A Road Through Galicia

Following in the footsteps of thousands of other travelers, Reef Ambassador Mike Lay and friends set off on the road west to Galicia. With a diverse range of surfboards and open minds to waves of various size and quality they explore the countless coves of north-west Spain, what it means to travel and whether it is the destination or the getting there that really matters.

Directed by Luke Pilbeam - lukepilbeam.co.uk

The Faint Possibility of Waves

Words by Mike Lay 
Photos by Nick Pumphrey
Video by Luke Pilbeam

The wind was being funnelled through the valley, past the graveyard and the sprawling mass of grey factory buildings. It blew out to sea, tousling the hair of a fisherman who sat on an island in the middle of the narrow estuary. It was blowing the small waves virtually flat. We pulled up to the stoney carpark at the southern end of the bay and looked out at the waves. It is always hard to judge wave quality from the side, opinions often being formed by mood rather than visual evidence, we had faith but our mood was faultering. We had been on the road for over a week and the surf had been small to flat, the forecast didn't predict anything better for a couple of days, the wind howled offshore and we all stared out across the beach. It was an uninviting view.

The group began to stir, reaching for books to read and talking of suitable sites for the tent, anticipating a dry evening in and around the van. I was still looking out across the beach, a bank had drawn my attention. About 500m away there was a bend in the sand and the small waves seemed to be tapering down it rather than breaking uniformly onto the straight sand nearer to where we had parked. I had been driving for several hours, driven us to what was, in Roman times, considered the end of the world. I was going to surf no matter what. I began to turn my wetsuit the right way around and the sun emerged from behind a cloud. Out of solidarity, and with the encouragement of an evening sun, Jack and Elsie both decided they would come in with me.

Instead of leaving the van in the wind in the mouth of the river and walking to the waves, we loaded up and aimed for a sandy track on top of a dune in front of the wave. A better viewpoint and a place to camp for the night. It took 15 minutes to eventually get there, we had to skirt around the river and approach from the north, but we reached the track that wound around the dune and trundled down towards the faint possibility of waves. The wind was blocked by the sand and I had a rising feeling of hope. We passed a French couple barbecuing fish by the side of the road, waved at them to our left then turned to our right and saw it, the bend in the sand and a set of five waves gliding in and curling to the left. They broke at perfect pace for what felt like a great length of time, enough for me to exclaim when one was only half way broken, enough for the waves to look like they were stopped in time, still physically moving but as if they could break like that forever. The water was clear as spring air. I changed into my suit as quickly as I could and ran down the dune to the water. We surfed for two hours, into the sunset, with not another human in sight but for the French couple. During those two hours my heart was thumping and wide in my chest, my head felt light and gravity seemed to ease. We were happy.

My original reason to drive to Galicia, other than the constant yearning to be on the road and searching for surf, was to roughly trace one of the many caminos de Santiago or roads to Santiago. Santiago de Compostella is an age old destination of pilgrimage for Christians and is still travelled on foot to this day. There are many official starting points to the pilgrimage across Europe including one across the English Channel in Morab Gardens in my hometown of Penzance. Although driving the route is no substitute for walking it, I was interested in the motivations of the walkers and whether they bore any similarity to the motivations of myself as a surfer and many others like me embarking on road-trips across the world. I am not religious and so it proved an interesting mental challenge, thinking of surfing and God in the same context. I was searching for something tangible, good waves, and the walkers on the camino, religious or not, were searching for something that wasn't, something personal, theoretical. I would know when I found what I had come for, but would they? It turned out to be far more complicated than I first assumed.

From the outset the trip seemed destined to be a challenging one. The atlantic was in a post el nino slump and swell was minimal, excepting one tantalizing day of surf that the long range forecast predicted towards the end of trip. So we started our journey for waves in the knowledge that there probably weren't any good ones out there. Like setting off to a sold out concert and hoping to get a ticket on the door. Yet we were full of excitement, we spent hours on the ferry studying maps and analysing the forecast, we were riders of longboards so even if the waves were small we had faith in our own ability to enjoy ourselves.

