A Postcard from Jamaica. Greetings from Zoo, the Greatest Wave You’ll Never Surf.

by Chris Dixon

Jamaican surfer Neil Andrade blew my mind back in 1987 at the late, great Zoo.  Photo by Chris Dixon.

Jamaican surfer Neil Andrade blew my mind back in 1987 at the late, great Zoo. Photo, Chris Dixon.

When I was seventeen years old, my dad married a firecracker of a lady who grew up ‘pon de island of Jamaica. Celeste had been raised on a Blue Mountain coffee farm in the far eastern mountains of Portland, had later settled in Kingston, and then emigrated to Georgia when the political violence of the late 1970’s quite literally nearly claimed the lives of her and her then husband. But by the time Celeste and dad were married in 1984, Jamaica had calmed a lot, and I’d become addicted to surfing.

Winter 1983. Searching for Jamaican surf with my friend Sergio Braga.

Within a few years, I had hairpin-turned all over the island’s lush, surf-heavy eastern half in a beat up Toyota in search of waves – from Port Maria (home of Noel Coward’s legendary home Firefly) to Boston Beach to Long Bay and eventually on around to the shoreline of the teeming capital of Kingston. The only place I’d found any surfing locals was in the remarkable little community of Boston, which is also an ancestral home of Jamaican jerk cooking. Then one day in 1987, my best friend Michael and I had just finished surfing out in front of a spooky wrecked freighter along Kingston’s Palisadoes Peninsula when a local guy pulled up who was as redheaded and Irish looking as me. He was as surprised to see us as we were to see him.

By the early 1980’s, this was all that was left of The Wreck. But by then Zoo had become the focal point. Photo: Chris Dixon

“You wan’ see where the real waves are?” he asked in a thoroughly Jamaican accent before leading us a few miles east to a sketchy dirt road that ended alongside a beachfront elementary school. The schoolkids playing soccer on the dirt field were as oblivious to us as they were to the sparkling, cylindrical lefthander that barreled over a perfectly shaped cobblestone reef whose rocks had been piled up through generations by Kingston’s Hope River. The water was so clear, it seemed like we were floating in space above the cobbles. For the next two weeks, we had the best wave I’d ever seen – ever even imagined – all to ourselves. It started out head high and every day grew a little bit bigger until Michael and I started to fear for our safety. After a dawn patrol on my December 20th birthday nearly drowned both of us, we were stunned when a pair of surfers, Neil Andrade and a Rastaman named Pierre Diaz rolled up in a Suzuki Samurai, introduced themselves, and paddled out into what could only be described as a Caribbean Pipeline.


Pierre Diaz making double-overhead Zoo look easy. I can assure you, it was anything but. Photo: Chris Dixon

Before long, a third friend rolled up in a VW Microbus, a wiry and wickedly talented Rasta musician named Billy “Mystic” Wilmot who revealed the name of the spot as Zoo, and simply tore the wave up. In time, I would become honored to call the “Zoo Crew” my friends. Billy, Neil, Pierre, Nigel Benjamin and Yves Yearwood introduced me to new spots like Buff Bay and an incredible left point called Makka, and scared the hell out of me at big Zoo. When I was married in 2002, Billy and his band ‘The Mystic Revealers’ made my wife’s dreams come true by playing at my wedding. As the years passed, Billy’s own kids, Ishack, Inikel, Ivah, Icah, and daughter Imani became the heirs of the Zoo – and gradually, word leaked out about this incredible wave and Jamaica’s remarkable surf culture (in at least small part thanks to a story I wrote for Surfer back in 1999).

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Patrick “Quashi” Mitchell, Luke Williams, the Wilmots and Me. Circa 2005 or so at Surfer magazine. Photo courtesy. Quashi

Contrary to the code of many surfers, who want to keep their spots a secret, Billy wanted to get the word out about surfing in Jamaica – and the incredibly consistent waves that break here for months on end. Basically these are the same waves that break in Bocas Del Toro, Panama, or the Caribbean side of Costa Rica – with the occasional powerful northerly swell through the Mona Passage (the swells that light up Puerto Rico) thrown in for good measure.  As Billy sees it – surfing represents an opportunity for this less-privileged side of paradise. It’s an opportunity Jah has blessed him with, and he and his family share that opportunity with the local kids around Kingston and his community of Bull Bay – many of whom can’t even afford a pair of trunks. For the youth especially, it’s surfing, stability, and a chance for a better life  – all blended together. The Wilmot’s Jamnesia surf camp also began hosting what they call “Jamnesia Sessions,” a remarkable, open mic gathering of local musicians and spoken word artists from around Jamaica. It’s a heady, bass-heavy cultural immersion you’ll find nowhere else on earth.

