El Paso del Hombre: an underappreciated waterman event

October 16, 2019 | Surfing
El Paso del Hombre: a waterman event held in El Salvador | Photo: Cruz Roja Salvadoreña

In 2012, after many years of absence, I returned to my home country - El Salvador.

I had spent more than half of my life in San Francisco and Hawaii.

I had a weird feeling that although I was home finally, in Hawaii, there would always be better waves and competitions than in El Salvador.

But in 2013, there was this event called El Paso del Hombre that really caught my attention.

This is an event organized by the Red Cross one time per year just before Easter break, where more than two hundred swimmers compete in open ocean.

The event has been running for 55 years, and it is the only one in the world of this type.

There are no cash prizes; the only reward is that you are entitled to call yourself a certified lifeguard.

The participants swim 21 kilometers of crossing, between the beaches of La Paz and El Majahual.

In my whole life, I think the longest distance I have swum in open ocean ever is close to two kilometers when I competed in the Escape from Alcatraz, where you have to swim from the old prison island to Fisherman's Wharf in cold water.

I don't even remember exactly what place I came in. I came in the middle of the pack. The winner's time was close to half the time it took me.

El Paso del Hombre: in El Salvador, lifeguards need to be given proper recognition | Photo: Reynaldo Sanchez

Still, I got lots of compliments from the crowd, because I was one of the few that did it without a wetsuit.

Since I did not bring any friends with me, all I could think to celebrate was to pull and smoke a well-deserved joint.

But two kilometers is nothing compared to 21 kilometers.

I know for sure that not all the competitors who did Escape from Alcatraz in San Francisco would have completed El Paso del Hombre in El Salvador.

To me, this El Paso del Hombre is a unique event in the whole world that does not get proper recognition in El Salvador by the media.

I met two lifeguards a few days ago at Las Flores surf spot and they told me that most of the time they do not get paid - they work as volunteers.

To me, this is kind of unfair. These guys expose their lives to save other people in the ocean.

I am not really sure why these lifeguards do it - maybe an act of brotherly love, perhaps they have a passion for it, or maybe they don't have anything better to do, just like Forrest Gump.

Why is El Paso del Hombre an Irrelevant Event in El Salvador?

Because these days everything fashionable is technology related. What you do with your own hands and feet is not relevant.

In the Big Island of Hawaii, there is this group of locals that have formed the ​Polynesian Voyaging Society​.

Using replicas of traditional double-hulled canoes, they undertake voyages throughout Polynesia navigating without modern instruments.

They are deliberately learning how to sail in open ocean just like their ancestors did 500 years ago, without a compass, without any technology, just looking at the stars, sun, birds, and feeling the currents.

The renowned big wave surfer Eddie Aikau died while being a crew member of these Polynesian canoes.

When Cameron Diaz broke her nose trying to learn longboarding in two-foot waves in Waikiki, she got more coverage by the media than the kids that were learning to sail unassisted by technology.

As we speak, very likely in a Silicon Valley lab, there is a geek trying to invent a tiny chip with Artificial Intelligence (AI) embedded that will be inserted in a surfer's butt to act as an engine to paddle faster and inform the surfer of all the dangers ahead.

It is inevitable that chips will be inserted in people's bodies for all kinds of different reasons.

A few years ago, some geek came with the concept of a SUP Wavejet. This "surfboard" had an electric engine in it.

But regarding the paddle, my first question was: "Why do you need a paddle now, just for looks?" The Wavejet concept never caught on, but the technology is still there ready to be woken up again.

El Paso del Hombre: participants swim 21 kilometers between the beaches of La Paz and El Majahual | Photo: Reynaldo Sanchez

Why is El Paso del Hombre Important for Salvadorian Surfers?

El Salvador has a new generation of very decent shortboarders.

But El Salvador does not have any surfers capable of tackling giant waves bigger than eight meters.

There is no way, no way, a surfer can tackle giant waves if he is not an outstanding swimmer.

You cannot compensate for lack of good swimming skills by doing yoga and other complementary fitness exercises.

If someday a Salvadorian surfer is able to handle Peahi, Waimea, or Mavericks, it will be because he was first able to swim the 21 kilometers of El Paso del Hombre.

These days, being called a waterman is bigger than being called a surfer. The bigger accomplishments will not be to win the shortboarding world tour like Slater and Medina.

The guys who are really doing something different are the Kai Lenny's that can SUP, shortboard, longboard, kitesurf, and swim.

In my case, I already peaked in surfing. Probably the biggest wave I ever caught was a four-meter wave at Hanalei.

It was a gift, and half the credit goes to this local old guy ​Carlos Andrade​.

When I got intimidated by the local guys, this older guy told them to leave me alone because I was his buddy.

Then he told me I was in the wrong spot and took me to the right spot, and then he told me to not go on the first waves, and finally, he gave me the green light.

He basically babysitted me.

I cannot beat that record because my swimming skills are just average. I don't even know how to swim butterfly style.

All these years, I have survived by being ocean smart like knowing currents and by remaining calm when I get pounded by heavy waves.

In bigger waves, sometimes you have to swim against the current, and me, I am past the age my swimming is going to improve.

Swimming Is Key

In Hawaii, there are several surfers that have recognized that swimming skills are the core of surfing, and two names stand out.

The first one is Mark Cunningham.

He is an older guy but a regular in the lineup at Pipeline. This guy is a lifeguard and bodysurfer, so he is not really world famous.

But he commands so much respect in Pipeline because he has saved many lives there. And the day that they showed a documentary at a local school, he got a standing ovation.

The guy, besides bodysurfing Pipeline, has also done it at Teahupoo in two-to-three meter waves, with no aid from a board, just like a torpedo.

The second one is this still young girl by the name ​Emily Erickson​.

Before she became famous, when she was not sponsored, she was just a waitress at a local organic restaurant.

When I was surfing at Sunset Beach, she caught my attention because she was not using a leash.

In the old days, there were no leashes, and surfers, on average, were better swimmers than nowadays. When she was still a waitress, she seemed like a retro girl, trying to revive the past.

But now I know why she was doing it.

She was not training to compete in the ladies' shortboarding world tour. She was preparing to one day compete at Peahi. And she did it.

In El Salvador, there is not a single year when nobody dies from drowning at a beach during Easter break.

It has become one of the most unholy weeks of the year.

It used to be that during the Easter break, most of the family will spend it attending some kind of Catholic religious ceremonies.

That is history. Nowadays, most people don't even bother going to church anymore - they head straight to the beach.

El Paso del Hombre: the event is run by the Salvadorian Red Cross | Photo: Reynaldo Sanchez

Alcohol consumption reaches its peak in the country during the Easter break. And many of the adult drownings are due to too much drinking.

When tragedy strikes, most people are quick to blame the unprofessionalism of lifeguards.

They never give thought to the fact that lifeguards are not getting paid at all. They are just volunteers.

People expect the Red Cross to pay lifeguards from just donations. And there is money to pay for lifeguards' salaries.

The beer companies can easily pay for lifeguards' salaries during Easter break. After all, the beer companies are the ones that make the most profit during this "Holy Week."

If surfing is to keep growing in El Salvador, lifeguards need to be given proper recognition. Not for pity or charity.

Very likely the first big wave surfer is going to be a El Paso del Hombre veteran.

After all, you do not need a board to be a surfer; all you need is to be able to catch and ride a wave.

Bodysurfing is the purest form of surfing.


Words by Jorge Dominguez | Administrator at Hacienda Toro de Oro

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