MEET: This Surfer's Act of Heroism in 1977 is Why We Can All Enjoy Mundaka Nowadays

Matt Rode

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Updated 64d ago

Last month, we shared the legendary story of one of the more pivotal sessions at Mundaka, when a group of surfers rescued two local fishermen and in the space of an afternoon changed the town’s entire attitude toward visiting surfers.

The daughter of one of those rescuers saw the story and connected us with her father, who was the first person to reach the drowning fishermen on that fateful day in 1977. Kevin Gorman was kind enough to give us a first-hand account of the day, relaying the full story about the moment when Mundaka became a legitimate surf town where wave riders were welcomed guests rather than simply a tolerated nuisance.

Live cam: Mundaka

December 15, 1977 - words by Kevin Gorman
It was a long time ago, but some things stick in your mind as if it were yesterday.

I can still see the terror in the eyes of the mid-50s Basque fisherman Juan Jose Castresana standing up in his seven-metre open fishing boat, which he’d named the Beti Salada. His nephew, Andoni Urresti, was sitting next to him, looking up at his uncle as if he could fix everything—but there was no way out. I was only a few metres away from them, but there was nothing l could do to stop what was about to happen. As the 4-5 foot wave passed under my board, l looked down on them from the crest and could only helplessly watch it play out.

Newspaper clipping from the time.

Newspaper clipping from the time.

As a 19-year-old Australian l had come to Mundaka with Simon Leslie to surf the town’s fantastic lefts. We had been at university the previous year and long planned to come to Mundaka together. Simon had spent five months there two years earlier, and often recounted stories of just how good these lefts were and how unique the setting was—being able to paddle through the port of Mundaka and then arrive at the takeoff point beyond the wharf walls in less than a minute.

The main problem on this day was not so much the size of the wave or the fast current that swept out the river mouth after it broke, but rather that many Basque fishermen at that time could not swim to save themselves.

It was mid-morning on a sunny day, and the tide was getting lower as the first waves started to break. Juan Jose later stated that he thought the tide was high enough that he could get away with coming in without hugging the coast more closely, as the fishermen would ordinarily do. About 10 or so foreign surfers (Aussies, English, and American) were up at the headland fence line, watching the scene and waiting to be tempted enough to make the move and get in the water themselves. I wanted to be there when it got going, so l was first in.

I don’t think l had even caught my first wave when Juan Jose was caught by the set. The first wave hit the boat side-on and knocked both the fishermen into the rapidly moving water. Within seconds they were being rushed down the line like a freight train by the whitewater and pushed towards the open, deeper water of the river mouth. They were quickly separated from their boat, and started panicking trying to keep their heads above water to breathe. The surfers on the headland yelled for me to catch the next wave of the set and get to them quickly.

The surfers on the headland yelled for me to catch the next wave of the set and get to them quickly

Never had I been so nervous paddling for a wave—desperate not to fall off or get caught by a section ahead of me. Fortunately l was able to flick off the wave about 20 metres or so from where the two fishermen were trying to keep their heads above water. I paddled quickly towards them, reaching Juan first. He frantically tried to climb on top of me to get safe, but I slid off the surfboard and got him to hold onto it. I then moved towards Andoni and helped him get to the board.

A letter of thanks Kevin received for helping out.

A letter of thanks Kevin received for helping out.

The two fishermen sat at either end of the board, facing each other while I steadied it from the middle, and they eventually started to feel safe. I only knew about five words of Spanish at that stage of my visit, so I kept saying “Esta bien” or “It’s ok.”

Within a few minutes, another surfer, Guy Marriot from Sydney, paddled out and rode a wave at high speed down the line. Joining me, he was able to help steady them, and they finally began to settle down.

A short time later, another boat arrived and the fishermen were hauled into it and then taken to hospital. Both were bleeding, and Juan Jose had injured his head when the initial wave hit the Beti Salada. 
By now, all the townspeople were gathered by the fence line, watching the drama unfold. Immediately after the fishermen were saved, the attention turned towards rescuing the boat, which had become marooned on the sandbar of the river mouth due to the dropping tide.

Soon the tide was fully low and the surf was very good, but l don't recall anyone surfing. All the visiting surfers had paddled over to the sandbank to help. A large vessel from Bermeo sat just out beyond the breaking surf, while a smaller boat tried to connect a heavy rope to the Beti Salada. It was a game of cat and mouse, as the rope was only just long enough to reach from one boat to another.

The large rescue vessel twice had to head out further to escape being swamped by breaking waves. It took several hours, with New Zealanders, Brits, Australians and Americans assisting locals in the process of retrieving the fishing boat.

Afterwards, we gathered on the headland. Locals came up to us and thanked us for the rescue. Newspaper and TV reporters soon arrived, as it was beginning to get dark and they wanted the story to be recorded. Simon was the chief translator and conveyed the story as he saw it unfold. It was a welcome change, as foreign surfers had been a bit on the nose after an Australian assaulted his girlfriend in a local bar a couple of months earlier. Now “surfistas ” were being celebrated and embraced

That night in the bars we were welcomed everywhere we went. Many free tintos (glasses of red) were consumed as locals expressed their gratitude. It was a welcome change, as foreign surfers had been a bit on the nose after an Australian assaulted his girlfriend in a local bar a couple of months earlier. Now “surfistas ” were being celebrated and embraced. It felt good. The Mundaka Fishing Association gave those who participated in the rescue an official letter of commendation and hosted a special banquet for all of the visiting surfers.

Within a couple of weeks, stormy winter weather blew in and the window of surfing opportunity had closed. All the visiting surfers eventually left, but I stayed on for a couple more months, scoring a three-day period of near perfect surf on my own.

By February the melting snow from the mountains that drained out to the ocean via Mundaka brought the water temperatures close to freezing—at least it felt that way at the time! Despite the overwhelming hospitality of the locals, it was time to leave.

I have not been back again to Mundaka since that time, but it is on my to-do list!