Surf City: Rafael Rosell and son of Manny Victorino on their Manila surftown dream

Oct 27, 2020

SURF and stoke in the heart (and heat) of crowded Manila?

It seems like a pipe dream, but a group of surfers and entrepreneurs is determined to make it happen. Last week, they even released a promotional video, suddenly announcing their grand, almost impossible ambition to the world.

Its name? SurftownMNL.

It’s an idea that’s been marinating in the head of actor Rafael Rosell for many years now, who first got into the sport in 2008. “The reason why I got into it, I needed an escape,” he said to SPIN Life. “I needed to find small vacations in between work.”

But his excitement and love for surfing was always tempered by the unpredictability of the sea. He would take time off from sets, taking off at 12 midnight and arriving at his destination five hours later, only to find the forecast wrong and the waves flat, stubborn, and miserable.

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“It became really frustrating, especially during the times when I was only on a day trip,” he said.

Early this year, he partnered with entrepreneur Gino Victorino, a fellow surfer with a similar dream. Gino is also the son of Manny Victorino, one of the league’s top big men who was instrumental in the Great Taste Coffee Makers' four straight championships in the mid-’80s.

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“I saw a friend who surfed in a similar environment in UK,” said Victorino, who has been surfing since 2009.

“We understood that to take this to the next level, we had to form a team that would help us move forward. My goal here, what I do for Surftown, I'm actually helping gather investors and potential partners,” he added.

They also partnered with Fritz Legazpi, who, while a non-surfer, saw that there was potential in the project.

“My background is more on the finance side,” said Legazpi, coming onboard as the project's chief financial officer. “The idea is quite promising. I provided some of my expertise and knowledge so that we would be able to give the most fair investment model for future investors.”

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Man-made surf

Advances in technology have long broken down the traditional interplay between a surfer, the wind, and the waves. Given land and a fair bit of investment, you could carve out your own little piece of the ocean in the unlikeliest of locations.

Nowhere is that more clear than in the California ranch of the world’s top surfer Kelly Slater. Built far inland, Slater spent upwards of $30 million to build a hundred-ton hydrofoil that charges parallel across a lagoon, creating a customized, rideable swell.

Victorino and Co. aren’t going to be building that, of course.

“Kelly Slater's is out of the picture,” Victorino said wryly. “It's too expensive.”

For now, though, the team can't disclose details on the technology they hope to bring in to power the pool. But the Surftown MNL website promises that, when the facility is completed, the resort will be able to churn out 300 to 800 waves an hour, and accommodate 88 surfers in that same time period.

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As for the land where the resort will be built, the group has already begun negotiations for a 5 hectare plot in Taguig. “It's about 30 minutes, one hour away from almost everywhere in the city,” described Victorino. “It's along C6. The land we found is about five hectares, to accommodate not just the surf pool — which is about 1.5 to 2 hectares — [but also] to accommodate other attractions.”

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When it is completed, they hope that SurftownMNL would become a gateway for the wide world of surfing available in the country — funneling and shaping the beginners, the daytrippers, and the tourists into the Philippines’ premier swells at La Union, Baler, Real, Siargao, Leyte, and more.

“Our goal is to host them in a three- to five-day surf camp, and then connect them with different parts of the Philippines,” revealed Victorino.

But their ambitions for their resort go way beyond recreation.

“We saw this as a good opportunity for future Olympians to be able to train and practice,” said Rosell, noting the emergence of surfing in both the SEA Games and the Olympics. He also foresees that a surfing location in Manila would open the sport up to students, the youth, the PWDs, and even the underprivileged (as it has in surf towns like San Juan or Siargao).

Rosell is also excited about the fact that the malleable waves of SurftownMNL could also be potentially used for emergency training, as well as film or TV shoots.

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“Ang lawak ng mga posibilidad,” said Rosell.

Stoke in the city

Beyond the artificial surf that will be the resort's main draw, in its final form SurftownMNL will also have a skate park, pocket gardens, a beach bar, swimming pools, a restaurant, and more.

It's an ambitious project — an entire town, as its name says, built around a man-made slice of the ocean. And unusually for a project that would require significant capital, the Surftown MNL team cracked open the door for crowdfunding. In the promotional video they released last week, the trio have opened up the project to an unlikely batch of investors: you and me.

“It's all about the awareness. Now people would say, it's the time of the pandemic, why would you come up with something like this? Obviously, we think differently,” Victorino said about the crowdfunding announcement.

Having worked in real estate, he also pointed out that it’s not entirely unprecedented, either. If you think about it, he said, pre-selling a property is also a form of crowdfunding.

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Crowdfunding options range from a $10 (around P480) for a "very loud shoutout on Facebook" to a $15,000 (around P725,200) VIP access ticket that will get you "first access to SurftownMNL."

“I'm telling you, the feedback has been really good,” he continued. “People from Leyte, from Siargao, from Baler are messaging us, really excited, reposting our post. That's what we want. That's our main purpose.”

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Obviously, crowdfunding wouldn’t be the main source of their funding. They will still go the traditional route of soliciting the deep pockets of investors, with all the boardroom pitch decks this entails.

But in announcing the first stage of the project as a crowdfunding initiative, the team hopes to make the project seem like a community effort.

“A big project like this, [we want to make it] inclusive to everyone, na we could all say that I took part in that, either by sharing the video, by donating, by pledging, by investing,” Victorino said.

The team confesses, however, that not everyone in the surfing scene is enthused.

There are the usual anti-wave pool purists, of course. But there are others who also worry about the potential impact it would have on the local surfing economy, already badly battered by the ongoing pandemic. Would people still make the trip to actual surf towns, when you have the glossy man-made waves of SurftownMNL?

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On that point, Rosell said: “The reason why they're showing this opposition towards the idea is because we think [that] they don't see the bigger picture. They see this competition, they see it as we're gonna get the market share of surfers, but they don't see the other side. We're here to help the community and at the same time bring the country up using the facilities from SurftownMNL.”

He added: “So it's not competition at all. It's more like a central hub that will connect everyone to their destinations.”

And while many things still need to be done — they haven’t even finished negotiations for the land where they plan to set up the resort — they’re confident they can get it done on their timeline of two to three years.

By that time, the team told SPIN Life, the pandemic would most likely be over, and Manileños, as well as other tourists, will be ready to troop down to a new surfing destination that’s right at their doors.

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Why wouldn’t they be optimistic? It’s the surfer’s way.

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