Is Mundaka dead? The winter of 2004/2005 was as strange along the farthest recesses of the Bay of Biscay as it was weird in California. But in Spain the problem wasn't so much too much rain as it was lack of swell. Beginning in January, the fabled left-hand sandbar which breaks along the rivermouth at Mundaka began to suck — from lack of swell, but also from another phenomenon that no one there had ever seen. As winter faded to spring, local Spanish surfers and disappointed travelers were left standing along the atalaya overlooking the left sandbar at Mundaka scratching their heads: "Where's the beach?"
Mysteriously and tragically, the sandbar that created one of the best sand-bottom lefthanders in the world had just disappeared.
Craig Sage has owned the Mundaka Surf Shop going back to the '80s — when Mundaka was still on the verge of legend, a perfect left-hand sandbar that broke to 12 feet and beyond in the middle of the Hobbit-like Basque Country. For more than 20 years, Sage has run a surf shop there and is now a sales manager for GSM Spain, distributing Billabong, Element, Von Zipper, Kustom and Honolua Bay Company products to the Spanish public. Sage knows Mundaka with the same intimacy that Gerry Lopez knows Pipeline and Laird Hamilton knows Jaws, but the disappearance of the sandbar has left Craig stunned: "What a mess we are in? It is so hard to believe that after so many years the state of the sand bank has deteriorated beyond recognition. Still, it has been almost four months since any swells have hit the bank and on top of that we had a very odd winter with a complete absence of strong northwest swells."
Sage was reluctant to say too much about the situation at Mundaka, because his livelihood depends on a strong sandbar, and he was waiting for a full report from the Mundaka Surf Club.
Anyone who has gotten barreled off his cabeza at Mundaka — or who has been pinned flat to the bottom by one of the most powerful sandbar waves in the world — or who has canoodled with Basque Beauties in one of the smoke- and music-filled pubs — knows that a disappeared Mundaka is a tragedy. But no one seems able to explain where that sandbar went.
Some say the disappearing sandbar was caused by the dredging of a channel at a shipyard four kilometers from Mundaka. The local Basque government is taking the situation seriously, understanding the importance of Mundaka and surf tourism to Spain's global reputation and the local economy. "We live from tourism," hotel worker Maria Rosario Alkorta was quoted in a short news piece on the Internet. "In the summer more than 10,000 surfers gather here. If they don’t come we’ll run into difficulties." Sage was quoted in the same Internet piece: "Surfing tourism is essential for this place, but there is something more. Mundaka is the symbol for surfing in Europe. If we lose it, it will be like losing part of our soul."
The Billabong Pro is scheduled for the first week of October at Mundaka, and the status of that contest is now questionable. ASP President Rabbit Bartholomew spoke from Australia about the ASP schedule, and then had a few things to say about sand: "The official word from ASP is that we are monitoring the situation at Mundaka and waiting on monthly reports from Billabong and the Mundaka Surf Club," Rabbit said by e-mail. "From a personal viewpoint, I live in an area that is totally 100% reliant on sand. A good sand configuration on the southern Gold Coast points means barrels all 'round, whereas in the past, before the Sand Bypass Project (which created the Super Bank), we experienced entire seasons where the sand did not come into the bay at Coolangatta and there was zero surf at Snapper, Rainbow and Greenmount. Then it would return as the sand cycle was completed. Often during the months August-December Kirra would go into hibernation, and because no swells came in, the Kirra bank would disintegrate and completely disappear, only to return in cyclone season courtesy of sustained wave action carrying the sand around Kirra Point. They are just observations over 40 years in a sand-reliant environment.
"This has nothing to do with Mundaka except that sand is the lifeblood of both places. Obviously if the dredging upriver has caused this then it is a different problem, but if the bank has disintegrated due to total inactivity, then the bank has atrophied and may return with seasonal swell patterns."
If Sherlock Holmes surfed, he would be all over this: The Case of the Disappeared Sandbar. A nullified Mundaka is not a good thing for the local or the global surf scene. It's as if all of a sudden, over the course of four months, Malibu just stopped breaking, or the Superbank went kaput. The mystery has yet to be solved and the future of Mundaka is still in doubt.
Stay tuned to www.surfermag.com for future updates on the situation in Euskadi.