping, painting, and glassing. He then took me a few blocks away to meet his grandfather, shaper Néstor Ramírez, founder of Pelícano Surfboards.
It was easy to tell Néstor’s knowledge passed from one generation to the next: With over 40 years of experience, Néstor seemed like he could shape a surfboard simply by examining how you walked. Meanwhile Mika, with almost three years of shaping experience, could convince you which board would suit you best by asking about your style and favorite surf spots.
“When you buy a board from outside the island, there is a disconnect between you and the shaper. But when you order a board from your local shaper, there is a connection. We live on the island, know our waves, and create a board tailored to your surfing style.” – Mika
Mika explained how his first spark of curiosity for shaping was shattered after his family exposed him to the real, intricate, and demanding process of creating a surfboard. It was difficult—but essential—to learn everything by himself so he could master each aspect of the design process. After a long break from shaping, it was not until after Hurricane Maria that he felt a strong need to return to Puerto Rico from living in the States and follow his family’s legacy under the name Machete Shapes.
“A machete, other than being a symbol of resistance, is a weapon that cuts, and my boards are made to cut through waves, mainly for high-performance surfers who want to dominate on the island.” – Mika
Néstor Ramírez shared how support from major surf shops had decreased over the years. In the 1970s and ’80s, the demand for locally made Pelícano boards was bigger since there were barely any local shapers, and the influence of international brands was not so prominent. Exhibiting their newly hand-shaped boards while surfing at their local breaks was all they had to do to advertise their work.
In the ’80s and ’90s, Pelícano became a renowned surf brand throughout the island’s surfing scene. During this time, Pelícano boards were sold in numerous surf shops in San Juan, with much more local support. With the evolution of shaping technology and high-quality materials, such as epoxy resin and expanded polystyrene, boards became lighter and easier to mass produce, which made selling custom boards more difficult for the local shapers who were already selling their products in local shops.
After surfboard designs started to slowly evolve from large to smaller boards, Néstor became skilled at creating a wide range of boards for different types of surfers. One of the boards that stands out from Pelícano’s huge quiver was a custom-made yellow Gun. A Gun is a heavier and longer surfboard with a sharp nose, typically ranging from 8 to 10 feet long, designed for riding huge and powerful 30-foot waves. These kinds of waves are not for people looking for fun in the water; they are for those in need of a thrill of a lifetime, brave adrenaline seekers craving to tame Rincon’s monster waves at Tres Palmas.
Looking at that huge board made evident that the trust these clients and communities hold in their local shapers is stronger than gaining international fame, or even money. Today, owning a Pelícano surfboard is like possessing a modern relic because they are considered unique on the island. With the growing surfing scene on Puerto Rico, the demand for Pelícano boards has become steady among those who know the brand’s history thanks to word of mouth within the local surfing scene.
“It is a great feeling to see a client surfing with the board you made and hear how much they love it. In a way, it creates community between everyone who supports our work.” – Mika
A strong community of shapers in the workshop
Migue Flores, a surfer and engineer, is another shaper known for his alternative designs. Since the age of 10, he has been exposed to the practice, but it was not until a decade later that he started creating boards for himself out of necessity. Even with only three years of shaping experience, he has become one of the most sought-after shapers on the island.
“I remember grabbing my first boards from my neighbors’ trash, sneaking them into my family’s garage, and patching them up with duct tape. That is when everything started.” – Migue
He began shaping after catching the attention of local shapers Ricky Muñiz and Raymond from Dimensions Surfboards, and after being invited to their workshops he became hooked on the design process. He later found a space to start working on his first designs thanks to Titus Meléndez and Wilfredo Pacheco, two experienced shapers from the island, both of whom he considers his mentors.
In his studio house in Isla Verde, Migue emphasized how his friends have been a big part of his advancement as a shaper.
“The gatherings of local shapers in their workshops are crucial. We are always helping each other out. The exchange of ideas among shapers allows us to address details that sometimes one does not see but others do.
Each surfboard bears the signature of a shaper, but behind each creation, there are various ideas and constructive critiques from shapers within the community.” -–Migue
This type of collaboration has become a key element for Migue’s work, helping him create different types of boards for different types of experiences in the water while understanding the contrast between performance and style.
“The speed of high-performance style creates more dopamine; that is why more people like to surf on smaller boards. Mid-length boards, which range from 6'6" to 8'0" in size, offer a more in-between experience, allowing you to have more stability and flow on the wave. Longboarding style is much slower, calm, and tranquil, making you appreciate every second you are on the wave.” – Migue
Migue Flores and Mika Ramirez are now working alongside a group of well-respected locals and shapers from the island on a new project called the Surf Collective, which aims to build a platform by 2024 and unite shapers from all over the island to promote their work and facilitate sales in stores throughout Puerto Rico. It will also seek to assist upcoming surfers who cannot afford a surfboard and make the sport more accessible to them.
Mika Ramírez, Néstor Ramírez, and Migue Flores are only a few of many artists whose work tells stories that are building a bridge between tradition and modernity. From one friend to another, their workshops are places of creativity and connection, where ideas are shared and meant to be passed down to the next generations of shapers.