The Canaries have long been referred to by traveling surfers as the “Hawaii of the Atlantic,” because of punishing reef break barrels like this one. Josemi Mentado samples the Canary Islands’ version of Backdoor. Photo: Lugo
The Canaries have long been referred to by traveling surfers as the “Hawaii of the Atlantic,” because of punishing reef break barrels like this one. Josemi Mentado samples the Canary Islands’ version of Backdoor. Photo: Lugo

In The Shadow of Giants

The waves of the Canary Islands are as beautiful as they are terrifying, which is exactly how local surfer Jonathan Gonzalez and his friends like them

No one knows exactly how or when the Canary Islands were first settled, but the indigenous Guanches people existed on them, 60 miles off the southern coast of Morocco, for centuries before the Spanish conquest in the 1400s. The volcanic isles of Tenerife, Fuerteventura, Gran Canaria, Lanzarote, La Palma, La Gomera, El Hierro, Alegranza, Isla de Lobos, Montaña Clara and others balance seemingly opposite traits, with some areas overgrown and tropical while others resemble barren deserts. Some assert that this paradoxical land was the inspiration for the Greek poet Homer's Elysium, where the righteous went to enjoy eternity.

In terms of surf, the Canaries were pioneered by vacationing Englishmen in the late 1960s. The first Canarian locals picked up whatever equipment the travelers left behind, exploring spots like Las Américas on Tenerife and some of the friendlier, sandier waves on other islands. By the late '70s a small but dedicated culture had emerged, with local surfers discovering countless perfect barrels grinding over ruthless volcanic rock. For much of the '80s, these treacherous breaks were ridden primarily by an unhinged group of bodyboarders, while hard-charging surfers also explored the big-wave setups off Lanzarote, North Tenerife and beyond.

Over the last few decades, the Canaries have earned a reputation for some of the most aggressive localism on the planet, with pecking orders allegedly as fierce as Pipeline's and some surfers even heaving sticks and stones from the cliffs on vacationers eager to surf the "Hawaii of the Atlantic."

If the tales of localism aren't enough to dissuade traveling surfers, the fickle nature of the waves is sure to seal the deal. Swell and wind forecasts for the islands change wildly from day to day, hour to hour, making even the nimblest strike mission a risky proposition.

In spite of these factors, or perhaps because of them, I decided to investigate these untamed isles earlier this year and boarded a plane bound for Europe, hoping to witness the Canaries' famously beautiful, brutal surf firsthand and meet those who feel most at home in those daunting lineups.

Pro surfer Jonathan Gonzalez has been surfing the Canaries since he was 12 years old. That's the kind of commitment it takes to unlock the tumblers in a surf landscape this localized and mind-numbingly fickle. Photo: Lugo

"If you're going to the Canaries, you call Jonathan," Spanish surfer Gony Zubizarreta told me, referring to his close friend and Canarian standout Jonathan Gonzalez. I had met with Zubizarreta in Portugal, which we'd picked as a home base to wait for the proper window to head to the Canaries. Over the last 20 years, Gonzalez and Zubizarreta have traveled the world together, following the World Qualifying Series and sharing countless sessions in the Canary Islands. "The Canaries can be so incredible, and so frustrating," Zubizarreta continued. "The consistent spots can be really crowded and localized. The off-the-beaten path waves need really specific swell directions, tides and winds, and Jonathan has this incredible understanding of those waves and how to read those local winds. When he says move, you move."

Gonzalez was born in Venezuela to Canarian parents; his father drove semis when Gonzalez was a child and saved every dime he earned to move the family back to the Canary Islands, which he did when Gonzalez was 6 years old. Gonzalez's father got his taxi license in Tenerife, the largest and most populated of the Canary Islands, and has been driving there ever since. At around age 12, Gonzalez and his friends became interested in surfing, pushing each other into waves along the beaches near Acantilados de los Gigantes, "Cliffs of the Giants," which are some of the most spectacular volcanic façades on the planet.

"We had one board," Gonzalez would later tell me, "an old shortboard from the '80s that someone had left behind. The nose was broken off at the tip, but we didn't care."

