Iberia Surf Diary [en]

With a short stopover in France, I’ve been traveling through Spain and Portugal from mid-September to late October. Main objective was to get to know surf-spots along the Atlantic coast and surf as much as possible.

Here I’ve collected my surfing experiences. Mostly to learn from it for future endeavors. E.g. what spots and what conditions worked best for me with certain boards. (I still don’t have my own board, so I can always rent what seems most suitable.)

Biarritz (fr)

Not quite Ibaria yet, but already part of the Basque region. Food and accommodation is expensive here. Even more than in Paris.

Stayed at Surf Hostel Biarritz, a little off the coast in a quiet residential area. They rent out bicycles and let you grab a board for free.

First time I’ve ever used a surf-board rack on a bicycle. Turns you bulky and sluggish, but works quite well otherwise. Beware, the coast in this area is quite hilly.

Tue, Sep 20th, late afternoon, Grand Plage

My first surf since January. Grabbed an 8+ foot board (don’t know exact size), like most other surfers at the spot. Waves were small (less than 1m) and chaotic, but I caught a couple of them. Good start.

Wed, Sep 21st, noon, Côte des Basques

Looked fairly disappointing when we got there. It was clear that this would be a short session. Didn’t even put on a wet-suit. Just some tiny waves to catch and some white-water.

Wed, Sep 21st, before sunset, Grand Plage

Looked better than Côte des Basques and slightly bigger than the day before (maybe just up to 1m). Still very chaotic, with widely shifting peaks. Everyone struggled, but good paddling workout. Slightly more powerful, but very short rides.

As so often on day two, muscles felt sore and ribs were hurting. Beautiful sunset seen from the town of Biarritz and the cliffs around it.

Donostia a.k.a San Sebastian (es)

There’s beaches right in the city. I settled in at Surfing Etxea (etxea meaning house or home in euskara) some hundred meters behind Zurriola beach. Just put on your wet-suit, grab your board, and walk to the beach bare foot.

Zurriola crowds

Thu, Sep 22nd, before sunset, Zurriola

Still barely more than 1m, but very clean, with long intervals (~11s). Fairly pronounced peaks for a beach break. When you could catch a wave they felt quite powerful, allowing for big bottom turns and nice sideways speed.
Never seen such crowds before though. After initial success I struggled to make my way in the line-up. Even though I was on an easy 8′ board.

Fri, Sep 23rd, late afternoon, Zurriola

A little hung over. Waves were similar size as the day before, but less clean. Risked a shorter board (7′10″) and had trouble catching enough waves, even though my paddling is slowly getting stronger. But when I got one, it felt great.

Sat, Sep 24th, afternoon, Zurriola

Ripped a big hole into the leg of my wet-suit when putting it on. Works fine for now, but won’t get any better. I’d already fixed so many other holes, should start thinking about a new one.

Slightly smaller, with shorter intervals. Grabbed an 8′3″ board. Still struggled with the crowds. Only got a few nice rides.

No wind initially, occasional drizzle turning into strong rain eventually. Gave the sea a mystical appearance. It stopped raining after a while, but later the wind picked up.

Sun, Sep 25th, late morning to noonish, Zurriola

Too lazy to get up earlier and check forecast and webcam in the morning. Picked the 7′10″ again, which was a mistake.

Waves were slightly bigger (up to 1.5m), but came at short intervals. Peaks were shifting and waves tended to fade out. Everyone was struggling to catch waves and stay on them, but long-boarders were definitely better off today. Still a couple of successful pop-ups and at least one nice ride.

Sopelana, just north of Bilbao (es)

A rocky coast with nice beaches, and the La Triangular reef in-between. Unfortunately the weather turned ugly, meaning lots of rain, strong winds and messy waves. No surfing for several days.

Luckily the Moana Surf House provided heaps of alternatives, such as yoga and an underground mini skate-park. Still don’t know how to skate, but got my first surf-skate intro lesson for free!

Also made a sight-seeing trip to nearby Bilbao one day.

Messy La Triangular

Fri, Sep 30th, late morning, Sopelana

Rain and sunshine are taking turns by the minute, but the winds have calmed down a little. Waves are still horrible. Only saw one surfer out there in the line-up, giving up pretty soon. So I joined the beginner/intermediate surf lessons to catch some whitewater on an 8′ foamy.

Esposende/Ofir, north of Porto (pt)

Skipped the rest of Spain’s Atlantic coast for now and cut short to northern Portugal (via the beautiful inland city of Madrid). Settled in at Element Fish Surf Camp right at Ofir beach, close to Esposende.

