Cabarete Profiles: Chepe and the Pauhana Surf School

By Moraima Capellán Pichardo

Chepe - Pauhana Surf School - Playa Encuentro, Cabarete DR

A conversation with the founder of Pauhana Surf School, one of the oldest surf schools in the north coast of the Dominican Republic.

When I decided to move to Cabarete, one of the convincing highlights is the active lifestyle. Whether you are a morning person or a night owl, there is an activity that you can partake in to keep you moving! From sunrise paddle boarding to evening dance lessons, you can fill your day with fun hobbies.

Cabarete is, of course, known for its water sports. Kitesurfing, snorkeling, diving, windsurfing, you name it. If it’s in the water, we got it.

The OG of them all? Surf.

Good, old surf, opened the doors for many of Cabaretes staple adventures. Leonardo Jose Gomez Capellán, also known as Chepe, was one of the first to see it all start. Chepe is the founder of Pauhana Surf School, based in Playa Encuentro, and one of the first Dominicans to learn to surf in the North Coast.

What began as a small group of local boys, has grown into one the oldest and largest surf schools in the island. Certified with ISA, the International Surf Association, Chepe is the Head Coach to his team of young Dominicans.

Pauhana Surf School is our partner surf school for all of our Surf and Yoga Retreats. Their trained and certified teachers make sure that you confidently get on the board and catch a wave on your first lesson.

Leonardo Jose Gomez Capellán - Chepe - Pauhana Surf School

Below is my chat with Chepe. We discuss his game of cat and mouse with surf and his passion for building with local surf instructors.

Moraima: At what age did you start to surf?

Chepe: I was around 12 years old.

M: At the time when surfing was starting up, were there Dominicans or foreigners involved?

C: There was only six locals, six of us.

M: How did you get involved?

C: Well, people arrived from Santo Domingo that already surfed, for example Hans Muller, who was one of the first to start surfing in the country. He would pick us up from school and take us surfing, but locals from Encuentro and Sosua? It was only five, six of us. Myself, Kuqui, Kakale, Guboy, Titi, Chicho, who lives in England and Genarito who used to live in Cabarete. He was also the windsurfer of the group, who introduced us to windsurfing as well. My cousin Dan, my partner in crime, was also always with me, exploring around Cangrejo, Sosua and Cabarete. 

M: What attracted you to surf?

C: I began to surf because of pilots near my grandfather’s farm. We saw a few pilots from American Airlines surfing by the airport, one day that were were running around that area. We saw that, and my cousin and I were like, Wow!

M: The Puerto Plata airport?

C: Yes, all that land belonged to my grandfather but it was later seized by the government and they built the airport…so we saw a pilot, one of the first who came and we were captivated. This gentleman gave us his board, we kept it and even cut it into two pieces to have two boards. When he returned and he found us, he was like wait, my board, what happened?! And we explained, look what happened is that more boys joined us. From two, we had fifteen. 

M: And you were all experimenting, without knowledge?

C: Experimenting, with boards from the schools, with wood, all that. There was no other way. After that we moved from the Cangrejo área to Sosua, in search of boards and equipment, and to see if we find something. We used to walk on foot from Sosua, eating mangoes, guava, sugarcane, because there wasn’t much in that area! That’s when we discovered Playa Encuentro. It was total bush, forrest, there was only one access and it was a beach with nothing, for example where we are now [Pauhana Surf  School], the area to the right for beginners did not exist. Only the area to the left because this part was too deep, with many sea urchins that have slowly disappeared—

M: Has it changed due to the people using the beach? Or—

C: I think it has changed, generally, due to environmental changes that have happened worldwide, not only visitors. Before there also used to be giant dunes—

M: Of sand?

C: Of sand, and they have disappeared.

M: So did you learn experimenting or did you take any training?

C: Watching, experimenting, later thanks to the airport we found some surf magazines in English, we began to practice more, watch and try new things. Then we began what is the search for anything surf, to investigate surfing. There was this program on Sundays, El Mundo Maravilloso de los Deportes, that was in the 80s. There we watched the first competitions in Hawaii, old competitions but wow no one left their home. We would wait for the competitions but no one could touch the TV at that time. We would watch that and then head to the beach to try to copy what we saw. Without boards, with boards, however. There comes my passion for surfing, which has never bored me and which I will never leave until the moment I die.

M: Do you still surf everyday?

C: Well, now I am injured but yes, every day. Every time I can, doesn’t matter if it’s cold, if there are waves or no waves, doesn’t matter.

M: When did Pauhana open? How did it start?

C: Pauhana, really began before my son was born. I was a river rafting guide, working at Vela, in Cabarete, a windsurf school and that is where Pauhana was born. The name Pauhana, was born of my cousin who was my adventure companion. He decided to leave to Hawaii, his parents travelled to the United States and he was able to travel. He left to Hawaii where he learned Hawaiian Pidgin. We stayed in contact while he went to surf and to study…he contacted me one day and asked me what I was planning to study. I told him, I don’t know, maybe I will study photography but I told him my heart belonged to surf. About a month later, I realized that in Cabarete, people would wait for the afternoon breeze to windsurf and the morning was wasted. Some windsurfers asked me if I could take them surfing, I did and I said well, we can start to give lessons. We began to teach with performance boards, with short boards because there were no longboards or boards for beginners. They did not exist.

M: There were no other surf schools?

