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Riding out the crisis on Spanish surf

Rather than mope around at home, legions of unemployed Spaniards are riding out the economic crisis on some of the best waves in Europe, driving a surf boom on the country’s northern breaks.
With one in four now out of a job in Spain, surf professionals say the number of surfers has jumped these past two to three years on the stretch of rugged coastline from western Galicia to the border with France.
“I think people are taking their unemployment money and just deciding to surf as much as they can,” said Michael Dobos, who runs a surf school in the village of Mundaka, home to some of the continent’s most sought-after waves.
“Since the crisis broke there are three times more people in the water,” said Federico Ibazetor, who runs the Cabo Billano surf school in nearby Plentzia.
Both Dobos and Agustin Ciriza, a surf instructor who runs the San Sebastian-based activity tour company, Gorilla Trip, agreed with the estimate.
“They don’t have work, so they have more time to surf. They are mainly young because it is easier to lay off young people than older ones,” Ibazetor added.
Surfers in Plentzia point at beach parking lots which once stood almost empty on weekdays, now full.
“At 10 a.m. on a Monday there are lots of people getting ready to surf or in the water,” said Nicolas Vazquez, stripping out of his wetsuit.
Vazquez is finishing an economics degree, but the friends he surfs with in and around Plentzia are mainly unemployed construction workers or car mechanics.
And it’s not only manual workers who have more time to surf.
Marine biologist Mikel Serrano has been out of college for two years and hasn’t had a fixed work contract yet.
“It’s a month here, four months there. We are all unemployed,” he said, pointing to a group of surfers eating sandwiches in Plentzia’s car park.
“There is less work, fewer grants, less research and less scientific investigation. It’s tough.”
Another man from Bilbao, who didn’t want to give his name, wished he had less time to surf.
“I’ve been out of work for nine months now. It’s very hard,” he said as he locked up a spotless Jaguar, grabbed his board and headed for the water.
While long-time surfers are slightly put out by the increased numbers, surf schools are delighted.
Competition between schools has driven lesson costs down. In Mundaka a two-hour group lesson costs 30 euros ($ 40) including wetsuit and board rental. Prices in San Sebastian are similar or less.
At the Prado Surf School in Galicia a set of four classes a month costs only 54 euros in winter.
For the last two summers schools say classes were not only full, but business continued right up to and past, the mid-Autumn holidays, as cash-strapped families apparently decided to take domestic holidays rather than travel abroad.
“You can see three generations in the water together these days, grandfather, father and son,” said one manager.
School managers also say surfing in Europe — long associated with drug-taking, skipping school and generally lazing about — has ditched that negative image.
Instead, surfing manages to combine the image of a healthy, nature-oriented sport, and one that still gives off “cool” vibes, said Gorilla Trip’s Ciriza.
Or as a Mundaka surfer said, “There are pijos (posh people) in the water now.”
Spanish surf shops, on the other hand, have failed to cash in on the boom.
Ripped wetsuits and dinged-up boards are not a problem for surfers, generally indicating the owner is more than just a “grom,” or beginner.
Groms are voted most likely to ruin an experienced surfer’s wave, simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
If they have to buy, many surfers these days choose either cheaper board brands, or root around for second hand equipment. A used board, plus wetsuit, can be had for about 300 euros.
The lack of cash for expensive new gear means retail businesses are fragile, said Jaime Azpiroz who is distribution manager for Olatu, Europe’s biggest surfboard factory.
The company, which is just outside San Sebastian, makes boards for up-market brands such as Lost, Channel Islands and one of Spain’s favorites, Pukas.
That said, when it comes to basic surf equipment — fins, boards, leashes and wax — Azpiroz says between 2009 and 2012 he’s seen an annual increase of about 10 percent in sales.

Billabong, another major surf brand, has seen a similar 10 percent increase in sales of basic surf gear over the period.
By comparison, sales of Billabong’s clothing line — known as “non-technical” goods — have been down about 20 percent a year since 2009, said the company’s Spanish representative, Dani Garcia.

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