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Pretty to Think So

At Zarautz, professional surfing hoisted the freak flag. Few remember the waves. Few have forgotten the mayhem.

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In the hamlet of Urdaneta, Autonomous Community of the Basque Country, Spain, a switchback trail runs behind a tiny stone-walled cemetery toward Mount Pagoeta. Gaining elevation, the vineyards of the slopes below give way to a steep meadow and ancient stands of oak and alder, stout trunks gnarled by the Atlantic blow. 

Eventually, the ridgeline opens up to breathtaking views of the coast, the Bay of Biscay sparkling in the summer sun. Despite the ocean looking static from a few miles back, lines of surf appear as an unrelenting attritional train. Fringing sand and rock are deposited in brilliant white. A few bays east, just out of view, lies San Sebastian, as handsome a city as you’ll find anywhere on the continent. A dozen or so brutal headlands west sits Mundaka, with a wave as fine as anywhere in the known surf sphere.

Looking down from the ridge, however, provides a quieter view: a mile of mineral sands that meet the seawall and narrow streets and plazas of Zarautz, a town where the professional-surfing tribe of the 1980s and 90s once gathered in unique fashion for an equally unique event. 

Organized by its namesake Basque-based surfboard brand, which was founded in 1979 by Iñigo Letamendia and Marian and Miguel Azpiroz, the Pukas Pro Zarautz ran from 1980 to 1999. It began as a local comp in San Sebastian before a move to the town in question in 1988, having been upgraded to an official ASP World Tour event with its waiting period coinciding with a traditional Basque folk festival. 

Photo by Sarge

That combination almost immediately saw the event establish itself as an unmissable fixture on the European leg. The town’s extracurricular activities became those of infamy and legend in competitive-surfing circles. Pukas Pro Zarautz winners include world champs Damien Hardman, Derek Ho, and Sunny Garcia, all of whom embraced the unique spirit of the event—the unlikely juxtaposition of an exploding global surf culture and the celebration of ancient local customs then suppressed by authoritarian rule. Shared values of libertarianism and nonconformity were forged late at night through early morning in the bars that line the old town’s medieval thoroughfares.

Looking down on Zarautz from high on the mountain over two decades after the fact, on the right evening with the right eyes, you can almost make out the mark where the sun rose and then set on surfing’s golden era of pro-tour hedonism. What follows is an accounting of that place and period, sourced directly from the event’s founders, organizers, and participants, all of whom were undoubtedly affected by its brief but profound position in surf history. 

Iñigo Letamendia
Pukas cofounder

It was pure coincidence that the event happened to be held during Euskal Jaia, the traditional Basque fiesta in Zarautz. We had to run it right after the France contests in early September, and that weekend is when the Basque fiesta runs every year. From a marketing point of view, it was a masterstroke, but in reality, it was the only week we could possibly run it. So having the traditional fiesta happening in a small town, with the 80s pro-tour surfers, certainly made for an interesting mix. The tour surfers looked like rock stars. To the local folk here for the fiesta, they looked like aliens dropped into town from another planet. 

Brad Gerlach
professional surfer

I was just out of high school when I got to Europe, and so naïve. My mind was just blown. I stayed away from the drugs, for the most part, but it was definitely sex and rock ‘n’ roll. Tour was a bit like a fraternity: “I fuckin’ hate that guy…wait, I actually love that guy.” Lots of rivalries, and then these drunk truths would come out every now and then. But some didn’t play the game at all. Elko [Gary Elkerton] and Tom Curren, they were never at parties—full Mr. Serious. Elko wouldn’t even look at you. Tom would beat you in a heat, and then you’d go to shake his hand and he’d give you a limp, dead fish. There was lots of attitude, and lots of getting lost.

Marian Azpiroz
Pukas cofounder

In France, you needed a wristband to get into the contests. Things were much more official, serious. But in Zarautz, all the staff knew all the surfers by name; we didn’t need VIP areas or even much security. We wanted a warm, free-spirited, family event. We felt a bit in the shadow of France and the big events there, and we really just wanted to share our values and our culture. It was chaos, but a nice chaos.

Iñigo Letamendia

We put “Euskadi” on the event poster, which is the name for the Basque Country in the Basque language, which raised a few eyebrows. One year, there was a boycott in the lineup during a heat, [when] a local guy paddled out and staged a protest for Basque independence. Those issues were never far from the surface in the 80s. Maybe that’s why there were more liberal attitudes toward partying, because there were much bigger issues to deal with. The authorities didn’t really care if people were smoking weed or drinking in the street, because there was more serious stuff afoot—bombings, fugitives hiding out in the hills. Maybe there was a bit of an outlaw spirit here, a kind of anarchy of being off the beaten track or up the river, so to speak. And the surfers, especially the Australians and Hawaiians, loved that. 

Robbie Page
professional surfer

Zarautz was the apex, the Woodstock, of surfing. [In] those days we were like a family traveling the world. The Zarautz event felt like the best family gathering, the wedding of the summer. I rocked up in Europe in 1984, aged 17. It’s like when you’re with a beautiful girl, but at that age you still don’t realize you’re actually with her until somebody taps you on the shoulder and tells you. The tour back then was the freest time ever, the peak of liberty.