Gonzalez improved quickly, challenging himself along the myriad rock reefs lining his local shores. By the time he was 17, Gonzalez was the Canaries' first international pro surfer, having won a handful of contests in Europe and abroad, including a World Junior Championship. Now 36, Gonzalez is considered one of the best-ever European surfers and one of the most knowledgeable wave-hunters around.

Gonzalez said he'd give us a day's notice if he saw something promising on the charts, and a week later Zubizarreta and I landed in Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, where Canary Islands bodyboarding legend turned water photographer Ardiel Jimenez and Floridian photographer Nicola Lugo were waiting.

Those sheer cliffs are a dead giveaway for the source of the Canaries' power. When deepwater swells meet abruptly-rising ocean floor, there will be fireworks. Photo: Lugo

Gonzalez hopped a ferry from his home in Tenerife to meet us at one of the island's most high-performance waves, a wedging right-hand double-up that pitched a thick barrel before backing off with a few beautiful open-faced sections. Pulling into the dirt lot, our group watched as a telescoping right began to tear across the lava-rock reef, eventually sending a billowing cloud of spit into the channel. The lineup was filled with a few surfers and a dozen bodyboarders jostling for waves, hooting for each other as each set wave jacked up on the reef.

Gonzalez was already in the water, picking off mid-size gems amid the pack and taking off deep to position himself behind the foamball. Zubizarreta and I paddled out hastily and attempted to follow suit, succeeding mainly in getting mowed down by freak set waves that washed through the pack. Eventually Zubizarreta scraped into a double-up for a quick barrel followed by two full-rail hacks and a closing fin-blow on the final section.

The right-hander was intimidatingly powerful off the drop, but, according to Jimenez, surfing that break was like using training wheels compared to riding many of the other local breaks. At dinner that night, the veteran Canary surfers of our group traded stories of ferocious slabs and the unhinged surfers who commit themselves to charging them.

Opening a cold Dorada, Zubizarreta offered me his phone. "You should see Luisito at some of these waves," he said, playing a video of young Luis "Presa Canario" Diaz air-dropping into the closest thing the Atlantic has to a First Reef Pipe wave.

It's a misconception that the Canary Islands are named for the bird occasionally found in the trees around Tenerife, Gran Canaria and elsewhere. "Islas Canarias" is actually derived from Canariae Insulae to mean "Islands of the Dogs" — and not just any dogs. The Perro de Presa Canario is one of the most impressive canine breeds in the world, squat, densely muscled and deceptively agile for its bulky build. The breed is the symbol of the Canary Islands and a fitting nickname for 17-year-old Diaz. A stocky goofyfoot with a boxer's build, Diaz has the on-rail quickness of a young Bobby Martinez with a technical air game to boot. But what truly separates Diaz from his peers is his complete comfort in heavy barrels, which he developed over years of charging the shallowest slabs in the islands.

A few years ago, Diaz was knocked unconscious surfing one of these slabs and nearly drowned. He doesn't remember much from the incident — just paddling for the wave and then waking up en route to the hospital. For a while after, he wore a helmet, but he never even considered shying away from the kind of shallow, treacherous tubes that nearly killed him.

"I stopped wearing the helmet after a while," Diaz told me, "because when I wore one I felt uncomfortable, and I've never felt uncomfortable in the water. I didn't want that to change. That will always be my comfort zone: those waves."

The swell we'd come for was running late, but the forecast showed it growing in size. Gonzalez made phone calls and pored over wind charts online. Knowing Gonzalez's heavy-water bona fides, and with the swell increasing, I was slightly terrified to have him making decisions as to where we would surf.

"I think we should get the 5 a.m. ferry to Tenerife," Gonzalez said. "We can surf a wave near my home in the morning, which I think will be very big and barreling. And then I want to look at this new wave."

Gonzalez explained that there was a break accessible only by boat that he'd had his eye on, and the sizeable swell and promising wind forecast for the zone could mean we'd get a chance to see a truly rare bird. His eyes were wide as he spoke, and I could hear the faint but distinct sound of a thundering set rolling over a nearby reef in the darkness.

