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An Englishman Surfs in Euskadi

Tony Butt  /  11 marzo 2019  /  12 Minuti di lettura  /  Surf

Was Meñakoz a legitimate big-wave spot? Photo: Tony Butt collection

It was November 1991. I was with two friends and we were at the beginning of a three-month surf trip around the coasts of Spain and Portugal. Mundaka was our starting point. We all agreed that we would be happy just to get something better than the cold, windblown beach breaks we had left behind in Cornwall. It wasn’t really much of a tall order.

But I had a more specific agenda. You see, about a year earlier I had read a short news article in a surf magazine. It was about Gary Elkerton, the famous Australian surfer. Elkerton lived in southwest France and, along with an infamous crew including Maurice Cole and Tom Curren, would hit Mundaka every time the French beach breaks got too big and out of control. The article described how, on one of those trips, Elkerton was taken to a different spot not far from Mundaka. It was a right-hand reef break that could probably hold 30 foot, and it had a small crew of bearded surfers who spoke a strange language and were unafraid of the waves. I really wanted to surf big waves, and I wanted to get away from crowded lineups and competitive attitudes. This place sounded perfect.

We were in the Basque Country, a place with its own unique history, culture and language. Geographically it is straddled between the modern states of France and Spain, but culturally it is quite different from both.

An Englishman Surfs in Euskadi

From left to right: Tony Butt, Lewi Skinner and Andy Annear. The original crew that traveled to the Basque Country with me on my first trip. Photo: Tony Butt collection

The Basques are often described as a hardy breed, with a resilience built up from a long history of wars and conflicts. They fought the Vikings and the Normans, they clashed both with and against Muslims, and, of course, they were brutally oppressed during the Franco dictatorship. All this conflict, together with the harsh environment in which they lived, not only made them physically hard-wearing but gave them a unity and solidarity rarely seen in other cultures. In addition, their connection to the sea goes back a long way, with evidence of their visiting such places as the Faroe Islands over 1,000 years ago.

The surfers Elkerton had seen in the lineup seemed to fit this mythical description. I imagined a small group of fearless big-wave surfers in some forgotten corner of Europe. They probably had to learn from scratch how to make their own boards and leashes, how to get out to the waves and surf them.

I needed to find out where it was. So I went to see Craig Sage, an ex-pat Aussie who had settled in Mundaka several years earlier after falling in love with the wave, the town and the woman who was now his wife. He owned the surf shop and was highly tolerant of tight-budgeted traveling surfers who would pester him for local knowledge. Craig told me that the spot was called Meñakoz, and he gave me some vague directions. But he said under no circumstances should I attempt to surf it. “You blokes’ll get bloody flogged out there, mate.” It was simply too dangerous. The waves were far too big and there were far too many rocks. Not to mention the locals.

Meñakoz was pretty easy to find. It was hidden in plain sight next to Sopelana, one of the most popular surfing beaches on the whole coast. We parked the van at the top of a cliff and walked down a steep, winding gravel track until we were in a kind of amphitheater. The steep slopes on every side and the rural setting gave no clues that a large industrial town (Bilbao) was only a stone’s throw away. The tide was low and there wasn’t much swell. Rows of jagged rocks stretched out at right angles to the coast. Each row consisted of hundreds of triangular plates around a meter high, like a giant sawblade half buried in the seabed with its teeth sticking upwards. I guessed the safest time to surf here would be high tide.

I had an 8’2″ surfboard specially made back in England. My friends had laughed at it. “Where are you going with that,” they would say, “Waimea Bay?” According to them, I was probably never going to surf waves that big anyway, so why bother taking an 8’2″? At the time, big waves and the boards you needed to surf them were such a foreign concept to English surfers, I might as well have been going to another planet.

An Englishman Surfs in Euskadi

That’s me in the red circle. Photo: Courtesy Surf Session

Another couple of weeks went by before I got to paddle out at Meñakoz. I was surprised at how thick and fast the waves were. The whole scale was something new to me, even though I had already ridden quite big waves in Hawai’i and Peru. Apart from the power of the waves, I noticed a rip flowing out to sea and toward the peak. This could be dangerous on big days, I thought, especially if you didn’t have good lineup markers. Now, at high tide, the water came all the way up to a vertical cliff, and those jagged rocks, out of sight and out of mind, were lurking just below the surface. Finally, I couldn’t work out why, but the sets seemed to have a lot more waves in them than at other spots. I had to admit, it was intimidating.

