A Fish of Turquoise Water

How William Aliotti’s unconventional lines took him from a small island in the Caribbean to a digitized global existence.

Light / Dark


Full disclosure: I don’t know what makes William Aliotti a great surfer.

Trying to find out, I hopped over to his island, French Saint-Martin, to spend time in his world and to meet his family, his friends, his mentors, and his longtime girlfriend, Sara. I surfed with him, laughed, and ate delightful French food, some of which he cooked himself because, as well as being a surfer with an uncanny eye, uncommon power, flow, and a missing fear gene, he cooks a damn good magret de canard

I knew next to nothing about him before I went. Aliotti isn’t a surf superstar. He’s not Kelly, John John, or Gabby famous. Nor is he one of the recognized big-wave fraternity, scratching a living chasing giants. He’s not a Pipe master or a slab fiend, or a North Shore vlogger, like Nathan Florence and Koa Rothman. 

He’s a type of freesurfer who may or may not be distinguishable to you, depending on your age and how much of your soul you give to Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube. But he’s a surfer who has emerged from a tiny Caribbean island not known for its waves. He’s also someone people love to watch, and whose extreme, experimental, and close-to-perfect style is somehow relatable to you and me. If Curren is a god, Aliotti is one of the demigods. Supernatural, but more like us.

He’s of a generation that knows only an online communication sphere. His career is rooted in the cyberverse, the arc of his star largely seen as a trail of exploding clips and regular short films. He has a decent aggregate of followers (36,000) out there in the IG ether, and his YouTube videos—made in collaboration with filmmaker Miguel Claudeville Morell—regularly hit 40,000 to 50,000 views. His likes are high and his stuff gets shared among his audiences readily enough to reach his sponsors’ targeted eyeballs. So it’s his living: traveling the world, getting barreled, boosting huge airs, and hacking vicious turns. Just like he planned at 10 years old. 

Photo by Ben Thouard.

“When [my career] started, it was about competitions, of course,” Aliotti says. “I think they helped me grow. I learned about determination. Now I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s become more of an artistic pursuit. I absolutely love to make clips and videos and take photos, seeing what you can do with the boards, the editing, the music, the viewers, the surfing—making them all work together.”

In recent years, Aliotti’s clips have often shown him doing unspeakable things on tweaked variations of the twin-keel fish, designs he and Carpinteria shaper Ryan Lovelace have concocted. Small, shreddy waves, solid French beachbreaks, pumping J-Bay, whipping into Nazaré on a 5’6″ Lovelace prototype—a stringerless board that the shaper says was “made with absolutely zero intention of being ridden at Nazaré.”

“Shattering any question as to whether or not he’s an absolute psychopath on a surfboard,” Lovelace wrote about Aliotti in an Instagram post about that day in Portugal. “An open mind and the balls to physically and mentally take himself there.”


I have to make another confession: You see, I’m from a neighboring Caribbean island, Tortola, and I never knew St. Martin had much of a surf community, let alone a young prodigy who’s actually something of a thing. I’ve dipped into St. Martin a million times—even bodysurfing at a beach near the airport in between flights—but I had no idea what surfers on the island did to keep themselves amused. In my mind, St. Martin has been categorized mostly as a boatyard—a marina and mega-yacht island. A free-market shopping haven. A hotel, cruise-ship, and tourist stop. 

But this is where Aliotti was born, raised, and began surfing. Strange, because the waves are shit most the year. It does get good, but, being tucked under its northern neighbor, Anguilla, St. Martin misses most winter swells that sweep down from the East Coast of the US. Generally, it gets trade-wind swell on its east side, generated on the long blow across from Africa. That means it’s onshore and messy most of the time, but it’s consistent.

When I arrived, I went to Le Galion beach on the northern (French) end of Saint-Martin’s east side and rode waves at Aliotti’s surfing ground zero. It’s a strange place, Le Galion, flanked on one side by a short, wild stretch of coast and on the other by Orient Bay, a hyper-commercial, white-sand Caribbean beach with hundreds of umbrellas and deck chairs, bars, thousands of tourists, jet skis, nudists, sunscreen—the full shit show, French Antilles style. 