C: No, nothing existed yet. The entrance was around Hideaway, not around this part. We began to give clases, five, six and seven people turned to 15 people. And we all arrived in a culo de motoconcho, or a motoconcho line with a lot of boards, it was a lot of fun. Later, more schools arrived…I left. I married at a young age, at 27 years old and my wife got pregnant. We moved to Holland, I studied cinematography in Amsterdam. We decided to return because the climate was ouch! Hahaha

M: That cold weather is not easy

C: Yes. And I began again, to retake up surfing, the adventure, what I have always liked. I began river rafting, I was the first river rafting guide in the country. With that opportunity I was moved away from surfing but I returned yet again.

M: River rafting where?

C: In Jarabacoa. Yes, because everything was a water combination for me. Then I started a cinematography business. It went really well but I missed surfing so much.

M: Was the cinematography for surfers or in general?

C: General. I always liked nature cinematography. I worked for various big companies, making documentaries. Many channels and a lot of work. I was one of the first in the north coast to film documentaries and underwater as well.

Pauhana Surf School - Surf Instructors - Surf Cabarete, Dominican Republic

On Pauhana’s Mission

M: What is Pauhana’s mission?

C: Pauhana’s mission, our slogan is “This is what we love.” Our mission is to enroll more surfers in the world and educate more people to take care of our oceans, to maintain our beaches clean, it does not matter if you are the owner or not. You are the owner of the planet, not of the beach.

M: How do you give this message?

C: We enroll kids, for example all of our instructors have been here from a young age and have grown with us. When we enroll them, the motivation is to give them boards, to obtain boards. We don’t actually have any sponsors to donate boards, we do it ourselves, auto efficient. We give them boards, we require that they stay in school, that’s important and from a young age we talk about plastic. Many of them, for example come from La Cienega [a neighborhood of Cabarete], from families of low income, they don’t have the resources but we find the way to show what plastic does, how to recycle, what not to do…we are very happy with what we have done.

M: When it comes to teaching the classes, is there a philosophy?

C: Yes, you learn with us, you get up or you don’t pay us. Simple as that. Of course, with surfing it’s all about patience, of waiting. It is one of the most difficult sports in the world, and with patience, thank god that we have that reputation and the guys understand that message. When people pay for this service we have to provide a return in service. That they feel they have learned something and that they are taking something with them. There are clients, in fact, that if they are not satisfied we stay with them much longer than the other schools. And for us, it is a joy to be with clients. We celebrate when they get up and do something, we do competitions with the clients, for example the instructors, if three instructors have clients, look let’s see who gets farther between us, internally. Which I like a lot.

M: How many instructors do you have?

C: Here, more or less, we are 12.

M: Most are men, I think I saw one woman?

C: Men and one woman.

M: Why do you think there aren’t more women?

C: We had more women. We have Tatiana as well who comes from the Mariposa Foundation, but since she is studying she only comes on weekends. Julissa graduated but will start university soon but now she comes everyday and she is also our babysitter. Sometimes mothers arrive or clients with young children and we offer that service. We take care of your baby while you surf.

M: What kind of challenges have you had with the school?

C: Well, a place where you can be safe, in this country is difficult. You can be in a spot, like here and now but an investor can come, the government can come, anyone can come and tell you to move out. There is no priority for the sport. For what this is. I believe this country should prioritize that more. For the kids, for the future.  Not so much for investors of money but for the locals. But my country is like this.

M: Do you see any interest in surfing with Dominican locals?

C: There are many interested, there are many Dominicans that are not interested. But this sport like I mentioned, surf was first, then came windsurf, now there’s kitesurf and paddle board, it has brought revenue for Dominican families. Many locals live off this. For example, here I have 12 instructors that live off that, that if they didn’t have this they might be in the streets with drugs and other stuff. Slowly more people are coming. Each summer, we get young kids that are interested, many that don’t have the funds to buy a board and we gift them boards. We appreciate if people have boards that they don’t use to bring it to us so we can give it away.

M: How have you grown as an entrepreneur?

C: It has been fantastic. I had partners in the past but had to continue alone. My wife and I, we continue and in reality, we view this as a way of life, not to get rich. But we enjoy this a lot—

M: That is what motivates you?

C: Yes. Surf is what motivates us.

M: Does she surf as well?

C: Not really but she does keep up with the competitions. She goes in sometimes when she doesn’t have a lot of work. She tends to do all the administrative paperwork, so she is always busy. But when she has time, she goes in and she enjoys paddleboard. My sons also surf.  

M: Do you have any advice for Dominicans looking to open a business outside of the normal?

C: Of course, yes for any Dominican, for any local, there are resources to open a business, there is no need to do things that are not right. There are a thousand ways and whatever business you can do with love and care, you can live off that perfectly. You don’t necessarily need to be a millionaire…here in the beach people are innovators and whatever you do, do it with sincerity and love.

M: Anything else you want to share?

C: Well, this is the only school in which all the instructors are local. I try to recruit locals, a lot of international people arrive and while they get their chance, the majority are locals, kids from La Cienega and Cabarete that want to be in this. Connected to the community.

Want to learn to surf? The Yoga Loft collaborates with the Pauhana Surf School for our Yoga and Surf Retreat options. The first 10 people to book save $100 USD on the Yoga and Surf Retreat in July and August 2019. Message us for more information.

Photos courtesy of Pauhana Surf School.

This interview was translated from its original format in Spanish and condensed for clarity.