Feeling at home anywhere in the Seven Seas

Sitting by the seaside on a winter day. The wind is blowing cold, but the sunbeams are finally making their way through the clouds. Dominga Valdés, a surfer, traveler and a restless soul, arrives with her big smile and her usual positive attitude. She carries a mixture of cultures in her blood and after spending her childhood in countries like Spain, Chile, The Netherlands or Bali, it’s no surprise that surfing different waters is where she feels more at home.

How has travelling and experiencing so many cultures at such an early age influenced you as a person?
I think I’m a little more ‘open minded’ than many people my age because I’ve got to know all these different cultures when I was very young, but it has also helped me to adapt to different environments and to feel at home very quickly. Every time I travel, I easily feel like a local and it’s quite funny too because no matter where I go, people never really know where I am from. If I go to Indonesia, they think I’m from there; if I’m in Hawaii, they think I’m Hawaiian; in South America they never know from which country of South America I am. I can physically and emotionally feel very much at home in any place because I’ve travelled so much when I was a kid and I had to adapt to different cultures like a chameleon.

When did you start surfing?
My dad always wanted to sail and when he bought a sailboat, he asked us if we wanted to go and sail around the world with him. My parents were not together at that time. I lived in The Netherlands with my mom and my brother, and my dad lived in Chile. We saw each other a couple of times a year, but my adventurous mom said ‘Let’s go!’ And we went to Chile to join my dad in the sailing adventure. My brother and I stayed in a school for a couple of months while my parents arranged everything to travel. When we were ready, we sailed from the south of Chile up the coast to Iquique. We had to stop there to repair the sailboat and in the meantime, to have some fun, my brother and I signed up at the local surf school. I was 12 years old and he was 10. In Iquique kids would go surfing after school, so around 3 or 4 in the afternoon they would all go surfing and because we lived on the sailboat and didn’t go to school, it was a great moment for us to socialize with other children and have a lot of fun. We got hooked on surfing pretty fast and we liked it so much there that we stayed in Iquique for 8 months or so. I remember that the surf instructors were so impressed with how fast we learned that they told us we had to go to Lima for our next destination. At that time, Sofía Mulánovich had been surf world champion and surfing was booming in Peru, so we went to Lima. There we met some well-known Peruvian surfers who recommended that we go to Máncora in the north of Peru. ‘The water is warm, the waves are incredible, there is sun all year round, and your children will improve their surfing really fast there’, they said. Our next destination was Máncora.

Going left in Perú.

The sailing adventure became quite focused on surfing…
Yes, totally, but when we arrived to Máncora we went through many problems with the sailboat. First, all the instruments got stolen; then, we had to haul the sailboat out of the water and while doing so, the keel went against a sandbar and the boat capsized damaging everything that was inside. We had to then rent a house and my parents decided to get us into school. My brother and I loved it there. We had good friends and we were surfing all day… We liked it so much in Máncora that we made the decision to stay there. When the sailboat was fixed, my parents used it for sightseeing tours.

How would you describe the wave in Máncora?
The wave is super fun. It’s a left point break and it’s like a wave that’s fun for a beginner, but it’s also super fun for an advanced person. When we arrived to Máncora there weren’t that many people surfing, but every time I go back there is more and more people in the water. The atmosphere has changed a bit, but it’s still super fun to surf there. You just need to figure out what’s the best time to paddle out.

Travelling to warm places. Photograph by Kaspar Hamminga.

After five years living in Máncora, you moved back to The Netherlands to continue with your studies. What’s the surf culture like in The Netherlands?
I was very surprised when I arrived. I remember that I arrived like on a Wednesday and I decided to join the national surf championship that was being held that same weekend. I didn’t have a wetsuit, I didn’t have gloves, I had nothing. It was April, but it was still cold and it was one of those common days here with a strong wind, rain, cloudy, small waves, and I thought… ‘Oh my God, what is this?’. When I arrived to the contest I saw that there was a whole community of surfers and I was very surprised with the level of surfing. I didn’t win that event. I think I ended up third or fourth, but I met a lot of people in that surf competition. After that, every time there were waves, I already knew people in the water and it was my way of meeting people and making friends. It took me a while to get used to this wave. In the beginning, I couldn’t even catch waves while the surfers here where making aerials. I was amazed by the performance level, but also by the commitment of the surfing community in Scheveningen (The Hague). Even the days you don’t even say ‘Wow, how good are the waves…’, there are hundreds of people in the water.