A short, hot walk around the limestone point, Galion is like an embarrassed neighbor, thankfully ignored by most tourists. The surf spot sits offshore at a reef pass, the only entrance to Galion’s arcing bay of sea grass and its long, white beach. Inland, there’s a large lagoon stuffed with black and white mangroves, baby fish, and a sense of wilderness. 

Full breach in foreign waters in the Maldives. Photo by Luke Patterson

The place felt empty—no buildings, aside from the windsurf and surf school, St. Martin Surf Club, which is where its owners, Jean-Sébastien Lavocat and Hélène Colin, mentored Aliotti. Today, it’s simply a series of containers neatly placed between the dry, scrubby bush and the beach. (Before Hurricane Irma hit, in 2017, things were a little more lively, I’m told. But the storm blew everything away. The two new containers of the windsurf and surf school, which had been there since 1994, form the beach’s only hub of activity.)

The day we surfed Galion, it was barely 2 foot out at the pass. Lavocat took us—me, Aliotti, and four tourists who’d been taking surf lessons—out on his customized surf platform: two Hobie Cat hulls with a plywood deck and a board rack in the middle.

Turns out the reef pass was ideal for beginners and pros alike. While Aliotti and I went left, into the reef, the vacationers favored the soft right going into deep water. I floundered in the flat spots, and the students went through their agonies and ecstasies, but Aliotti, who literally grew up on this wave, was doing laps. He found a nonstop rhythm, even in the inconsistent, ragged little sets. He’d turn, take off, and just ignore the flat spots and find the steep parts, disappearing at high speed out of view until we’d see a shaft of spray firing skywards, or Aliotti himself airborne and spinning like he and his board were fused. Then he’d paddle back out and do it again.

It occurred to me that in some ways it’s possible—probable, even—that one reason Aliotti has been able to take a path from the Caribbean to a flourishing international career is because he grew up surfing mostly bad waves. Like Slater, and others spawned in slop, his reflexes have been calibrated to keep pace with rapid changes on the face—lots of them—the entire time he’s riding. 

We all know this, mostly to our detriment, but amid the lumps and chops and dips and flat spots in small, windy surf, there are far more elements in flux than in perfect waves. Of course, this doesn’t mean that everyone raised in onshore chaos will become a great surfer. But it does suggest that if you’re born with extreme talent, and you’re uncommonly committed to surfing as much as you can and as well as you can, your years spent milking speed and negotiating quick-changing rills and imperfections on every wave will offer advantages in cleaner, more predictable conditions.

“I’d say this factor in William’s background explains a great deal about his talent,” says William “Stretch” Riedel, who was the first shaper to take Aliotti under his wing, and who still works with him in an open shaper/surfer relationship. “His rise and even his ability to charge really heavy waves, like Arica, Teahupoo, Puerto, and others where he excels—why wouldn’t super-fast reflexes help you at those places?”

I paddled over to where Lavocat was shooting photos from his floating platform, which rocked on the remains of a broken swell inside the reef. He’d perfected the art of holding his long lens still like a human gimbal, for just enough time to fire off a bunch of shots as the Hobie bucked and rolled on its mooring. We watched Aliotti and marveled at his ease. “All his life,” Lavocat told me, “he could see the wave differently. He was always hungry, but always in control and reading the water perfectly.” 

After the session, Aliotti was wide-eyed and stoked. “Small waves but good fun, eh?” he said.

The tourists were stoked too. Not only did they all get some waves, but they got to surf with a pro in the lineup—the same pro on the life-size poster out where they’d parked their rental cars on the edge of the bush.


Like many of the French expats on Saint-Martin, Aliotti’s parents, Pierre and Isabelle, were neither wealthy nor flash when they arrived. 

They met in Guam. She was a nurse working in a French Catholic hospital on the island. He was a Corsican ocean wanderer, dabbling in anything that looked good: restoring old boats and sailing them across seas, serving as navigator on a classic vessel, Shenandoah, trading precious stones between the Amazon and the US, attending university in Santa Barbara in the late 1960s, “for ze girls,” wink

Once their stars aligned, they headed south to Australia, where they bought a boat, sailed to New Zealand, and lived onshore for a time in off-the-grid bliss. Then they sailed slowly north through the Pacific islands. Their journey ended in Japan, where they sold the boat and bounced back to the tiny French commune of Saint-Martin, where Pierre had previously stopped on his way toward the Panama Canal. 

