Q&A With Surf Photographer Kurt Steinmetz
Interview by Jackie Connor
Photos by Kurt & Sue Steinmetz
For the past 35 years, Kurt Steinmetz has been in the water shooting photos of surfers and waves around the world. Hailing from Huntington Beach, California, Kurt is also a musician who plays trumpet, percussion and keyboards in ska/reggae band Dual Eyed Mic, who has opened for reggae bands like Toots & The Maytals among many other popular groups. For the past two years, Steinmetz and his son have ventured to the small Caribbean Island of Jamaica, well-known for the roots of reggae music and but not so well-known for waves. However, every beach has its day, no matter the location.
Caption: Kurt ripping in Jamaica when he’s not behind the lens.
Why did you and your son want to go to Jamaica?
We loved it so much, the waves and vibes, and the people we were staying with, the Wilmot family, they are like THE surfing family in Jamaica. I was first motivated to go to Jamaica because all the music that comes out of Jamaica. I played in a band, who played reggae and that was pretty much the music that influenced me heavily. Going to Jamaica was always on the top of the list. I saw that they actually got really good consistent waves, and I thought that taking a trip was a no-brainer.
Caption: Rockers Records in Kingston.
Does Dual Eyed Mic play local venues?
We’ve played all kinds of stuff and we’ve opened for bands like Toots & The Maytals, The English Beat, Eek-a-Mouse, Aggrolites, so quite a few bands. We’ve played all kinds of events—everything from charitable events, the Rose Bowl, Verizon Amphitheatre, The Roxy and Whiskey A-Go-Go.
Caption: Kurt punk rock on the trumpet… yeah Kurt!
You primarily went to Jamaica for a dual purpose: your passion of music and surfing. What were the waves like in Jamaica?
The waves were super consistent. We went to a spot that picks up a lot of wind swell. Jamaica’s situated below Cuba and kind of next to Puerto Rico. Jamaica’s got a really tight swell window, so most people would assume that they don’t get waves, but they have a little wind fetch that creates waves on the southeast side by the Kingston area.
If you go to Jamaica, most people think you’re going to Negril or Ocho Rios. There are resorts on the Northside where there’s not very many waves. People don’t go to Kingston for tourism as much. It blows out really quick in Jamaica, by like 8:00 or 9:00 in the morning, so a lot of times you’re not looking at really good photos.
What was it like staying with the Wilmots?
The Wilmots are the surf family of Jamaica. If you say you’re going to surf in Jamaica, people reply “Oh you’re going to stay with the Wilmots.” They are an amazing family!
Caption: Grandpa Billy Wilmot and the Wilmot future.
Is it a smaller surf community there?
I know of maybe 30 local people that surf in Jamaica. The majority are the Wilmots. There’s also a small crew over at Boston Bay on the northeast side of the island. In general, there’s not that many local surfers. You can go to a lot of spots and not really see anybody.
Caption: Fisher and Cole soft top night surfing the warm waters with the local kids.
Caption: Local Jamaican surfer Icah Wilmot - 12 o’clock.
Were the locals affected by Hurricane Irma?
No, that hurricane kind of skidded over Puerto Rico and then barely brushed the northeast side of the Doninican Republic. Last year, they got a hurricane that produced big swell. I don’t think they got really good waves off of Irma, but Jamaica’s kind of unique with the way it sits in the Caribbean Sea.
It must be interesting to be a Caribbean surfer, you got to be “on it” to get good surf.
Yeah, I think every island is different but Jamaica is special to me.
Caption: Kurt reminiscing about Hawaii but in Jamaica.
What kind of COR Surf products were you using on your trip?
The main one I used all the time was the dry bag. As a photographer, shooting water and land, to have a backpack with all your gear is great, but you’re always fighting the sand.
With the dry bag, it was great because I would always set up my water housing, throw my camera in the bag with my fins and helmet and everything else for shooting in the water, and sling it over my back. Everything else was in my camera backpack. So that product has been my go-to equipment.
I also used the changing mat to put my housing on, as opposed to a towel because towels tend to get too wet for my housing. So that gear has been great for setting up my water housing on the fly.
How’s the dry bag work when you’re on a boat or the water?
I take a lot of boat trips when I’m shooting photos in Canada and that gear is good for those situations.
When we were in Tofino, Canada last year, all the locals pretty much live on the ocean, so they had all kinds of dry bags. Before COR had their dry bag, that’s what I used. When we would go to an island to surf, we took a softtop board and would put all the bags and cameras on them and paddle them to shore.
COR’s dry bag is now my go-to bag.
Caption: 60L COR Duffel Bag on the beach keeping Kurt’s camera equipment safe and dry.
So you took your son down to Jamaica this trip. What do you think the highlight of this trip was for him?
My son has two friends who he competes with in NSSA, Cole and Ella McCaffray. I think the highlight of his trip would be getting to go with his two friends. A lot of these kids compete together and they’re kind of gnarly and some hang out, but his two friends are like brother and sister to him. They have a good time together and they hang with the local kids who are just learning to surf and that whole experience is pretty golden for those kids. They show the Jamaican kids how to surf or surf with them—it’s building a lifetime of memories.
Caption: Fisher, Cole, Noah and Ella making memories.
What was your highlight of the trip?
This is the second year in a row that I get to celebrate my birthday down there. The highlight for me was going into Kingston, Trench Town and seeing the recording studios and buying records. I got to buy a ton of records and for me, that was my highlight.
I got to get a lot of Jamaican vinyl and see places most people don’t get to see in Jamaica. I’ve always wanted to go to Trench Town because that’s where the roots of Jamaican music started—where all those people live way below the poverty line. That’s where reggae and ska music came together, so that was my highlight.
Do you want to share any specific experiences in Kingston?
One night I went to the Dub Club in Kingston, which is kind of the club to go to and it overlooks Kingston at night, which was pretty sick.
Billy Wilmot asked if I wanted to go with him and I was super tired, but was like ‘Yea! When are we going to be home?’ and he said ‘oh probably three in the morning.’
When you’ve traveled to some place you love, experienced it and you can wait to go back usually you have like a better idea of what you want to do. That was something I really wanted to check out.
Did you and your son have any experiences you shared on the trip?
I got to surf on my birthday with my son when the swell was really good, which was a great experience for both of us.
What’s the dynamic like with you and your son in the water?
We’re competitive, he gives me a hard time and I give him a hard time. I’m still one-upping him, so he’s gotta catch up, but it’s just a matter of time.
Caption: Kurt sharing a wave on his birthday with his son Noah.
Anything you want people to know about surfing in Jamaica?
A lot of people think that there’s no waves in Jamaica and when you show them amazing photos of waves, it’s like they’re still in denial.
It’s funny, I have heard of people who have never been to Jamaica tell some of the kids that the waves in Jamaica suck, even though they’ve never been there themselves.
I think if you want to get out of your comfort zone and experience a great culture, positive vibes and see something completely different, check out Jamaica. There’s not too many places anymore where you can do a one-day travel, get good uncrowded waves and experience culture like that.
Caption: Post surf relaxation enjoying a Jamaican sunsets and Red Stripe.
Would you say people underrate Jamaican surfing?
Yea, I met a guy in Oregon who was from the Caribbean, and we surfed together and talked about surfing in the Caribbean. When we got out of the water, he said I didn’t even know there were waves in Jamaica.
*For more information about surfing in Jamaica, check out Jamnesia.
*Author : Jackie Connor, Travel Writer from San Clemente, CA. Please check out her blog; http://confessionsofasurfergirl.com/