In Pichilemu, a small town on Chile’s central coast, surfer Matías López remembers encountering the Navarro family in the late ’80s.
“A cool lady had a little shop in a back street where she offered candy, bread and not much more. Her husband, Jano, was a fisherman, hunter and storyteller, like most of the locals, but he was one of the best. We became good friends, and he guided me on how to fish the local waters and often shared some of his catch. I started noticing his son Ramón sometime later on the beach, checking out the surfing from the rocks. One day he came up to me after a session and said, ‘You did a good turn on that wave.’ Usually people would just ask if you were scared, or if the water was cold. It was clear right away, this kid already understood.
“There had been many local surfers before,” Matías continues, “but I had never seen a kid so clear and focused on a goal. Against the counseling of worried loved ones, he committed, did everything he had to do, and became Chile’s first professional surfer.”
Punta de Lobos, Ramón’s home spot, is a long and powerful left point that holds almost any size, from a few feet to huge. Testing himself on giant winter paddle-in days, his bravery and ease in the ocean soon earned him a place amongst big-wave surfing’s rarified elite. There were sponsorships and pioneering sessions at other Chilean big-wave spots; a perfect 100-point wave at the Eddie at Waimea Bay; and an impossibly deep barrel on one of the biggest days ever surfed at Cloudbreak in Fiji.
His surf career was earning him national fame in Chile, but he realized the culture he knew growing up—traditional families drawing their life from the sea—was under ever-increasing strain. If their coasts and waters weren’t defended, communities like the one he grew up in simply wouldn’t survive.
“I grew up at Punta de Lobos as a fisherman’s son, and my dad always taught me to be a friend to the ocean and protect it,” Ramón says. “Here in Chile, the government has never listened to the fishermen when they saw things were going wrong. But I’ve realized that because of my surfing career, I have a chance for people to hear what I say. That motivates me to share the things I’ve learned. It’s not about having more money or things—it’s about how we’re going to leave this place to the next generations.”
With the same commitment he had for surfing, Ramón started to add his clear and powerful voice to local campaigns against coastal pollution and development. “The big companies here,” he says, “just see the ocean as a trash dump, and don’t think about all their toxins going into the sea.”
Now he’s partnering with Save The Waves, working on the campaign to protect Punta de Lobos. Last year, it was designated as a World Surfing Reserve, and work continues to preserve the shoreline, maintain free access and conserve the area’s cultural heritage.
“Ramón comes from three generations of subsistence fishermen,” says Chris Malloy, whose new film and book, The Fisherman’s Son, tells the story in detail. “Against all odds, he’s become one of the most respected surfers in the world. He could have moved to Hawai‘i or California and never looked back, but he’s used his notoriety to speak out for the protection of the Chilean coast. There’s no other story like his in surfing.”
Now a father himself, Ramón carries his legacy with pride. Starting from a simple love for the sea, he’s determined to work for the future of the place he calls home. “We just want people to respect the coastline,” he says, “and our way of life.”
And until that future arrives, he’ll continue to carry on his lifelong connection to the cold and beautiful waves he’s watched since before he can remember. “When Lobos gets solid, not many people surf it,” he says. “It’s amazing to share a wave like that with just a few friends. The big days keep me here—and if it can stay like this, I hope I’ll always be here.”