Three other people were out there: a tanned, dark-haired man with a thin face sitting way out the back on a huge red board; a stocky, crazy-looking surfer with spikey hair who couldn’t stop talking; and a third, friendlier-looking surfer on a yellow board. The crazy-looking surfer glanced up at me. I smiled back at him and said “Buenos dias” in my best Spanish.

Egunon,” he corrected. Then he said, “Hemen olatuak harrapatu nahi badituzu, euskara ikasi beharko duzu.

Before I could say I didn’t understand, he was being pitched over the falls on the first wave of a ten-wave set. The friendlier surfer looked at me and gave a little chuckle, nodding toward his friend whose head I could just make out in a maelstrom of whitewater. His board was nowhere to be seen. I thought these guys were probably the locals Elkerton was talking about.

After the session, I plucked up courage and approached the dark-haired surfer who had been sitting out the back. I told him my name was Tony. “Mine is Pepetony,” he said. Pepetony was well educated and spoke fluent English with a smooth American accent. He had been one of the first to surf Meñakoz, ten years earlier. We jumped in his tiny red car and made our way up the gravel track that I had been too scared to drive down earlier. Three huge red boards protruded from the open tailgate, noisily clacking together as he skidded and bumped up that track. He explained to me that he always rode red boards because they stood out against the white foam; that way you had a much better chance of recovering the broken bits. Something I had never thought about.

Back in Mundaka, I spotted the first two surfers. I walked up to them and blurted, “Hi there. I was the guy out at Meñakoz this morning.”

I felt like a dick. But I was desperate to make friends with the locals and find out more about that wave. Next thing I was sitting at a table with these guys, drinking coffee. The friendly-looking one was called Jaime. He was super-fit, had grown up spearfishing and had been a lifeguard for many years. He was soft spoken, polite and interested in studying ocean science. But he mostly wanted to talk about big waves. He was curious about my trips to Peru and Hawai’i and wanted to compare Meñakoz with the “real” big waves in the magazines. Was Meñakoz really any good? Was it a legitimate big-wave spot?

The crazy-looking one was called Peio. He was stocky and robust like a wild boar, had a degree in Physics and was a fireman by trade. I later found out that he was a champion swimmer, triathlete and rally driver. People said that he had learned to surf at Meñakoz.

While Jaime couldn’t stop talking about big waves, Peio was itching to talk about the Basque Country—its history, its language and its people. He explained that what he had said to me earlier, “Hemen olatuak harrapatu nahi badituzu, euskera ikasi beharko duzu,” meant “If you want to catch waves at Meñakoz, you will have to learn Euskera, the Basque language.” It was a joke, of course. But it had a serious connotation: In his opinion, a few words of Euskera would go a long way if I wanted to be accepted here.

Peio explained to me that the Basque language is inextricably linked to the culture and identity of the people. In other words, to speak Basque is to be Basque. In fact, the word Euskaldun (Euskera speaker) also means “Basque person,” and the term Euskal Herria (the Basque Country) literally means “land of the Basque speakers.”

That concept, although probably already ingrained people’s consciousness, was first expressed by the writer and idealist Sabino Arana around the end of the nineteenth century. Arana was one of the first to declare that the Basques were a nation and should have a country. He gave it an alternative name, inventing the word Euskadi, which means “Euskera speakers together.”

Throughout history, Euskera has kept the Basques together as a people. During the Franco regime, for example, one of the main activities of the original members of ETA was promoting the use of Euskera, although it was banned. “Euskera is the quintessence of Euskadi. So long as Euskera is alive, Euskadi will live,” they asserted. Nowadays, Euskera has made a comeback, with a large percentage of children going to Ikastola—schools where Euskara is the first language but where children are also taught to be fluent in Spanish and English.

An Englishman Surfs in Euskadi

Low-tide with my white van in the bottom right of the photo. Photo: Tony Butt collection

The rest of that trip was riddled with mechanical problems, torrential rain and long spells of poor surf. However, we did manage to stumble across one or two unridden spots in northwest Spain and Portugal. But I couldn’t stop thinking about Meñakoz and the Basque Country.

As a team we made a few more trips after that, but eventually I started traveling down there on my own. I became a regular commuter between England and Euskal Herria, spending entire winters sleeping in my van next to Meñakoz. Things got cramped inside that van, with the original 8’2″ plus four other boards including a 9’6″ and a 10’4″.

