Home Out & About Sports & Activities Riding the wave: Surfing expats who live off their passion
Last update on November 11, 2019

Their passion was surfing but some Aussie expats have made new lives in Spain off waves in the Basque Country.

Dozens of black figures bob up and down like seals as they await the fast tubular ‘Mundaka Wave’ to rise at the mouth of the Gernika Estuary at the entrance of the Urdaibai nature reserve.

It was here back in the early 1980s, in the village of Mundaka, east of Bilbao, where Australian surf entrepreneur Craig Sage first saw the quietly-kept secret of the left-hander wave.

Back then little did he know that the Mundaka wave would become the source of a thriving business.

Over 20 years on Sage, 48, the sales manager of surf equipment company Billabong [Spain], is gearing up to organise this year’s professional surf World Championship Tour Event (WCT) at Mundaka, one of the only two surf spots in Europe to host world surf competitions.

“The wave has totally recovered thanks to the force of nature; the sea currents have enabled the sandbar where the wave breaks to recover,” Sage says.The event was cancelled last year after the wave almost vanished
following dredging works to deepen the draught of the Estuary of Gernika.

“Mundaka is now almost too crowded with around a hundred surfers a
day, ten years ago there were very few people surfing here,” he says.

Mundaka is now ‘too popular’

Hundreds of thousands of surfers from local and international clubs ride the waves in the Basque country each year, and surfing is now so popular that it is even a sports option at local schools.

During the WCT event thousands descend on Mundaka bringing money to the tiny fishing village.

Sage’s organisation of the WCT event since 1999 placed Mundaka on the
world map.

Overall, natives have welcomed Sage’s efforts.

Sage, who had a surf shop in Australia, decided to open one in Mundaka in the mid-Eighties and some years later became Billabong’s sales manager for the rest of Spain.

“Surfing is very popular and very fashionable. Sales of surf accessories continue to grow, Billabong in Spain made an annual turnover of EUR 25 million last year,” Sage says.

Sage now sells surf boards for EUR 400-800 a piece but it is the surf clothes and accessories that are the real money spinner.

Half of all sales are made in Northern Spain. Sage is one of the several Australians to have stayed in the area living off their surf passion after experiencing the Mundaka Wave, known to be one of the longest but fastest in Europe.

Smith, who now works with two colleagues, six months a year, sells the boards wholesale across Europe.Surf board maker, Bruce Smith, from Perth, Australia, who has
lived in the nearby town of Bermeo for over 15 years, says board production has increased from 100 boards to 350 over the last decade.

But the good times have not always rolled for the Australians who
complain of the complications of renewing residency cards even when
married to local girls.

During an encounter with a border customs officer at Irun on the French frontier in the 1980s, Sage explains he was blackmailed to hand over all the money he had in order to allow him to import cotton clothes and materials.

“In the 1980s there was a limited quota on cotton imports to Spain and this was taken up by the likes of the general goods chain the Corte Ingles. I was crying after I handed all my money, the equivalent of over EUR 2,500 under the table to the customs officer,” Sage says

Melville says that he arrived at Mundaka on “a lap of Europe”. He says he would never leave where he enjoys the food and high quality of life.Meanwhile, surfer and professional chiropractor, Andy Melville, aged 36, based in the nearby town of Gernika, says his commercial scope is limited  because chiropractic business is still not recognised as an official medical practice in Spain.

Making a life out of a wave

“I surf early morning and work all afternoon,” Melville says.

Sage is married to Bilbaina Itxiar; the couple have two children.

He says he fell in love with the qualities of the Basque coastline.

“You would expect anytime to see a goblin or elf to appear. You see the men with their berets. Here, with the Basque language, you get the idea that you are in another era, as if you were in Lord of the Rings scenario,” he says.

“With the early morning mist and steep, green mountains and the wave, there’s a mystical thing here.”