Surfing Spain: Basque Barrels Part II

The view from Playa La Concha in San Sebastian.

Our first glimpse of the Spanish coast was frustrating. The brick buildings of the beautiful coastal city of San Sebastian, that will be the co-cultural capital of Europe in 2016, blocked our view.

But there was swell. It was just a matter of finding a sheltered corner of San Sebastian’s Bahia de la Concha that would provide a respite from the stormy conditions.

“Dad, there are waves breaking in the river,” said Israel excitedly as we drove past the Rio Urumea on our way to the beach. “It looks just like the entrance to Mission Beach when it gets big.”

I was with my two sons, Israel and Daniel, and my French cousins, Vincent and Margaux. With a base camp at a campground just south of Biarritz, we had decided to cross the nearby Spanish border and spend the afternoon surfing and sampling the cuisine of San Sebastian, population 430,000, considered one of Europe’s premier culinary capitals.

The boys get ready to surf in San Sebastian. Urban surfing at its finest.

“You almost can’t find bad food in San Sebastian,” said Esteban of the Pro Surf Shop in the French surfing village of Guethary.

As I headed south along the seaside route along the Playa de la Concha, in our blue Renault mini-van, we could see waves breaking at a little headland that divides Concha from Playa de Ondarretta.

As we passed the point, we could see 2-4’ lefts were breaking. Just a few people were out. “Let’s get out there,” said Israel.

For the next hour or so, the boys and Vincent and Margaux enjoyed the semi-closed out beachbreak waves in the company of local groms. I took photos from the malecon above, where a parade of well-dressed tourists and local residents, or donostiarras, as they call themselves in Basque, strolled by. The Basque name for San Sebastian is Donostia.

Daniel at San Sebastian.

On the other side of the point, was a shorebreak, where local bodyboarders rode waves that bounced off the rock and high tide and mutated into an ugly giant ogre of a barrel. The boys and Vincent rode a few waves with a couple of visiting Australian bodyboarders.


They got pummeled.

Later that evening we ate a bevy of delicious mostly seafood tapas at a bar in the Parte Vieja. Scores of bars and restaurants play host to the tourists who flock to the tiny cobblestone streets of San Sebastian’s old quarter each summer.

Freaky shorebreak in San Sebastian.

The next day after our epic session at Guethary (see last week’s article), we headed to the fabled seaside village of Mundaka, located east of San Sebastian.

Recently ranked the 11th best wave in the world by Surfer Magazine, Mundaka is a perfect left point that used to be a stop on the ASP World Tour. Former World Surfing Champion Tom Curren told Surfer that he actually considers Mundaka to be the best wave in the world, “Because it’s the best I’ve seen yet.”

Daniel at Mundaka

I had surfed Mundaka back in early October 1983 at the age of 19 when I was a UCSD undergraduate spending a semester at the Complutense University of Madrid. I had taken the overnight train from Madrid to Bilbao and caught bus from there to Mundaka.

As the bus rounded a curve along the route that follows the Ria Guernica, I caught a full view of the point. Perfect 6-8’ offshore waves were peeling down the point.

Israel at Mundaka, almost getting dropped in on. Something that happens a lot there. It is not Europe's friendlies surf spot.

A few minutes later I literally almost jumped off the bus, left my gear with an Aussie camped out in the town plaza, and paddled out for a session of beautiful warm-water point waves.

I didn’t expect it to be as good this time. But with a swell running, I figured we would catch something. As we passed the same point where I had first caught a glimpse of Mudaka surf 28 years earlier, the boys spotted the lineup and the surf. “It is going off,” said Israel.

While it was far from perfect, with 3-5’ semi-glassy surf, the boys spent about three hours surfing sand-bottom hollow lefts with a small crowd of locals. I surfed for a while and then retreated to a local café with a great view of the lineup to drink strong Spanish coffee.

The puerto at Mundaka with the Basque flag flying. You see very few if any Spanish flags in the region.

The boys later joined me for lunch. As they devoured their giant bocadillos and surveyed the beautiful harbor and peeling waves, Daniel said, “It was crowded, fast and perfect. I can’t wait to come back.”

I can’t either.

The quay at Mundaka. You paddle out here. Even when it is huge the paddle out is easy, although there is lots of current.

Master Craftsman: Jay Novak and the Art of Surfboard Shaping

From my Imperial Beach Patch column of July 13, 2011.

Jay Novak at work.