World Qualifying Series? What's that? Zubizarreta about a million mental miles away from the pro tour ratings points chase. Photo: Lugo

The 5 a.m. ferry from Gran Canaria to Tenerife was empty save for a few boardbags and their bleary eyed owners. After the hour-and-a-half boat ride, we were back on the road when Gonzalez turned on the radio and heard that the incoming swell was already wreaking havoc along the coast. Several people had been reported missing or dead after incoming waves sucked them out of one of the naturally occurring pools fronting the ocean. Rescue teams were searching desperately.

We couldn't see the waves from the parking area, but Gonzalez insisted there was no time for a surf check; if it was going to be good, it would be good at that very moment, and there was no sense in wasting time. We hiked around a craggy bend in the coast until we saw a hefty, feathering peak resembling Sunset Beach standing up in the cove below. A thin brown mist hung over the horizon. Dust from the Sahara, called calima by the locals, is a windborne gift, aiding the ocean ecosystem in the region by bringing iron for phytoplankton and serving as the foundation of the aquatic food chain.

Gonzalez and Zubizarreta paddled into the empty lineup and proceeded to trade thick-lipped barrels at the cove's center peak. Gonzalez possesses a dancer's lean strength and bodily intelligence, making him incredibly fast in the water not just when riding a wave, but also in paddling and positioning. In mere moments, Gonzalez would cut a swath across the lineup, scratching into waves just in time to glide in underneath the lip.

I took aim at a few barrels but found only closeouts and, eventually, a set wave that broke on top of me, snapping my leash and sending me clamoring over urchin-covered rocks. As I mapped the constellation of spines in my throbbing foot back on land, Gonzalez back-doored a wedging right barrel amid the low rumble of a helicopter searching for the missing bathers somewhere in the distance.

"The other wave I want to check, I've only seen it break once," Gonzalez said after the session, referring to the fickle nearby reef he'd mentioned the night before. "We weren't even looking for it the first time. We were surfing another wave along the cliffs and just saw something and got curious. And there it was."

That afternoon, we paddled from a nearby harbor into open water, where Gonzalez's friend Johnny Dámaso was waiting on his fishing boat, Sofia. Like his father before him, Dámaso makes his living running a charter fishing outfit in Tenerife, combing the local waters for marlin, tuna and wahoo. In his downtime, he hunts a different kind of game — namely, barreling surf.

Dámaso pointed Sofia straight into the shadows of the 2,000-foot-tall cliffs of Los Gigantes. Down the coast, Gonzalez eyed the corner he'd seen on his last voyage. We motored into an amphitheater-like cove tucked into the cliffs and watched from behind as a lump of neon-blue water grew, the lip catching a sliver of light before entering the shadows and exploding, sending whitewater skyward in spectacular fashion.

"I think it's working," Gonzalez said, smiling widely through a sunscreen-caked face. We dove off the boat and paddled in to get a better look, and Gonzalez and Zubizarreta made their way to what looked like the takeoff spot. Rising up out of deep water, a crystal-clear wedge formed with steps and boils popping up in the face.

Zubizarreta picked off the first wave, made the drop and pulled up under the lip as the water sucking off the shelf revealed dry boulders just 20 feet from his outside rail. He bottom-turned hard to pierce through the face and out the back, yelling at the top of his lungs as the wave closed out behind him.

Gonzalez's feline agility saw him position himself perfectly when the biggest wave of the day tore through the cove. The lip flared up just as he got to his feet and pulled up and under the lip with a slight crouch, pumping furiously before disappearing from view for several seconds. I'd assumed he'd been ground up by the wave, but then saw him kick out into the channel just before the wave exploded into the cliffs.

As the sun drained from the sky, it was clear that neither of the two surfers wanted this session to end. They grew more comfortable with each set, getting emboldened to take off later, deeper, and to kick out ever closer to the dry rocks inside. They screamed each other into waves and laughed maniacally after each ride. To them, moments like these are what surfing the Canaries is all about.

"I've been coming to visit Jonathan for almost 20 years," Zubizarreta would later tell me. "I've never seen anything like this. And to think it's right here — you just need to look a little bit further."