In addition to boat work, they made ends meet by launching and operating a small art shop catering to tourists on one of the neat streets in Marigot. They were not influential in the community, at least at first, but they were all in on Saint-Martin, which meant Aliotti was raised with beaches, boats, and a turquoise sea as the permanent backdrop to everything, so much so that these elements often go unappreciated by small island children, much as fish don’t appreciate water—they just swim in it.

Technically, there are two St. Martins—the Dutch side and the French side—sharing an island of only 37 square miles. The Dutch side, Sint Maarten, seems only slightly Dutch, more chaotic and loose. Money rules in this part, and rules are kept to a minimum. The French side is generally neater. Its hills are green and it seems like there’s some zoning in effect, creating less randomness and more natural spaces. There are also marinas, as well as villas and hotels, and sunbathing, smoking, coffee, and croissants.

Both countries are EU members, so there’s no border inspection between the two. Both have their own strange relationships with their “mother country.” The Dutch side shares political relations with the tiny islands of Sint Eustatius and Saba nearby and Bonaire, Aruba, and Curaçao farther south. French Saint-Martin used to be plugged into Guadeloupe, which is a full department of France (similar to a state in the US or Australia), but today the island has a separate relationship with France as an overseas collective, known as a collectivité d’outre-mer, or COM.

French or Dutch, St. Martin is a Caribbean island, which connects it, historically, to the slave trade. It was never a big plantation island—its hills were too steep and dry, and much of the flat land was either mangrove lagoon or salt ponds—but it was a busy port even in pirate days, before the slave era. The deep lagoons made good anchorages and the salt ponds meant it had real value as a stopping point for ships, pre-refrigeration. During the plantation years, Africans were brought in to cut sugarcane, and sold along with the product of their labor. 

While the island’s permanent population includes European expats who’ve chosen to live on St. Martin—as well as those who were, like Aliotti, born there—it’s primarily composed of the descendants of those enslaved people. They are the local locals, whose families go back hundreds of years. On each side of the island, they mainly speak either Papiamento, the Portuguese-based Caribbean form of Dutch, or Creole, the Caribbean form of French. Often, they speak both, plus English and Spanish. 

Aliotti, locked in. Photos by Ben Thouard.

Today, with these varying populations, it’s a bubbling, cosmopolitan place. Black, white, local, immigrant, tourist—they all rub shoulders much of the time, and generally, because human souls are full of light, and because Caribbean culture centers on love, those strata roll along happily next to each other.

For Pierre, Aliotti’s father, being invested in Saint-Martin meant being involved in the community and sending his child to the local school, not one of the private schools where most of the other white, expat kids were educated. Eventually, Pierre also noticed how racially divided the political realm of the French side of the island was. 

Politics was traditionally the domain of the big local families, a closed elite who were largely the descendants of the enslaved and who’d lived on the island since emancipation. Many French expats in Pierre’s stratum had the right to vote and partake in politics, but they tended not to, some deferring to a sense that it wasn’t their place. 

Pierre, however, says that he became interested in governance because he wanted to contribute something positive to Saint-Martin’s society. And from the moment he began to engage with island politics, he was fully committed to the line he’d chosen. He began working with specific politicians known for their integrity and soon was high up in the administration, eventually serving as vice president and overseeing Saint-Martin’s separation from Guadeloupe and its new relationship with France as a COM. 

Among the things that Pierre said he’d achieved during his years in government service were two of the elements that had initially stood out to me about French Saint-Martin. Those green hills with no buildings all over them like the Dutch portion? That is the result of a law he helped to enact, restricting all building on the French side to below an altitude of 200 meters, preserving acres of dry riparian forest, an ecosystem often destroyed and disrespected throughout the Caribbean. And those mangroves and salt ponds and wild stretches of coast by Galion Bay? They’re also often disrespected in this portion of the world, but in French Saint-Martin they remain part of a contiguous network of protected areas, national parks, and ecosystems managed by an authority that Pierre designed and still oversees, despite having long ago retired from active politics.

These days, he’s cut back his career to sitting on a few boards and working as an adviser with a group of elders in the community—which might be why Aliotti never mentioned his father’s political career when I visited. Or maybe because, like a swimming fish in water, he didn’t see it as a remarkable element around him.