A small day at Ofir

Mon, Oct 3rd, early afternoon, Ofir (south/Bonanza)

Joined the surf lessons at the south of Ofir beach, a spot they call Bonanza. Waves were a little more than 1m high and very clean. Picked a big ~8′6″ foamy. Easy to catch, but short rides. Maybe the best session so far.

Mon, Oct 3rd, before sunset, Ofir (north)

Gave it another shot at Ofir beach, slightly further north. Same board. Waves were slightly higher, but harder to read with a little chop and a slight current. Got cold and exhausted soon, only caught a couple of waves.

Tue, Oct 4th, noonish, Ofir (south/bonanza)

A little smaller than the day before. I picked a ~10′ long-board. Easy to catch waves with, but way nicer to ride than the foamy.

Wed, Oct 5th, noonish, Ofir (center/Fão and south)

Yet smaller, but I could still catch some waves with the ~10′ long-board. No great rides, so I focused on my technique. Tried to fix my high stance and avoid looking down or back at the wave. Didn’t think too much about my pop-up anymore — it may not be great, but it works well enough in these easy conditions.

Thu, Oct 6th, early afternoon, Ofir (center/Fão)

A little bigger, around 1.5m according to forecast. But a little choppy and and fairly short intervals. And a little current.

Grabbed a narrow 7′10″ with fairly little volume. Really struggled with it at first, quite a difference to the long-board the days before. Required a few more paddles and a clean pop-up. But I got used to it eventually and caught a couple nice waves.

Moledo do Minho, the very north of Portugal

Moved a couple dozen kilometers northwards to Moledo. This is the last Portuguese beach before Rio Minho, which forms the border to Galicia (es) here. Checked in with the nice folks of AllYouCanSurf and joined their surf lessons.

Main spot at Moledo, with the iconic fortress island in the back

Sun, Oct 9th, morning, Moledo beach

The spot works low to mid-tide, so we had to get up early. Swell was decent, forming waves up to 1.8m high. We went to a sandbank slightly north of Moledo, about halfway to the offshore castle island. Waves were slightly smaller here, so I grabbed a huge 8′6″ foamy. We spent some time going through the basics and practicing in the whitewater. Later we paddled out though and got a couple of green waves. For a beach break, they had fairly predictable peaks. I got exhausted very soon though.

Sun, Oct 9th, sunset, Moledo beach

Since the soft-boards were locked away I grabbed a slightly shorter hard-top board from the house. Waves had gotten smaller throughout the day, but I had to wait for the tide to drop enough. Got to the beach short before sunset. It was dark and cloudy, with drizzling rain. No surfers out there and few other beach goers. Went to the same sandbank again, because it was conveniently close to the beach and I didn’t know enough about potential hazards elsewhere. Just practiced a few pop-ups on small waves that were closing out quickly.

Mon, Oct 10th, late morning, Moledo beach

Smaller waves today, slightly more than 1m. So we went to the main spot of Moledo beach, just in front of the car park. There’s clusters of rocks here, but at low tide they are all on dry land and the bottom is all sand.

I picked the huge soft-board from the day before, which was just right. There were long intervals between sets and waves where breaking very slowly and didn’t have too much power. But with the huge board I could catch many of them and get long rides, if I managed to stay on them. Wide faces with a lot of room to maneuver. The best session of this trip so far!

Tue, Oct 11th, late morning, Moledo beach

Waves up to 2m today, so we went to the northern sandbank again. Looked very clean with intervals around 10 seconds. Getting out was not a problem here and I caught some decent left-handers in the beginning. They were breaking quite slowly and I didn’t manage to stay on them for too long.

There was some current southwards and maybe I didn’t pay attention to it enough. Eventually I got washed by a couple of bigger sets and got super exhausted. I paddled further inside and only got a few smaller waves.

Wed, Oct 12th, afternoon, Vila Praia de Âncora

No lessons today and small swell. So we went over to Âncora, which seems to work better in these conditions. I took an enormous foamy, almost 9′0″ and extra wide. As expected waves were small (less than 1m) but surprisingly clean and just powerful enough. Even though it was a little crowded (but no comparison to San Sebastian 3 weeks ago) we could catch plenty of waves. Wide faces, so two of us could stay on it and ride it out to the shore.
Very fun and easy session. Quite short though, since the spot stopped working as the tide rose.

Thu, Oct 13th, noon, Moledo beach

Yet less swell, but back to lessons by the rocks at Moledo beach. Waves less than 1m high, so I kept the 8′6″ foamy. Fairly clean sets though, so I could catch loads of waves easily and focus on riding technique.

Turns out I’ve relying on the rails too much, when doing turns. Leaning into the turn and putting pressure on my toes or heals (like I’d be butting pressure on the edges of a snowboard). Instead I should be rotating more and use the fins to control the direction of the surfboard.

