Surfing Barcelona sos home
Most non-surfers go to the beach when the weather is fine, the sun is shining and the wind is still. It’s when the weather is less fine that things start to get interesting. That’s when the surfers start to appear, emerging like rats from the gutters whenever there’s bad weather in the air, making their way to the beach by bus, by metro, by car—even by bike. No one would suggest Barcelona was the greatest of surf destinations, but it’s fine for the occasional quick fix. The bad news, though, is that even the limited surf available here is about to get worse—and not just because of the number of surfers in the water.
The last few years have seen impressive winter storms which, while bringing great waves for surfers, also eroded a lot of sand from Barcelona’s (artificial) beaches. In order to replace it, sand was trucked in or pumped up from the sea bed. In 2005, the Spanish government and the Ajuntament decided to look for a long-term solution, resulting in a decision to build a series of sea walls to protect the city’s beaches. Under pressure from the surfing community, spearheaded by the Associació Catalana de Surf (A.C.S.) and its then president Felipe Verger, the Ajuntament agreed to consider surfers’ needs. The A.C.S commissioned a report on the possibility of an artificial reef, which would protect the beaches from the full force of the waves, while still making it possible to surf.
The report met with a warm response—until political expediency defeated environmental friendliness in the run-up to the municipal elections in May 2007. Using legislation for emergency construction work, planning applications were rushed through and an unattractive concrete island was built in the centre of Barceloneta bay, along with two submerged walls at either end of the bay. Where before there had been several punchy peaks for surfing along the length of the beach, there are now only two weak waves. Even these peaks are soon to disappear, once the submerged wall at the southern end of the bay has been extended to create a new beach in front of the hotel currently being built there. The bay will then in effect be rounded, so the force of water will be channelled out round the edges, with no possibility for waves to form. A similar effect can be seen at the Platja Nova Icaria, on the northern side of the Port Olimpic.
Worse is to come. Similar intervention is planned for the ‘Olympic’ beaches, with a sea wall three metres below the surface. Continued pressure from the A.C.S., including two high-profile demonstrations at Barceloneta which did a great deal to raise general awareness of the popularity of surfing in Barcelona, persuaded the Ajuntament to modify the design slightly, in the hope of ensuring something surfable remains, but the surfing community is pessimistic about how effective this will be. Work is due to start on the Mar Bella beach this autumn. The remaining beaches will follow, once the effect of the wall on Mar Bella has been studied.
In short, the outlook for surf in Barcelona is bleak, with more and more surfers confined to fewer and fewer breaks. Bogatell beach is currently the best option, while out of the city there is also surfing nearby at Montgat and Premía del Mar to the north, and Sitges and Castelldelfels to the south.
For the beginner, Sitges is the best place to start. Waves break thanks to pulses of energy travelling through the water, just like sound waves, light waves or even the wave that travels along a length of rope when you flick one end of it. In deep water, these pulses of energy travel unimpeded below the surface. But as soon as they encounter an obstacle in the form of a beach or a submerged reef, the pulse has nowhere to go except up, and it rises above the surface of the sea in peaks. Eventually, if the pulse is powerful enough, these peaks will break, creating the waves for which surfers are so desperate.
In the case of Sitges, the obstacle the swell encounters is a gently-shelving beach, so the waves are similarly gentle, making it the best nearby option for beginners. After Sitges, Montgat is the next best place to start. In Barcelona, the beach shelves abruptly. The waves are similarly abrupt, often creating a powerful wall of water that crashes violently on the shore, or what surfers call a ‘shore dump’. It’s not an easy wave for beginners, and even intermediate surfers can have problems. But there are plenty of surfers in the city who, when conditions are right, put on a decent show, making the most of the short, punchy waves.
If you want to join them, the best advice is to start elsewhere! Surfing looks easy enough, especially when done well. In reality, though, it’s a steep learning curve, involving hours and hours of being dragged through a salty spin cycle. Some people have managed to learn exclusively on the Mediterranean, but the majority of surfers pick up the basics at surf camps and courses in the Basque country, Portugal or even the Costa de la Luz, all of which enjoy the power and frequency of Atlantic rollers. With a decent teacher and the right board, you could be standing up, surfing white water, within a few hours, and certainly within a couple of days. After that, it’s just a question of time, persistence and dedication before you’re out the back, catching green waves, and dreaming of the day you get your first barrel.
Surfing is like trying to stand up on an ironing board balancing on a football while moving down an escalator at high speed. It might look cool to have a short fibreglass toothpick tucked under your arm, but to begin with you want something with plenty of volume. Beginners typically start on an eight- or nine-foot foam board or soft top, which not only offers better stability, but doesn’t hurt so much when you fall onto it. Which you will.
After that, most people progress onto a factory-made epoxy board in the seven- or eight-foot range, usually made by either NSP or Bic. More responsive than foam boards, they are virtually indestructible, but also offer a decent ride. Only when you’ve got the hang of one of these should you think about getting a so-called custom board, which are usually made of fibreglass. These are exceptionally delicate and you can damage (or ‘ding’) them almost just by looking at them. So it’s definitely worth getting something second-hand, at least until you’re familiar with handling a board, in and out of the water. And locate your local shaper for running repairs. You’ll need them.
Second-hand boards cost around €200-€300. Wetsuits start at around €100 for a low-quality suit from Decathlon, and €200 should get a mid-range branded suit. A four-millimetre wetsuit (or a “four-three”, four millimetres in the body, three in the arms) should be enough to see you through the Catalan winter, with perhaps boots and even a hood for when it gets really chilly, around February and March. Because once you’re hooked, you’ll think nothing of heading into the water when most people just want to curl up by the fire.
There is a school based in Montgat, which offers lessons, including board and suit hire, when conditions are suitable. Details: www.escolacatalanadesurf.com.
Various websites have links to webcams, weather forecasting sites and forums for getting advice, buying second-hand boards or finding out about surf competitions:
First published November 2008