Although he is “home” on Saint-Martin, Aliotti hasn’t lived on the island since he left at 14 and moved to France. Until then, he had been surfing every day and competing in small local contests, but the colonial status of Saint-Martin meant that it was tapped into the bigger French Caribbean islands. So, before long, he was entering larger contests in Guadeloupe and Martinique. And because those big Caribbean islands are actually part of France, that meant island boys like Aliotti and his best friend and local sparring partner, Andrew Petrel, were competing in highly organized national sports federations—against the best surfers France had to offer. 

This was a channel opened up to Aliotti by his mentors, Lavocat and Colin, and by France’s love of institutional sport. It also stemmed from Aliotti’s parents’ belief in his belief in himself, plus the feedback his surfing had begun to create.

“We met [French 1990s pro and surf coach] Didier Piter at contests in Guadeloupe,” Isabelle told me. “He said that if William had some training and support, he could maybe have a chance at becoming sponsored and being a professional. So I took William to contests in France and Spain. It was difficult because it was expensive and we didn’t know anyone well. All the surfers would have their little groups, and me and William would be there sitting alone, eating our dinner.” 

The isolation didn’t last long, and soon Aliotti had other young surf friends. He also began securing a few decent results, along with sponsor interest and an expanding group of adults who would also become mentors. “We let him go on his own,” Isabelle said. “We made sure he had good people around him so he could learn and grow. We let him go over there to do what he dreamed of.” 

Piter, who was the head coach of the French national surf team, remembers it well: “I met him when he was 12. He was a full island boy, and he came to France for the first time to the national camp. I saw him trying to do an air on every wave. He was a kid with a lot of passion. Very quiet, but a lot of fire inside. I watched him under the radar, and after a year I said to Volcom, ‘Hey, you’ve got to take this kid.’ Then we really started working on technique, how to put maneuvers together—how to reach his potential. He was raw. We worked on joining his airs up with his huge floaters and roundhouse cutbacks so it all began to flow.”

Tropical isle—and skill set—transposition in Fiji. Photos by Ben Thouard.

Piter also pushed him in conditions of consequence. “He used to take me out at Hossegor in waves that really scared me,” says Aliotti. “I would never get barreled, because I was quite intimidated. Then, one time, he said something like, ‘You’re never going to get barreled, are you?’ And that was it. I sat deeper than him and took off on a wave, pulled in right in front of him, and went flying past him. That’s how I started to get comfortable in solid tubes.”

“I just had to give him the philosophy, you know?” says Piter. “He would stay here in the Volcom house and would always be attracted to the big waves out front. When all the kids would go for shelter in Capbreton, William would want to go out at La Graviere. That was a unique approach for a kid—not trying to escape, but instead being focused on the big waves. So he had that thing. And I took him to La Graviere, challenged him, played a few games. I pushed him to become a heavy barrel rider, to look for the bomb. He’s got that relationship with the water that is unique. He sees things in a different way.”

To be fair, at first Aliotti’s results on the WQS were mostly middling: 49th in the San Miguel Pro in 2011, fifth in the Protest Vendée Pro in 2012, and 49th, defeated by Filipe Toledo, in the Relentless Boardmasters in the same year. By 2014, on paper, he was a grinding competitor, making up the numbers in QS events. Then, in 2016, he had a breakthrough in Chile. 

Also known as El Gringo, the wave at Arica has the power of Pipeline and jagged, barnacle-infested rocks directly in front of it and along its end section. When the ASP World Tour visited in 2007, the world’s best surfers were spooked, some were injured, and it turned into a brutal battle of machismo won, fittingly, by Andy Irons. Thereafter, Arica has possessed a dangerous reputation. So when Aliotti won the event in solid, sketchy barrels, he went from a talented but obscure WQS kid to someone the heavy-water specialists looked at in a new way. 

It marked the start of a shift away from contests, to a focus on documented freesurfing, which better fit his abilities and the changing times. Digital clips were becoming equally as important as contests to aspiring pros, and when he hooked up with filmer Manuel Claudeville Morell—and their trippy videos started appearing online—they showcased Aliotti riding all manner of consequential tubes: Teahupoo, Puerto Escondido, Indo, the Canaries, Hossegor, and others. 

