The Story of How Surfing Almost Lost Mundaka, Then Didn't

26 Oct 2020 2 Share

COASTALWATCH | TRAVEL

Story by Matt Rode

First Sessions: How This Rivermouth Gem Almost Suffered a Man-Made Death

While a pioneering session at a world-class wave is always monumental, in many cases it is difficult to nail down precise details about who exactly was the first person to paddle out. And other times, the first session isn’t quite as memorable as one that came somewhat later and effectively put the wave on the map. When it comes to Mundaka, the crown jewel of Spanish surfing, both cases apply.

Although itinerant surfers had been making their way to the Basque city of Mundaka for around a decade, they weren’t exactly popular with the locals in the early 1970s. Their dirt-bagging, drinking, smoking, and overall party lifestyle didn’t exactly mesh with the local culture, and, as Kepa Acero once said: “They were not very well seen in the village.” But that all changed when a group of Australian visitors scored a big swell in the winter of 1977. With the sandbar maxing out, a boat full of local fishermen got caught by a set and capsized.

Two fishermen were stuck in the water, cold and weighed down by their wet clothing, and a couple of the Aussie surfers paddled over and helped keep them afloat until another boat could pick them up. The surfers spent the next couple of hours bailing the boat and collecting their fishing gear, and eventually got the boat in to shore.

That single act of heroism changed the entire local attitude toward visiting surfers. Suddenly they were not just welcome, but encouraged to visit. Surfers soon began flocking to the area, both for the world-class waves and the colourful, welcoming culture. Locals began riding Mundaka as well, and before long the wave had established itself as one of the best in Europe.

The sandbar at Mundaka is formed by the flow of sediment from the mouth of a nearby estuary, and over the years has proven to be extremely sensitive to human interference. The Bilbao Chamber of Commerce proposed a huge breakwater in the early 1970s that would have certainly destroyed the wave, but fortunately the project never got off the ground. Then, in the early 1990s—a few years after the first pro contest was hosted at the wave—the estuary was dredged numerous times to accommodate a new shipping company located just up the river. Up to 50,000 cubic meters of sand were moved with each dredging, which slightly affected the sandbar, albeit only for a short period of time.

Magic Seaweed forecaster Tony Butt has published a lot of material about the proposal. He said: "Those first surfers also had no idea that, around 1972, a project was proposed by the Bilbao Chamber of Commerce which would have meant an early death for Mundaka. Almost the entire estuary would have been blocked apart from a narrow channel; and a huge breakwater would have been built exactly where the wave is, instantly destroying it.

"What would have happened if that project had gone ahead? Most of us would be here now without the slightest clue that the spot even existed. At most, a few older surfers might remember a mythical wave that they rode once or twice but which disappeared soon afterwards.

"One thing is certain: if the Bilbao Chamber of Commerce had decided to go ahead with the project, nobody would have stopped them. Surfing in that part of the world was virtually non-existent, and only a handful of foreign surfers had been there. Spain was still under a dictatorship until 1975, so the local population would have been too scared to protest. (Spain’s favourite punishment for speaking out against the state was the garrote catalán, a large iron peg screwed into the back of one’s neck)."

The best rivermouth wave in the world? Photo: Tom Pearsall.

The best rivermouth wave in the world? Photo: Tom Pearsall.

Then, in 2003, a massive dredging operation moved 250,000 cubic metres of sand. This ended up changing the entire trajectory of the river mouth, and virtually overnight Mundaka changed from a 400-meter, barreling left to a closed-out straight-hander. By this point the wave was a staple of the local culture and economy, particularly since it now played host to a world tour event. But suddenly that was all gone.


Many people thought that Mundaka was dead for good, but fortunately nature righted herself a few years later, and in 2006 the river mouth’s trajectory corrected itself and the sandbar came back. It ended up hosting four more years of world tour events, until the Mundaka Pro was removed from tour in 2010.


Since then, the left-hander has maintained its place atop the list of Europe’s best waves—and it has the crowds to prove it. Although it is fickle and extremely tide-dependent, when the right swell pours in from the Bay of Biscay, Mundaka lights up for locals and visitors alike, who flock to the grinding barrel in droves.


Local Basque surfers Kepa Acero, Aritz Aranburu, and Natxo Gonzalez lead the current crop of Mundaka locals, keeping their eyes out for the perfect combination of conditions that make the wave light up. The boys have been largely stuck at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Natxo recently gave us an update on the swells at Mundaka this season.

“On the first swell the bank was just ridiculous—as good as it gets. We couldn’t even surf at low tide because it was so dry—breaking like Namibia, where you couldn’t even paddle it. There was so much sand, and it was actually epic on a small swell, like three foot on the open beach breaks, which normally wouldn’t even break at Mundaka. Unfortunately, it’s been pretty stormy and disorganised since then, with low-period swells and strong winds. A big swell blew out the bank, and now it looks like it would normally look in February, with no sand—so it’s probably going to take a pretty special swell for us to get barrels.”

While that’s not great news for the Basque surfers this winter, as long as the estuary is left alone and not dredged to death, Mundaka should recover its form by next season. By the time the COVID-19 pandemic is over, same barrels that have been bringing surfers to the colourful city since the 1960s should once again be draining along Europe’s best left-hand sand bar.

This article originally appeared on Magic Seaweed

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