Rod Kerr
professional surfer

It really was life lived in the moment. One week you’re winning and eating lobster and filet mignon, the next week you’re broke and smashing baguettes with cheese. I was rolling with guys like Ross Clarke-Jones and Sanga [Mark Sainsbury] and the Hawaiians: John Shimooka, Sunny, Derek and Michael Ho. I was pretty loose, but Shmoo was a rock star. He had long hair and tattoos. He introduced me to heavy metal music, just everything 100 miles per hour. 

Al Hunt
ASP tour manager

The mid to late 80s were definitely the best of times on the tour. Everyone traveled from event to event jammed into small cars or on the same flights. There wasn’t really enough prize money to support entourages, coaches, [and] families, but the money available kept everyone going, just enough to pay for whatever was needed. The Pukas Pro Zarautz was seen by the surfers as a great event to party at, with fantastic hospitality from the Pukas clan, who treated all the surfers like royalty.

Marian Azpiroz

Traditionally, the matriarchy is a strong part of Basque culture, and our competition was no exception. We were five women running things for the event: myself, the tourism office, the local police liaison, the admin. Because of that, we had no problems with ego, and things ran pretty smoothly. We paid all the surfers in cash; they’d come get their prize money right after they lost. We also had to be kind of like therapists and console them. I remember feeling responsible for their well-being. They were a long way from home, and more emotionally vulnerable than they let on.

Iñigo Letamendia

Sunny and Shmoo rocked up one year just as we were leaving to go surf a secret spot, and pleaded with us to bring them. We took them, and from then on, we were friends for life. [Sunny] became like a son and a brother in our family. We’d pick him up in Bordeaux, and he’d stay in our home. For the Pipe Masters in 1995, when he was going for the world title, he put us all up—my wife, Marian, [and] our kids, Tala and Adur—in Gerry Lopez’s house in front of Pipeline. There were all these heavies around, and he was like, “The Basques are with me.” Sunny wasn’t a party guy, he didn’t like to drink or smoke, but he just felt really at home here. Being away was really hard on him, but he just relaxed here and let his guard down. This became a home [away] from home for him for years, a bit of a sanctuary. 

Marian Azpiroz

Sunny Garcia would walk down the street and people would grab him. Women, young and old, would throw flowers down on him from the balconies in the old town: “Hola, guapo!” He was such a beautiful young man.

Damien Hardman
professional surfer

We would spend about three months per year in Europe. Zarautz always coincided with the big Basque festival, [and] everyone would get dressed up in the traditional Basque outfits. The entire town would march into the town square, holding hands and drinking red wine. I remember Tom Carroll, myself, Bainy [Rob Bain], Dave Macaulay—all of us dressed up and going full Basque, getting drunk and dancing in the streets. The event counted toward the world title, so we were all hungry and trying to win, but it could go pretty late and things could get pretty loose. Shmoo and Rod used to go pretty hard. Wherever they were, there was fun happening. Or trouble. [Laughs.] Occy had a few strange years in Europe. I remember him putting sand from the beach in his coffee, instead of sugar, and drinking it. Obviously this was all pre-phones, [so] you could pretty much get away with anything. Most of the guys would be in jail if there had been camera phones around back then.

Rob Bain
professional surfer

We were like backpackers that just happened to be doing a surfing tour. You did your best, and then you had a good time. And Zarautz was definitely a place where you could let your hair down. Properly appreciating the cultural side probably comes a bit later, but even when you’re young, you’re hit with it as soon as you land in Europe. As far as France, Spain, the Basque Country, Portugal—we’d never experienced anything like it. A lot of us had only ever seen Australia and maybe Bali. From a surf point of view, Zarautz was tricky. But the people are what made it. They’re hardworking and fairly hard-drinking, but mostly just really accommodating. There was lots of madness.

Al Hunt

I remember going to the contest for the morning start straight from the fiesta, along with several surfers and event staff. The bars that lined the seafront stayed open until daybreak, and the town square went crazy every night. Although the beach was not a great place for surf, most times it would be packed every day until siesta time, then empty, then packed again ’til sundown with everyone watching the surfing. Then the surfers would go out at night, and they were out of control.


South African Justin Strong, post-heat ecstasy after completing his leg of the contest’s tag-team relay. Photo by Sarge

To be sure, the event was marked by more than sheer debauchery. The surfing, though, mirrored the beachside energy. (From left to right) Martin Potter, high speed and ready for impact. A rapt crowd looking for interface. Robbie Page, faith in his rail and turning the corner. From left to right: Rob Bain, Cheyne Horan, Damien Hardman, and Barton Lynch in traditional Basque regalia.

Rob Bain

One year, [either] 1990 or ’91, I was leading the ratings in Europe, challenging for the world title. I was training really hard, past my party days. I was under a bit of pressure, and had been straight for a period of time. I had a quarterfinal in Zarautz against Gary Elkerton, and he and I go way back competing against each other. I lost by, like, a quarter of a point. I got ripped off, and I snapped. I went out and just had this wild night, dancing on a bar. I ended up out the back of town, asleep in a farmer’s field somewhere, and woke up with flies all buzzing around me, the sun beating down. I got really sick for the next two events and lost my chance at a world title, all from that night.