Also should work on a narrower stance and lower center of gravity — bend my knees. And shuffle back and forth on the board, if necessary. Forward to stay on a weak wave and backward make turns. Hard to bring it all together at once, but today I made some progress toward it.

Fri, Oct 14th, noon, Moledo beach

Same, same, but different. Even though waves looked just a bit nicer than the day before, I struggled. Messed up several easy popups in the beginning. On the waves that I got, my stance, posture, and balance just didn’t seem to work very well. Still turning on the rails too much.

Just as it started to get better, I suddenly felt a pain in my lower back. There wasn’t any particular reason for it and the pain didn’t come suddenly. I just caught a wave to the beach, stepped of the board, and there it was. Certain movements just started to feel unbearable. I paddled (well, mostly walked) back to the lineup one more time. But I noticed that I couldn’t get into an upright paddling position anymore. Let alone attempt a popup. So I took some whitewater to the beach and ended the session after 20 mins.

Xixón a.k.a Gijón (es)

Relocated to Xixón (Asturies) via the famous Galician city of Santiago de Compostela. Loads of hikers around, but I comfortably traveled by bus and train. Gave my sore back a rest and — with additional help from heat patches and light pain-killers — it got better after just a few days.

When I arrived in Xixón on Sunday, I checked in at the lovely Boogalow Hostel right at Playa San Lorenzo. I even got a room with beach-view and could check the waves any time.

And the waves were pumping, clean with 2.5m plus and 14s intervals, but mostly closing out way before the beach. Some surfers were trying to catch smaller waves on the shielded western end of the beach, close to the old town. Others were quite successful at the right-hander beyond to the western end of the beach. I think it was the spot that they call “El Mongol”. Access over a rocky reef looked super gnarly in these conditions.

I decided to give my back another day of rest. Probably should have attempted surfing in these conditions anyway. Went swimming in the whitewater instead and was happy to learn that the water here was warmer than in Portugal.

Xixón on a big day, few surfers brave enough to go out there

Mon, Oct 17th, evening, Playa San Lorenzo (beach section 7 to 8)

Compared to the day before, it looked almost flat. But the waves were still 1.5m high when bigger sets rolled through at 12s intervals. The beach break was working again and attracted some crowds (though it was less crowded than in Donostia a few weeks ago).
I rented an 8′0″ hard-top from the surf-shop next to the hostel. Still not confident about my back pain, I did a thorough warm-up. Luckily my back didn’t act up at all during this session.

Nevertheless I struggled with the conditions. Had to pay attention to the crowds. A couple of long-boarders caught all the waves further outside. Near to the beach short-boarders would grab them close to the peak. Some ways closed out soon. Nevertheless I got a couple nice rides, mostly to the left.

Tue, Oct 18th, noon, Playa San Lorenzo (beach section 10 to 11)

Yet smaller today, so I got a 9′0″ long-board. It was a soft-top but fairly narrow. I should start paying more attention to width and volume — this one was 70L.

Most other surfers picked big boards today. There were still some clean power-full 1m plus waves rolling through, but we had to wait a long time in-between sets. Smaller sets were just too weak and most of us paddled for them in vain. But we got nice left-hand rides when the take-off worked. Even though it was a soft-top, my long-board felt quite fun and agile. At least compared to the big and wide boards that I had used in Moledo.

San Vicente de la Barquera (es)

Xixón was great, but the swell forecast looked bad for the rest of the week. So I made a quick de-tour to the Picos de Europa and went hiking there. Afterwards I went to the Element Surf-Camp near San Vicente in Cantabria. I booked their free-surf package.

Playa Meron, tucked in between the rolling hills and the sea, in front of San Vicente and the Picos de Europa.

Sun, Oct 23rd, afternoon, Playa de Oyambre

Oyambre beach is just a 5 mins walk from the camp. Surf forecast said less than 1m waves with 14s intervals, so I picked a big 8′0″ soft-top board. There were several sand banks forming distinctive peak, offering mostly left-hand rides. Occasionally right-hand rights, too.

I tried several peaks during the course of the afternoon at different tides. Some worked better than others and all had distinct characters. Competition was mostly long-boarders and mini-malibus. I don’t remember all the details, but I got a lot of rides this day. I stayed for more than 4 hours, occasionally taking a short rest on the beach. Altogether the most productive session so far.

Mon, Oct 24th, afternoon, Playa de Oyambre

Waves were just slightly bigger than the day before, so I sticked with my big soft-top. Started at the sand-bank right in front of the path that leads from the surf-camp to the beach. There was quite some waiting involved, but it was rewarded with nice rides.