My love affair with Meñakoz was at its most passionate during the winter of 1996–97. It was probably one of the most focused and intensive times of my life as a surfer. I was learning and living a simplified life with one specific goal: the next session in big waves. Some days I felt totally in tune with the ocean; the surfing was effortless, almost as if it were happening by itself and I was just a passenger. I was in that elusive but much-sought-after state called flow. It helped that there were not many distractions: no Jet Skis, no drones and no social media. Occasionally somebody would be taking pictures, but I was never aware of them while I was surfing.

I was so absorbed at the time that I did a few things I would never dream of doing nowadays. I would paddle out alone at low tide on gigantic swells, sprinting from the channel to the peak and back again, wondering how to catch a wave without being caught inside. Sometimes other surfers would turn up later when the tide was higher, and I’d go out again, relieved to have some company in the lineup. It was usually only at that point when I realized how shit-scared I had been earlier on.

One day I got caught inside and lost my board. I swam in but still couldn’t find it. I spent the next six hours running up and down the coastline in the pouring rain desperately looking for that board. The thing I remember most was the sheer exasperation, the feeling that the entire world would collapse if I couldn’t find my board and surf big waves again the next day. In the end I couldn’t find it so I drove into town and bought the first big-wave gun I saw.

Of course, I didn’t surf only Meñakoz. I was also introduced to a semi-secret spot located at the bottom of a long walk down a steep forest trail. One day I was down there, trying to get off the rocks to paddle out. I just couldn’t seem to get more than about 20 meters before being smashed back again. After the umpteenth time, somebody ran up to me and shouted that there was a boat in Bermeo harbor on its way out to Izaro, and that I could come along if I wanted. That seemed like a much better plan. I knew that Izaro was the island off Mundaka where a good right-hander could be seen breaking on big days. It had been surfed a handful of times.

So I ran all the way back up that trail, jumped in the car and drove the thirty minutes to Bermeo, sweating and stinking in a damp wetsuit. We got in the boat, motored out of the harbor and reached Izaro in about ten minutes. I surfed about three waves before getting trapped in a weird end-section. This is where the main wave clashes head on with a wave coming around from the other side of the island. I eventually got out of there and the boat picked me up. We motored back to Bermeo, where I helped haul the boat up the ramp, got straight in the car and drove to Meñakoz for a late afternoon session. It was big. In fact, I remember being really pleased that it was so much bigger and more powerful than Izaro. But I never remember feeling tired, hungry or thirsty. I don’t think I took off my wetsuit all day.

An Englishman Surfs in Euskadi

Back at Meñakoz after a hectic day. Photo: Iker Basterretxea

So one day I decided to turn the tables. I told myself I was now formally based in Euskadi and would make occasional short trips back to the England if I really needed to. My surf trip had officially become my life.

My sojourn in the Basque Country lasted another eight years. I learned a lot about the people and culture and made a lot of friends inside and outside of surfing, even though my Euskera never advanced beyond about 20 words.

There were more great winters, and some epic sessions. On the really big days, only a handful of people were out there—more or less the original crew. I felt incredibly privileged to be an adopted member of that crew, which, although I didn’t realize at the time, was the big-wave elite of Europe.

However, there were also a couple of bad winters, hot and crowded summers and some time out due to injury. There was a short spate of robberies and a traumatic relationship with a psychopathic girlfriend. The lineups started to get more crowded and, imperceptibly, my life started to get more complicated.

It seemed like a good time to move on. So I drove a few hundred kilometers along the coast, fell in love with another surf spot and stayed there for another ten years. But that’s a different story.

Maybe if I had stayed longer in Euskal Herria I would have remembered it differently. Maybe the magic of those early years would have been overshadowed by later events. I’ll never know.

What I do know is that my “surf trip” to the Basque Country, particularly that epic winter of 1996–97, sticks out in my memory as a really special time in my life. I was lucky enough to ride one of Europe’s premier big-wave spots early in its history. And I was accepted into a tribe, albeit as an adopted member. Whenever I recall the sights, sounds and smells from that time, even when I hear songs in Euskera that I can’t understand, it pushes some emotional button inside me, brings back those feelings of wonder. It makes me think how the memories of intense experiences and magic moments that stay with us for the rest of our lives can be worth so much more than all that money and stuff that we constantly chase after.

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