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Billy “Mystic” Wilmot Charges a Zoo left. 1987 or so. Photo: Chris Dixon

In September, 2004, a massive Hurricane called Ivan tore through the Caribbean. En route to a glancing blow to Jamaica, Ivan’s category four winds generated a pulse of long-period groundswell that Billy and his friends have never seen equalled. A few hours before the storm hit, Billy paddled out into the unknown and rode the biggest wave of his life at Zoo, scaring the hell out of his wife Maggie.

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The last wave at Zoo was also the biggest, best wave of Billy’s life. Photo: Brian Nejedly

The next day, the Wilmots found coastal devastation – not only of the modest beachfront homes in the communities around Bull Bay and Harbor View but of the cobblestone reef that focused raw ocean swells into Zoo’s perfectly tapered waves. Ivan had literally swept the reef up onto the beach.

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Before Hurricane Ivan, all these rocks were on the seafloor – Billy surfed over them countless times. Photo: Chris Dixon

In a 2012 story I wrote for Surfer’s Journal, Billy told me, “When we lost Zoo, it’s hard to put into words. Those waves defined my life and helped raise my kids. I guess I would have to say it was like when you’re having a great time at a party with the music turned up really loud and you’re trying to talk to someone above it all. Then suddenly someone turns off the music and you find yourself shouting into a deafening silence—an emptiness where the music used to be.”

A few weeks ago I was digging through some old photos and found some grainy, pre-digital era gems real from the Zoo, and a small collection of photos that Billy had allowed me to scan. Then just a few days ago, Surfer magazine posted up a remarkable video tribute to the Wilmots. I reckoned it was time to share a few memories.

In honor of the Late Great Zoo, I present a few more photos of the Greatest Wave You’ll Never Surf.
Click any of these to blow them up. 



Look carefully and you can see Neil Andrade dropping in beneath another surfer who’s narrowly escaping the lip of the back wave.
Photo: Chris Dixon

An empty wave at the Zoo. The fishing boat in the background is around 20 feet long. Photo: Chris Dixon

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My buddy Chris Malloch goes left, while an absolutely perfect right goes unridden in 1987 or 88.
Oh yeah, Zoo could have a righthander too. Photo: Chris Dixon


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My friend Will Hardgrove sets up for a long one at Zoo in around 1988. He was riding a tiny, fat-tailed Al Merrick that kept spinning out on the steepest drops. He stuck this one though. Photo: Chris Dixon

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Billy “Mystic” Wilmot sometime in the late 1970’s. At the Zoo. Photo courtesy of the Billy Wilmot collection.


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Neil Andrade with the hills of Bulls Bay in the background. Photo: Billy Wilmot Collection.

 

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Whether big or small, Zoo always broke with the same fantastically perfect shape. Neil Andrade.
Photo: Billy Wilmot collection.

 

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Unidentified Local Tucks In. 1987 or so. Photo: Chris Dixon.

 

Look closely at the wave’s face and you’ll see Pierre Diaz in perfect position. Photo: Chris Dixon

 

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I think this is me, trying to tuck into a small one. 1987 or 1988. Photographer: Unidentified. Chris Dixon collection. 

 


Dive Deeper into Jamaica:

Surfer Magazine’s Excellent Tribute to the Wilmots from the Sept, 2014 Issue: “The Misfits of Bull Bay.”

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 If you’d like to stay with the Wilmots, check out the Jamnesia Surf Camp.  

Billy’s last wave at the Zoo in 2004 appears near the end of his homemade documentary, “The Last Stand.”

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The Mystic Revealers Featuring Sizzla – Tell Them

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Download The Mystic Revealers 2005 Album – This One’s For Jah. 

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