When I first started surfing in 1977, I immediately became aware of Jay Novak of Novak Surfboard Designs through his incredibly stylish and tube-savvy surfing and the fact that he along with Mike Richardson and Dave Craig was part of IB’s elite group of master surfboard shapers. Jay is still shaping and surfing in IB and around the world. I’m lucky to have him shape my surfboards, which are among the best I’ve ever surfed. Jay’s innovative and groundbreaking quad surfboard from 1980 is on display at the Imperial Beach Surfboard Museum at Dempsey Holder Surfboard Safety Center. Jay recently also had one of his surfboards featured on the cover of Surfer Magazine.

Patch: When did you start shaping?

Jay Novak surfing in Imperial Beach

Jay Novak: I started shaping in high school in the 1970’s. At that time surfboard design was going through a major period of change. In 1968 the first shortboards were used, all but replacing 9-foot and longer boards. But the issue with the new more sensitive and maneuverable boards was that no one had figured out exactly what design features made a board surf well. Therefore many different shapes and sizes of boards were used. Anything from 8-foot V bottoms ( they looked like cut off 9 footers) to 7 1/2 foot by 18″ Hawaiian influenced single fins to 5 1/2 foot  twin fins with wide tails.  And everything in between. It took years and many different ideas to reach a bit of a design standard.

Patch: What is the history of the quad you shaped that is on display at the Dempsey Holder Safety Center?

Novak quiver.

Novak: The quad board in the IB Surf Museum is my personal board from 1980. It was one of my favorite boards ever. This board was also the model for the Imperial Beach Outdoor Surfboard Museum – the red metal outline sculptures- at Seacoast and Palm. I was surfing pretty well at the time, at least surfing pretty often. Most of my customers wanted twin fins, although maybe 25 % of my orders were quads . The 3-fin Simon Anderson era was right around the corner. I thought the twins were a little too sensitive and harder to control backside.

Photo courtesy of Jeff Wallis.

Changing to 4-fins seemed to correct these issues. I was one of the last to switch to 3-fins as I thought they were slower and not as free to turn as the twins or quads. Remember the boards of this era were thick and had less rocker. It would be quite a few years until boards thinned out and performance took a leap forward. I also remember I could tell how many fins were on a board by the way it worked in the water.

Patch: What is your relationship with AKA Surfboards?

Novak: I have been shaping for AKA (based in Encinitas) for 6 years now. The company has shown quite a bit of growth to the point now where we send boards all over the world, have high profile team riders and are known throughout the world.

Peter Devries on the June 2011 cover of Surfer Magazine surfing a Jay Novak AKA surfboard

The June issue of Surfer Magazine featured Peter Devries one of the AKA crew on the cover. This is a big deal in the surf industry! I have been shaping for Peter for five years. He is Canada’s best known pro surfer (Serge’s note: I surfed with Peter in Canada-he shreds!). Working with surfers like Peter to get boards “just right” forces me to keep current, lose any complacency and the end result is a better board for all my customers.

Patch: How do you use computers in your shaping?

Novak:I shape about 75% of the AKA boards with computer assistance, versus maybe 50/50 of my total workload. The computer allows an exact duplicate of a board to be shaped. Besides saving time, we are increasingly asked to shape a particular “model” of board, moving away from a custom shape for an individual.

For example AKA has 18 models and I can change size and dimensions on all of these models up or down for each customer’s needs and get a perfect result. Although I really feel creative when I hand shape a board from start to finish there is a place for both and the end result should be the same. I have always kept detailed records of the boards I have shaped.

Patch: What is the state of surfing in Southern California today?

Me on my 6'6" Novak quad at Barra de la Cruz in Oaxaca. One of the best surfboards I've ever owned.

Novak: I think that surfing today in Southern California has progressed greatly in the past few years. I am nothing if not a surf observer. About 350 days a year I start my day by walking to the beach and looking at the waves, hoping it will be good enough to motivate me.

About 10 years ago I observed that surfers were using boards that were either too small or too big. The 9-foot longboards had become popular but these boards were not meant to be used everyday. Especially here in IB where the waves can on occasion break shallow and hard. Better to use them when the surf is head high or less. The short boards of the time were narrow and had low volume, making them suited for larger waves with more power.

Patch: What kind of surfboards work for IB?

Novak: Things to consider when surfing in IB. What kind of surf do we have in this area? Average size shoulder high? Not particularly good? Something inbetween the 2 extremes of long and short should work when surfing in IB.

I am glad that it has again become fashionable to ride short boards that have added width and thickness. This has certainly helped the average surfer to get more rides with better results. I personally enjoy egg shapes in the 6 1/2 to 8 foot size and small 4-fin fish shapes. Of course I will ride my 9-footer often and my short board when the conditions are better.

In the last three weeks I have surfed a different board each time I went in the water, hoping to choose the right one for each different day. The surfboards of today are better than ever. It is easier to learn as well as quicker to become an accomplished rider. Perhaps that is why there are so many good surfers now.

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