By 2017, he was on the cover of Surfer magazine in its “Underdogs” issue, riding deep behind a crystal lip at Teahupoo. “As soon as he decided he didn’t want to compete,” says Piter, “he went full exploration mode: big spots, big barrels, and all kinds of boards.”


After that, things got weird—in a good way. 

Claudeville Morell introduced Aliotti to a board made by Lovelace, who’d come over to shape in France. “It was a twin fish, a 5’3″—a pretty classic, old-school fish,” says Lovelace. “Manuel was doing a surf photography project, and one day he got William to ride that board just for shits and giggles. The first photos I saw of William on one of my boards, he was 5 feet up in the air on a chunky little twin-fin.”

There was an alchemy between surfer, shaper, and filmmaker—all of them artists, masters of their craft—that spawned a new William Aliotti. The supernatural air man and vortex shaman remained, but now there he was, riding unconventional designs in unexpected places and doing unbelievably radical things while making them look fun and almost doable. 

Design, highline, and other experimentations: With a foundation grounded in what filmmaker and coconspirator Manuel Claudeville Morell describes as “academic surfing,” Aliotti’s shift toward high-performance lines on alternative craft seems to blend the rigors of speed, commitment, and technique with looser, improvisational approaches. Photo by Manuel Claudeville Morell.

“Following a decline in our interest in academic surfing, and in a desire to keep surfing untamed, creative, and fun, we looked for ways to make William’s surfing more transgressive and offbeat,” said Claudeville Morell in a piece about the origin of Aliotti’s fish program. “This is how we turned to twins. William and I are convinced that the little twins and, more precisely, fishes are a card to play.”

The first hand they played was, sensibly, at Desert Point in Lombok. If there’s a wave to test both a rider and a board, Deserts—fast, consistent, consequential—will immediately reveal if a flaw exists in either element. So, they headed down there to meet a 10- to 12-foot swell.

“The board looked incongruous in the middle of all the performance thrusters and other mini guns brought out for the occasion,” said Claudeville Morell. “Then William takes off and everyone on shore is watching. He drives his board from tube to tube, backdooring the sections at full speed. He finds ways to turn the smallness and compactness into an advantage. And the ultimate is the board’s tendency to force its way to elegance.”

At the same time, there were finless experiments. On Aliotti’s feed, Lovelace’s asymmetric RabbitsFoot began appearing in increasingly odd places. There was sizable, onshore El Quemao in the Canaries, and there was small but thick Teahupoo. 

There was an alchemy that spawned a new William Aliotti.
The supernatural air man and vortex shaman remained, but now there he was, riding unconventional designs in unexpected places and doing unbelievably radical things.

“It was the perfect day for it,” Aliotti tells me about the Tahiti experiment. “Now that I’ve tried it, I can see we can do more there.” 

He also expresses how he wants to go back to Skeleton Bay, Namibia. It’s his favorite wave, he says, though I suspect that’s just because he’s tracking systems down there when I call him. 

As well as a plan to push his twin-fin fish surfing there, he also wants to ride it finless. 

When I ask if he thinks it’s possible to hold a line that fast for that long, he says, “Once the rail is engaged, I can pump the board off that. And, of course, it’s fast.”

Speed seems to be a common denominator, no matter where he is or what equipment he’s riding. On twin-fins in particular, there also seems to be another factor that surfaces in his clips, an additional element that makes them so shareable and relatable. 

Photo by Luke Patterson.
Photo by Manuel Claudeville Morell.

“There was one clip that I saw during our first year of messing around together,” says Lovelace. “I could tell he was so heavily enjoying himself in the water. And that’s a stupid cliché, but it really is a joy to watch him surf, and I think that’s what a lot of people are connecting with. He’s doing stuff that we cannot relate to as surfers, but he’s doing it with such ease and happiness that you can attach yourself to it in some way.”

The engagement on one Instagram post, in May 2021, was instructive to Aliotti, he tells me. It centered on a wave at Pavones, the long, roping left in Costa Rica. In the footage, there’s no barrel or air—just 26 seconds of speed sensationalism, a highline held forever as Aliotti stands tall and relaxed at Mach 2. When a section pops up, he flies around it, or, as the lip crumbles for yards ahead of him, over it, moving so fast that he’s toying with the coping for an age before dropping down, swooping into a pulled-out bottom turn again, and back onto his high-speed highline. 