When on the road we travelled from exposed spot to exposed spot, willing the wind and water to have created favourable sandbanks to groom the tiny swell. There was always something to hope for on the road, always something to aim for after a failure. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that we were happy to embark on a surf trip during such a terrible forecast, on the road you never really fail to find surf because you can always move on, there could be somewhere an hour down the coast that deals with this swell direction better or is more protected from the wind. We kept up this mind set and managed to surf everyday but one. We surfed in onshore waves and tiny waves, wonky wind swells and shorebreak. While I can not recall any individual rides during these sessions I know we felt tired and content at night, that we had not failed.

For three days in the middle of our trip the swell looked shockingly small, we had been surfing spots on the north coast of Andalusia and Galicia which faced west but it seemed now that our only option was to head to the west coast, to the most exposed spots that surrounded Fisterre, what was once thought the end of the world, now the end of Europe and of our options. This scared me a little, as I drove towards the west coast I became aware of the definitive nature of our final destination. As our road ended in Fisterre so the pilgrims road would end in Santiago de Compostella, were they as apprehensive of their final destination as I was of ours?

On a long and empty, wind-whipped beach somewhere on the north western knuckle of Galicia I met two German women who were walking. It was a strange place to meet walkers, being far from anywhere and and at the end of a well hidden track. They wore long trousers with removable sections beneath the knee, tight t-shirts and bandanas. Their polarised sunglasses would have been disconcerting were it not for their wide smiles. Although it was their half hearted Christian upbringing that had the lead them to walk the camino, they were not particularly religious. I wondered what they would do once they reached Santiago, 'Catch a flight home!' One replied with a laugh. They were equally as interested for our reasons to be here on this desolate, surf-less beach as I was in their long and arduous walk to a provincial European airport. Before we left, a few hours before dark, I asked them where they were sleeping that evening and suggested that the nearest village was a long way off. 'We'll find somewhere' they said in unison, 'we always do.' As they walked off one of them turned and shouted 'that's the fun of it after all, taking each day as it comes'.

When we finally drove into Santiago de Compostella ourselves, we were disappointed. We looked out of the windows of the van with ernest, putting ourselves in the position of weary pilgrims, searching for revelatory scenes. But the suburbs of the small city were ugly and covered in graffiti, tower blocks stood empty. We got to the old town on foot having parked a mile or so outside, aesthetically it was more like it, statues of the Virgin Mary, of various saints, towering churches built of weathered sandstone. But still we saw nothing outwardly profound, no great life changing scenes at the journey's end. Instead a group of men and women who looked to be in their early twenties cheered loudly outside a church and took selfies with the help of an extendable pole, they were jumping and bashing their hiking sticks together. Other pilgrims licked ice creams and wandered round with dazed looks on their faces, some bought camino de Santiago trinkets from the many gift shops. As I walked through the churches and chapels and among the pilgrims, I began to understand what I had suspected for a while. That the act of walking, the journey, not the destination itself was the reason that most of these people had undertaken the Camino. For a lot of the pilgrims a faith in God had brought them to Galicia but for all of them it seemed a faith in themselves had carried them forward. It was a faith to overcome obstacles, to smile, to carry on.

In this version of faith I found deep connections with our own trip. We had waited for the long anticipated day of swell at Playa de Lires near Fisterra, and when it came we surfed all day long, the banks were good and the waves were head high and playful. The wind stayed offshore. But the moment from the trip that will live long in my memory is the sight of those five waves  peeling as if stopped in time. On a day that we expected not to surf we had kept driving to the end of the road and were rewarded with our own version of perfection. Proof that faith in oneself, coupled with an open mind will more often that not reap rewards. And that those rewards may not necessarily be the original goal of the journey.