There was another good spot slightly further west, where there’s a stone wall stabilizing the hill slope just behind the beach. After the big surf school group left the spot, I relocated there. Waves where more powerful there, but I found it hard to read them. Often they would not have enough power, or they would close out. But I managed to be in the right spot a couple of times and got rewarding rides. Mostly to the left.

Tue, Oct 25th, afternoon, Playa de Gerra

Yet less swell, so I went over to Gerra beach, which is more exposed. (Got transfer with the Element Surf crew, who gave lessons there.) Waves where about 1m with 10s intervals.

I went to a shifty peak one or two hundred meters north-east from the Gerra car-park. Waves were very mellow there, starting to break outside, but often fading out again. When they didn’t fade out, the peak would keep rolling straight to the beach rather than to the side. With my big board I could still catch the stronger of these waves, and ride them out to the beach. Since they didn’t move to the side much, it was ideal for practicing cut-backs (or something like it). There was only one other surfer there. I wondered why he had picked a short-board, because he wasn’t catching any waves with it.

Slightly to the west the lessons crowd had a nice looking peak. Most of them were in the white-water or even doing exercises on the beach. So the line-up wasn’t too crowded and I decided to move over. One of the course participant had a long-board and looked fairly experienced. He was catching a lot waves and I soon joined him in that. We had to paddle quite hard and long to catch the waves, but we got nice long rides.

After a while I looked over to the spot from before and noticed that it was pumping now that the tide had risen. The guy with the short-board started making sense now and he had been joined by a huge crowd of other short-boarders. I tried my luck, but I just couldn’t handle the crowds. At one point I botched a take-off because there was someone who had been washed by the previous wave right in front of me. Even as I jumped off the board, it shot right at him. Luckily he was paying attention and dived away. He didn’t seem to have hard feelings though. I tried a few more times, but eventually I gave up. Pity, because it was a nice, powerful left.

Thu, Oct 27th, afternoon, Playa de Gerra

Conditions were similar to Tuesday, maybe just a little smaller. However, this wasn’t my strongest day. Blew a couple of easy pop-ups and even did several unnecessary nose-dives. At least I didn’t almost kill anyone. And in the end I got a couple nice waves.

Donostia a.k.a San Sebastian (es)

Back to Surfing Etxea in Donostia, the last stop of my surf trip.

Fri, Oct 28th, before sunset, Zurriola

Up to 2m big at 14s! I picked an 8′6″ long-board nevertheless, hoping to catch some waves far outside where they were breaking softly. But by the time I got to the beach, the tide had risen and outside was not working anymore. Not even on the biggest sets.

Instead, waves were breaking far inside, mostly closing out. There was an army of short-boarders taking off on steep waves and getting crushed by the whitewater immediately. I was scared of crowds an nose-dives, and barely went for any waves the first half hour. Eventually I caught a smaller one and rode it out to the beach.

I relocated from the center of the beach to the quay wall at the western end. Somewhat shielded from the swell, smaller waves would form close to the shore, but not closing out as badly as elsewhere. After figuring out where to sit, I got some nice waves. Still powerful by my standards, but very short rides. Almost slammed into the sand several times.

At dusk the crowds dissipated and I moved back to the center of the beach. Almost got crushed by some bigger sets, but eventually I caught some waves. They felt very powerful, but after one turn the whitewater would catch up with me. Well, at least I rode one out to the beach just as it got too dark.

Sat, Oct 29th, noonish, Zurriola

Slightly smaller today at up to 1.7m. Since it was low-tide, I figured I’d give the outside another shot and grabbed a huge 9′6″ long-board (with a volume of 70L to 80L I think). Unfortunately, I couldn’t make good use of it. The waves were just not breaking enough outside. And inside they would break too quickly and close out. In the end, I just caught a single short wave in this disappointing session.

Sat, Oct 29th, before sunset, Zurriola

Yet a little smaller and only breaking close to the shore. So I grabbed the 8′6″ from the day before. I started at the beginner spot by the quay wall. Still had trouble to position myself, but I caught a few short waves.

Later I moved towards the center of the beach again. The waves were stronger here, but they still tended to close out. Wiped out a couple of times. Also caught a couple of waves though and rode them out to the beach.

Epilogue

Well, that was it. I’ve headed back to Germany the next day.

I’ve had 25 days of surfing during the past six weeks. Some sessions were amazing and I tried and learned a lot knew things. Mostly improving my stance and positioning on the board, getting a better feeling for waves, and the way I do turns. (Use the fins, not the rails damit!)

But some sessions were still very frustrating. Before the trip, I had been hoping to switch to shorter boards eventually. But in the end, I was still struggling to catch enough waves with the bigger boards (around 8 foot) that I’m used to.

That said, I leaned that these boards have more potential than I thought. Maybe I should focus on long-boards altogether? Well, every day counts!

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