That’s all. But views and shares went through the roof. 

“Top to bottom, top to bottom gets boring,” Aliotti reminds me.


Being a pro surfer from the Caribbean can mean anything. Archetypally, I’d refer you to Jamaica’s Icah Wilmot, his father, Billy, and all of Icah’s brothers and sisters. Their family has become, arguably, the best-known face of Caribbean surfing over the decades through their Rastafarian interpretation of surf culture seated in a deep Jamaican setting, seen and loved by surfers across the world. 

Puerto Rico, meanwhile, is home to an A-list of heavy-water standouts like Otto Flores, Carlos Cabrero, and the Graves and Toth brothers, among others, who’ve tasted surfing’s mainstream fame. Their Hispanic American island, however, is vastly different from Jamaica. Or Barbados, a former British colony, now an independent republic, and home of one of the greatest onshore waves in the world, Soup Bowl, in addition to that island’s roster of talents—Mark Holder, Chelsea Tuach, Josh Burke, and Bruce and Dane Mackie among them. Trinidad, with a similar history, but tiny and distinctive surf culture, is different yet again, and has given us Jason Apparicio and Chris Dennis. All of these surfers are Caribbean “pros” who have variously left, and continue to leave, their marks.

 Into the vortex and making the migration up the point at Skeleton Bay. Photos by Alan van Gysen.

But in this region, there’s little solidarity between islands. Not much binds us all together as “Caribbean surfers.” Mostly we’re a low-key bunch, focused on getting what we can with our own little crews whenever it happens in our own little corners of the island chain. Contest surfing in many places is anathema. For the few who do compete, it’s not easy to gain recognition, let alone sponsorships and a solid career. 

When I last spoke with Aliotti, I asked him if he misses home. “Not really that much right now,” he said, to my surprise. Again, he was busy looking at swell maps for Namibia and planning his summer around a month in the Mentawais, where he was invited by Kandui Resort to test ride different fishes for a film project, so…I understood. 

When I’d stayed with him a few months earlier, he and his girlfriend, Sara, had been back for a long visit and seen all his friends and loved ones, so that itch was scratched. Besides, his mother, Isabelle, was finally leaving Saint-Martin to join him in France, planning on living close-by in Hossegor. “I don’t want to have to keep rebuilding after hurricanes,” she’d told me, referring most recently to Hurricane Irma, which destroyed her small business and so much else. 

So the wheel had come full circle, with her joining her son 4,000 miles away on the path he’d chosen and she’d allowed him to step onto. Pierre is staying, so the connection has not been severed. It never will be. I know from experience that fish like William can’t stay away from the water they were spawned in. 

In the meanwhile, he tells me he’s happy to be an islander in mainland France. He still feels like an outsider, but he likes that. Sara has a Hawaiian poke business that has taken off, so Aliotti is also helping part-time in the kitchen when things get crazy. They dream of one day having a place in the Canaries, a life lived between France, Saint-Martin, and El Quemao. 

Clearly there’s contentment, despite both of them being high achievers. And for now, when he’s not surfing and planning trips, Aliotti is just refining those clips, scheming art, and designing with Claudeville Morell and Lovelace. There are ideas to work out, films to plan, music to choose, waves to be tamed, feeds to be fed. By every measure that I can come up with, it looks like the future that a 10-year-old island boy engineered for himself is an ongoing, ever-evolving success, just like he always knew it would be.

A week after we last spoke, Aliotti was in Indo. From an Instagram post that seems to be going low-key viral as I write, it’s apparent he’s at Desert Point. The conditions are solid: the wrong tide, with Aliotti sliding into a grower on his asymmetric, finless RabbitsFoot. 

As I watch the clip, I can see that he was correct: He can pump off that rail and generate a lot of speed on a critical edge. In fact, after racing a double-overhead wall, Aliotti has too much speed as the wave sucks out. He drops down low, to the bottom, where he pulls a casual reverse 360 in the bowl, enough to slow himself down. Then he’s back pumping that rail into section after section of a relentless Deserts barrel. He doesn’t make it out. But if I know Aliotti, pretty soon he will.

Full immersion at Teahupoo. Photo by Ben Thouard.

[Feature Image by Ben Thouard]