Plenty of nooks and crannies here alright. Just have to be willing to put in the time. And the miles. Photo: Lugo

Fuerteventura translates to "strong fortune," but before the Spanish conquest, the island was known as Planaria for its moonscape scenery. As one of the closest of the Canary Islands to the African continent, Fuerteventura's landscape has been blown flat by centuries of fierce Saharan winds. Flying low over the southern tip, you can see miles of desolate coastline with sand-bottom points and vibrant blue water. The winds make for a bumpy ride and an interesting landing.

With a west swell coming, and lots of wind, our last two days would be spent a little closer to Africa. Gonzalez claimed that the island of Fuerteventura would be holding the best conditions, so we met up with Canarian surfer Juan Mendez del Hoyo, as well as visiting pros Peter Mendia from Florida and Alex Botelho from southern Portugal, and booked last-minute tickets to the windy isle.

We were picked up at the airport by Franito Saenz, one of the most talented goofyfoots to come from the Canaries. Saenz has known Gonzalez since he was a promising junior and spent years traveling with him during his early days on Tour. Now Saenz runs a surf camp on Lanzarote, the easternmost of the Canary Islands, where he lives and surfs everything from reef slabs to sand points to La Santa, one of the Atlantic's heaviest waves.

We drove toward the coast through a landscape that looked straight out of "Mad Max." A ruler-straight highway cut across a flat plain of volcanic rock and sand stretching to the horizon. Eventually the paved highway ended and gave way to a dirt road, where packs of ATVs and 4WD trucks tore across the dusty track, leaving clouds behind them.

Once we reached the island's southern end, we found a little cove with a right barreling onto a rock slab. As the tide filled in and the shelf was covered by a thin cushion of water, sets began to go square on the slab's outside corner, draining along 20 yards of shallow fingers of rock.

"There are going to be good barrels out there," Gonzalez said, already halfway into his wetsuit.

I nervously paddled out behind Gonzalez and del Hoyo while a crisp offshore wind blew hard across the flat plains. Del Hoyo scratched into a right mere feet from the rocks and squared up on his backhand as the wave went dry behind him. Much like Gonzalez, del Hoyo surfs with an incredible amount of comfort in hairy surf, seemingly unfazed by the prospect of leaving skin and blood on barely submerged slabs of volcanic rock.

A set approached just as I made my way to the top of the slab. Gonzalez shifted deeper as the wave drew the water off the rocks in front of him and he took the drop with surgical precision, his eyes following the lip as it fell in front of him; he disappeared from view. Moments later, a gentle puff of spray followed him out onto the shoulder, where he could hear hoots from the car park. Zubizarreta, Mendia and Botelho scrambled to join in on the session, and Saenz climbed onto the cliff above and began jokingly throwing rocks at the small foreign crew.

That night, on the eve of our departure, our crew stayed at a surf camp that had just opened nearby. We stood around a bonfire, warming ourselves in the crisp desert night. Saenz, Gonzalez and Zubizarreta shared stories of chasing waves and 'QS points around the world, and the shenanigans they'd gotten into with European cohorts Eneco and Kepa Acero, Hodei Collazo and Aritz Aranburu, both abroad and along the stark Canarian coast. They've found perfect surf and high adventure across the globe, but it's clear that, to them, nothing could ever hold a candle to what they've found on these isles.

"It's a beautiful life here, for a surfer," Gonzalez said. "There are so many incredible waves, if you have the patience and the skill. It's never been easy here. The generations that came before me explored all these islands on their own, without any forecasts to rely on. And now there's a new generation of kids growing up all over the Canary Islands, charging the heaviest waves from Lanzarote to Gran Canaria and Tenerife."

If Gonzalez and his friends are any indication, being a surfer on the Islands of the Dogs requires dedication as well as the ability to greet fear with a smile. Homer may have believed the Canary Islands were Elysium, where the righteous went when they died, but it seems this is where the righteous live today.

[This feature originally appeared in the 58.5 Issue of SURFER, on newsstands and available for download now.]

Insert Hawaiian wave comparison here. Photo: Lugo