Rod Kerr

Me, another pro surfer, and two girls were bodysurfing in the nude one morning after the nightclub when I heard, “Rodd Kerr, please check in for your heat.” I ran down, grabbed one of the boys’ boards, someone’s trunks. I had Richie Collins. He was a big Christian, doing Hail Marys and praying. In Zarautz, the crowd would wade right out in the water, up to their knees. We were surfing a rip bank, and I got this right that turns into a left and goes back onto the bank and into the crowd. I was shouting, “Get out the way!” And they were cheering. Then I started puking, all over their legs. It was just awful. I came in thinking, “Thank God that’s over. I’m going home to bed,” but the boys were like, “Nah, mate, you flogged him. You’re through.” Richie was mortified—just humiliated more than anything else. I was like, “Mate, I am so sorry.” Then I beat Derek Ho. I still hadn’t been to bed. So I went home—I was staying with Shmoo and Gary Green—and I crashed out. I hear, “Where is he? Get him the fuck up.” It was Richie, with a bottle of Johnny Walker, and he didn’t even drink. I’m like, “Mate, I’m in the finals tomorrow. I haven’t slept for two days. Please…” He was just, “Get up.” So we were back on it, him and I out in the town square. He was swinging from the chandeliers and drinking whiskey, and I was just like, “What have I done?” Sure enough, the next day I lost.

Robbie Page

One year, it was the finals weekend and we all decided to make hash pancakes. Everybody had these big blocks of hash and brought them around to my place to make the pancakes. We had a blast. [The] next morning, we all got on a bus to the next event. And Nicky Wood’s girl was on there, but no Nick. The driver waited for an hour. We saw Nicky come down from one of the big apartments in the nude, running and shouting something incoherent at someone. He took a look at us all sitting on the bus, gave us a big thumbs-up and grinned, then just ran off. He’d had so many pancakes, he didn’t know what was going on. Well, off we went without him. It was an all-day drive down to Figueira da Foz, and we got lost a few times. [But] we get there, and there’s Nick, sitting outside a café, drinking a cup of coffee, just laughing his head off.

Brad Gerlach

In the summer of 1989, me and Marty Thomas bailed Newquay for London and partied like The Stones. We stayed in the most expensive hotel we could find. The next day, we woke up, grabbed the phone book, and found a bike shop. We bought motorbikes and hit the road through Europe. When we rocked up at the beach, the boys were all on it hard—Hoyo [Matt Hoy], Pagey, RCJ [Ross Clarke-Jones], the full tour. Bainy was smoking a cig with one eye shut, blind drunk. Tim Baker was setting his pubes on fire. Derek Hynd was dancing. We had a drink and heard this “Beep, beep!” and it’s Greg Day riding past on Marty’s bike, with Rod Kerr standing up on the back of the bike, arms in the air, completely nude. I ended up losing a quarterfinal in Zarautz to Sunny Garcia by, like, 0.1 point. But that whole summer was just an incredible adventure.

Photo by Sylvain Cazenave

Robbie Page

I won Pipe in 1988. Obviously, it went to me head: I ended up in jail four years later. [Laughs.] [But] we were part of the glue that bonded the whole global surfing community together. We were high off traveling, meet-ing each other, and surfing. It was all fresh. It was dog eat dog, but it was a brotherhood. I realized that to do it right, you had to try and be a chameleon, get into the local scene everywhere we went: French in France, Spanish in Spain. And nowhere was that more true than in Zarautz, where we were truly embraced and taken in as their own like nowhere else. 

Rob Bain

Everyone thinks their period is the best. There was good and bad in our era. Everywhere you went was a party, and it was easy to get sucked in. In a way, it was an unrealistic lifestyle, one that couldn’t last. But then there were parts that were just brilliant. Zarautz, to me, was about the local hardworking people celebrating who they are, their region, and everything that they do. That would shine through in the partying. It wasn’t oblivion. It was a celebration of real things. And to have a surf contest at the same time as the fiesta, to have a bullfight going on at the beach, people running with the bulls, us all dressed up in traditional Basque clothing—we were swept up in that. 

Derek Hynd
sick man of Europe

Zarautz was a cultural watershed in the sport’s history, an event that holds power as a soul-pumping experience that stays with a surfer for life. For sheer goodwill, the hospitality cannot be beaten. Back in the 80s, from San Sebastian to Zarautz, was to my mind the perfect Left Bank society. The thinking, the philosophical art innately coming from so many human angles—indelible. Goodwill is easy to talk of, but it’s unfathomably difficult to pull off time and time again, in a teeming- crowd situation. Artistic mindset played a consequential role in this, and the Pukas family ruled in this regard.

[Feature Image: Derek Hynd and friends, embracing hard athletics and Biscay aesthetic appreciation Photo by Ted Grambeau.]