You are three times Dutch Champion. In which stage is the Dutch professional surfing at the moment?
The level of professional surfing here is progressing very fast. I remember when I arrived that there were a couple of girls like Anne Paar, Martine Geijsels, Ilona Hoogland… who surfed very well. They were all a little older than me. And when I started surfing here, it was me and five other girls of my age… Mirna Boelsma who was still very young, Eveline Hooft was even younger… We were a small group of girls and we still are a small group, but you can see now that there are a lot of girls who take it a bit more seriously. They train regularly, they go to contests, they invest their own money to go to those contests… They take it more seriously and I think that’s great because it also creates the path for coming generations of younger girls who someday may want to compete or get better at surfing.

Surfing the North Sea (Scheveningen, The Hague). Photograph by Robin Bakker.

When you compete internationally with the Dutch team, how do you see the surfing level of The Netherlands compared to other countries?
The Netherlands didn’t always go to international contests, but for a few years now we started to compete again as a team and in the last European championship we went to, we finished in fourth place. We had better results than other countries with more and better waves and also very good surfers, but we were also caught by surprise in that European championship. We never thought that we would finished in fourth place, but there was such a good atmosphere, we were all focused, we were motivating each other and suddenly bam! Fourth! I think that also shows that where there is will, there is a way. Of course, surf competitions are always challenging because you have 20 minutes to show the best of yourself, the waves can be in your favour or not, and there is always the crucial luck factor. That time in Morocco everyone could show that we knew how to surf, even though we might have been seen in the beginning like the total underdog. Although the waves here are not the best, the results show that there is a good level of surfing and a lot of motivation. We all know each other quite well and we all get along, so when we go to those surf contests abroad we go together as a group of friends and it’s always fun. That also helps a lot to get better results because you go through 1 or 2 very intense weeks where everyone is quite stressed and nervous and at the same time, you have to be able to find the perfect balance so that we can all get the best of ourselves. From my personal point of view, that has always been easy for us because we are a group of friends.

Where do you see yourself in the coming years?
Travelling. That’s what I love the most. I would also like to continue participating in some contests, but more than anything I would like to travel to exotic places, take photographs, shoot films… and combine my surfing travels with community work. That would be perfect. I’d like to leave a positive impact in the communities and places I travel to.

Surfing Lofoten (Norway). Photograph by Wouter Struyf.

Which one has been your best trip so far?
Hawaii. It started quite chaotic because I was planning to go with a friend, but my friend couldn’t make it in the end, so I decided to go alone. We had only one contact there and that’s all I knew, but I went there and immediately fell in love with Hawaii. I felt at home right away and within two days I had already made a routine at the North Shore. I stayed the whole time in Oahu and didn’t do much of the tourist route around the islands, but that’s a good reason for me to return.

Which surf spots did you surf there?
I surfed a lot of different waves. In Oahu there is the Seven Mile Miracle which is a stretch of beach full of surf breaks. I surfed Pipeline when it was small and it was amazing to see the reef and its caves… but you don’t want to end up down there… There was a surf contest happening at Pipe and after seeing that reef, I was even more impressed and amazed at the performances of the surfers. I also surfed V Land, Rocky Point, Makaha… there are so many waves! Once I surfed an outer reef that was like 2km paddling out and it was super fun, when I told my friends that I had gone to that spot they told me that it was full of sharks there, so the second time I surfed there I was kind of nervous. There was a bit of wind that day and one of the guys said ‘It’s very choppy here’, but I understood ‘It’s very sharky here’ so I was looking down the whole time.

Feeling at home in the water. Photograph by Riemkje Poortinga.

What did you learn from Hawaii?
What I liked the most was the mentality that people have there. When I arrived, I took an Uber and my driver was a veteran that was telling me stories of his time in Vietnam. He was driving me to the house of my contact who I had only met once. I didn’t want to get to the house starving and eat all the food in the house, so I asked the driver if he knew of any place where I could buy some food before going to the house. He told me he knew a good place and took me to a good restaurant. It was lunchtime and he said that he didn’t have food yet, so we sat in the restaurant and had lunch together. When the bill arrived, he didn’t let me pay. ‘It’s your first meal in Hawaii. This is my treat’, he said. And this sort of thing happened to me several times. People are very generous and like to give in many ways. They live the spirit of aloha.

What do you feel when you’re in the water? What does the sea mean to you?
I feel it’s like the closest thing to home wherever I am. When I’m traveling and I meet other cultures everything can be a bit different, but the moment I’m in the sea I get this feeling of being at home. It’s like a safe a place for me… It doesn’t matter the chaos I have on shore that I always feel safe and at home in the water.

Always smiling. Photograph by Kaspar Hamminga.