We were meeting up in Spain to go on a surf trip. To improve our surfing, to spend time together and get away from it all. But, ultimately, there was one thing we couldn’t get away from.
I drove to Bilbao and Robert flew there from Germany. From Bilbao, in the lush, coastal North-east of Spain, we drove all the way to the furthest, most western part of Spain.
Galicia – the edge of mainland Europe. We traversed the entirety of Spain’s green and stunning Northern coast – which at times could have been like Ireland. With his head jammed between a surf board and the window, Rob had nine hours to appreciate the views.
Galicia – famed for octopus drenched in oil and paprika, natural beautiful landscapes, and ultra-orthodox festivals with processions of men in cloaks, pointed hats and crucifixes.
Galicia – the best place in Spain to surf during the summer. Good waves and no crowds. Bad travel connections hence no crowds.
No crowds was a bonus for us. Often we were effectively bullied off the best waves by confident (and over-confident surfers) who either snatched the best waves or called them early. We were just ‘intermediate’ level and desperately needed some confidence boosting. Hence the nine full days in Galicia.
After the long drive, we rolled into a campsite and quickly pitched up a tent, set up the barbie and opened some beers. Around us were families, young adventurous couples as well as long-term residents, i.e. retired couple who were so settled that they had installed TV antennas and had tomatoes growing underneath the awnings of their campervans.
The campsite was in a pine forest over a bay. Between the trees at dusk, we had a direct view of a protected bay which reflected the sunset and, beyond that, the open horizon and the open sea – an expanse stretching all the way to the Carribean and within all that space the God of Surf huffed and puffed onto the Atlantic ocean and pushed waves towards the Portugese and Galician coastlines. Waves that we would jump onto and balance upon.
Beyond the forest (below us) was a white sandy beach.
We heard music begin at about nine pm. We cracked open some more beers. We smiled: just in time for a late night party on the beach. We clinked our bottles together and then both of us in our surfing hoodies and flip-flops, strolled down the beach to find it deserted and quickly established that the music came from some three kilometres away – on the other side of the bay. Evidently the sound was louder and further away. And unfortunately, after having drunk some celebratory beers we couldn’t now drive there.
Defeated, we decided, instead, to get an early night.
I lay in the dark tent for an immensely long time, trying to ignore the bass-line, music and screaming. I checked the time eventually – it was now 6 am and I hadn’t slept at all. I rolled over in the tent and faced Robert and said, “This is ridiculous.”
“I know,” Rob replied with his eyes open.
At seven a.m. the sun rose and the party suddenly stopped. We finally caught some sleep before the morning’s surf.
Finding the waves and seeking alpha
Our first mission was driving over to Traba Praia which on the map looked like a short five minute drive away from the camp site. “What scale is that map”, I asked after half an hour of wrestling with the Dacia non-power steering wheel as we trundled through the narrow winding lanes. It didn’t have a scale. “I thought we were going to next village,” Rob said trying to catch a glimpse of the map.
As soon as I saw someone, I stopped and asked for directions but couldn’t understand a word of the Gallegan dialect which to me sounded nothing like Castilian Spanish.
Maybe it was a bonus that it was so difficult to find. After driving through some more hamlets, along some agricultural land, through another pine forest and then taking a hidden left hand turn, back on myself and then driving along some farm roads, we finally arrived at the right beach. “Only four cars!” we both pointed out. We both knew: No competition for the waves. The beach was over a kilometre long. Plenty of space. In fact, there were only two people on the hot white beach hunched under a sunshade in the bright intense sunlight. The waves looked good.
We did a short reconnaissance to identify the peaks. We then began what became our ritual for the next nine days: stinky wet wetsuit, thick sticky sunblock, sand-gritty waxing of the surf boards, locking the car, tiptoeing along the gravel to the hot sand and then doing the cold water dance just before the water line reached our groins.
We were alone in the water: On my new surfboard, I rode some smooth green Atlantic waves.
Bu I also missed a lot of waves, letting them pass underneath me, like missed opportunities. I also fell off a few waves either by slipping or mis-timing. In the end, we were in the water for almost two hours and I was pleased with myself that I was able to catch a good handful of waves before we carried our boards out of the ocean again.
“How was it? I didn’t see you catch much,” said an English voice as we walked back over the hot sand towards the car. Sat on one of the dunes at height of Spanish midday heat at 2pm was a bronzed Englishman with his shirt off.
“Oh, the peak kept changing.” I responded.
“A strange sand bar isn’t it,” he said.
“The tide needs to be lower.” Rob said.
“Well, that’s not till … ooh” he looked at his hockey-puck sized watch. “I’ll be going in a bit later …”
The swapping of technical assessments continued as we stood reluctantly in the hot sun wondering why we were even speaking to this guy. The whole thing was a oneupmanship. It was all to prove expertise and prowess. A good technical assessment and sound expertise indicated a good surfer.
A good surfer was a sign of masculinity. It was alpha.
People have to assert their place in the hierarchy or find their place. And one way to establish that position (or in our case, gauge that position because we knew we weren’t top) is through expertise, jargon, tales, secret information or the technical assessment of the beach and the weather.
Assessment was key and no statement can be uttered without another adding more information and adding more value to that comment.
I didn’t have a huge amount of technical expertise so I didn’t want to waste my time (or reveal my insecurity) to this bronzed tool on the beach. Besides, it was all academic – there was enough space (an entire kilometer, in fact) for all three of us.
But ultimately, we wanted an empty beach so that we could improve and ‘step up’.
We went back to the campsite, laughed it off and spent the evening drinking beer by the tent and ate three bowls of pasta each. We forgot to ask at reception if Fiesta boom boom would continue tonight. But we soon found out that it did. We were tired and we slept straight through.
Panic attacks and competition
The next day the surf was dreadful. Non-existant.
Nowadays, surf can be checked online in advance with all statistics on swell, wind direction, tide, wave height, wave quality and more all at hourly intervals, even two weeks in advance. All updated on an hourly basis. Of course, all this information can be regurgitated at the car park when everyone is assessing the waves, jockeying for position.
One of the main disadvantages is that everyone now has access to this same data and inevitably ends up in the same few places (or only place!) where there is good surf.
We went to Traba again to try our luck. Nothing. Robert was in panic mode. His ultra work-hard culture in Finance demanded ultra hard play. His money rich but time poor lifestlye meant play-time had to maximised. “We have to get some surf” he blurted out to me, clearly in distress.
I didn’t think there was much chance that day but thus began our “chasing of the phantom”. Ecclastisies. The surf was nowhere to be found in Spain or Western Europe that day. No money could buy surf today.
Nonetheless, like madmen in a Dacia, we drove an extra hour to the other side of the peninsular to Nemiña which had the “best chances” according the Robert’s assessment of the online data.
When we arrived at Nemiña, it was a millpond. A smell of seaweed and the soothing lapping sound of the gentlest of waves caused nothing but stress. There were plenty of campervans in the car park but the ocean was empty.
The only thing that could be done was to drink a beer in the hostel and watch the horizon and I was perfectly happy to do that.
We recognized some German numberplates and subsequently overheard in a conversation that there might be some surf here in the late afternoon. So we stuck around trying our luck praying to the God of Surf.
A bit of surf did arrive but it was unsatisfactory.
“Well, it’s only for long boards today” Robert announced.
“No. A fish tail board would also be fine” A German voice answered from behind.
Immediately, began another oneupmanship for not waves or surfing prowess but for surfboard knowledge.
The scene was like two faulty 1960s computers in a science lab churning out paper frantically. They then started spewing out unrelated information about today’s wave height, swell, the conditions of the sea floor, wave frequency, anything in an attempt to show who had more data. At the end of it, Rob was no match for this ex-German Army officer who spent the summers in Galicia.
We went into the water to catch some waves – some small waves further out and some shore-breaks (both Rob and the officer were right). Sure enough, the Officer was a better surfer, just as his expertise had proven earlier on the beach.
But it didn’t matter: at least we had enjoyed some surf. After peeling off the wetsuits, we showered in outdoor cold water showers, pumped up from the exercise and braving the cool evening breeze. I enjoyed those cold showers, as I washed myself energetically and blew out gusts of water and air. ‘That German guy is also a Surf instructor’ Rob informed me. The implication being that after losing the printing battle, it was never a fair match and now pride can be restored.
Another character from the North of Europe who spends the summers down in Spain surfing. Not bad we agreed. After any sporting dual, there is always the chance to acknowledge the hierarchy, accept it and make friends. We joined him in the bar.
A good surfer was someone who could brave the elements, the cold water and the wind. It was someone who wasn’t scared of the big waves, someone who could tame the beast, someone who could show skill, patience and athleticism, someone who could jockey for position. It was the skills of the hunt for the animal.
But it was also the confidence of catching the best female. A good surfer was someone who could stick their neck out in the line up – to catch that wave and deliver – because those who had forego that wave (because they didn’t have priority) will be watching to make sure you didn’t fluff up and waste their precious chance.
And the chances for perfect waves are so precious that the stakes are high. And when the stakes are high aggression and frustration are commonplace. A few missed opportunities and unwelcome pretenders getting in the way? It can all get very heated, very quickly.