La Maestra

Surrounded by the cliffs that draw the outline of the Basque coastline, I meet Pilar Ezkurra in Arrigunaga beach (Getxo). Her honest and direct words couldn’t blend better with the wild and raw beauty of the landscape. I order a soda and she gets a ‘Maestra’ beer while we sit on the sun. With a spontaneous style, she’s not afraid to speak her mind and share her story.

Pilar has been connected to the ocean for as long as she can remember. Since she was a baby, she spent her summer days at La Salvaje beach (Sopelana). In the late 70s, when she was 10 years old, surfing was starting in the area and she wanted to try it out even though there were still not many resources. “I asked Javi Amezaga if I could borrow his surfboard. Javi is currently the editorial director of the surf magazine 3sesenta, but at that time he was a lifeguard in La Salvaje. I went into the water and I was struggling with the whitewater when I finally stood up for about a second”, she tells. From then on, she got hooked on surfing.

Pilar Ezkurra’s first surfboard (1981-82). Photo by Óscar Tordera.

At that time, the surf culture was very different from what we experience nowadays. There were not a lot of materials available, there was no such culture of female surfing, and there were no webcams or apps indicating the surf forecast for the week. “We didn’t really plan anything. We would go to the beach anyway, and see how the waves looked like. I remember the first time that I was able to paddle out all the way to the line-up. I was with my sister and a friend of hers. Txema Gorostiaga and other guys that were older than us were cheering at us to get to the line-up ‘Come on, you can do it! It’s easy!’ I luckily chose the right timing to get through the waves and I made it for the first time to the line-up. It was in La Bati (La Salvaje, Sopelana) and I was 13. Guys like Txema (later on my professor of Botany at University of the Basque Country), Gonzalo Gandarias, Alfonso Escudero and others I can’t remember their names now, were motivating the girls in the water. But the guys that were the same age as me, the ones that call me now ‘veteran’, ‘legend’…,  were always dropping in on me”, she jokes around. “Although the truth is that we all used to drop in on each other”.

Skating with Bull in Bilbao.

“I had my first surfboard when I was 15. I insisted to my mother that I wanted a surfboard so on my 14th birthday, she gave me a voucher for a ‘cheap surfboard’. It cost 5,000 pesetas [around €30]. The surfboard had been reshaped and it didn’t have any rocker. It was so flat and so heavy that I was the only one that could catch waves without getting the nose of the surfboard dipping into the water”, she remembers. “As far as I can remember, there was just one surf shop called Banana in Sopelana and I’m not that sure where did I get the material from. I don’t even remember if I had wax. We borrowed it from each other. The guys were always more organized in that sense”. Resources were scarce, but the stoke was real. “When I was studying at university, I would go to our family house in Sopelana to study for the exams and surf. I packed a bag with food to survive the weekend and took the train from the city of Bilbao to the coastal village Sopelana. The train stopped at the current subway station and I would climb the hill to get to Arrietara beach. When I had a dog, I would ride on the skateboard with him on the leash. I had a lot of fun”.

Nowadays we have access to a lot of information available thanks to technology, but that is not the way Pilar developed her passion for surfing. She was very determined and didn’t pay that much attention to what others were doing. “I just wanted to surf so I would paddle out and do it the way I could. I didn’t know what was to duck dive and I didn’t even know you could do that”. But things changed a bit when she started to compete. “Even though I’ve never been very competitive, I wanted to do my best. When I see now the new generations surfing, I admit I would have loved to have had such coaching in my time”.

Pilar surfing the finals against Marta Huércanos. Peña Txuri (Sopelana), 1988.

“I still have a Quiksilver XXL sweatshirt I won in a competition. It was bright pink, but now is kind of blush pink. The prize was actually what was leftover in the store”, Pilar says. The surf business back then was not as big as what it is now, and especially not for women. But thanks to the courage and perseverance of female surfers demanding equal respect for their work as athletes, WSL announced last year equal pay for men and women in all WSL events. The youth has never been more empowered to fearlessly follow their dreams. When asking about what would be her advice to younger generations, Pilar says “I see a lot of super nice kids with an inner world and a lot of enthusiasm and authenticity. I love the youth and their freshness and creativity. If there is something I would advise to them is to be natural, be yourself. Do the things that you like not because it’s a trend or a fashion, but because you truly love doing it. In a certain way, this is something I’m also getting to accomplish myself now. To feel free to do more or less what I want. To have peace of mind and simply enjoy life”.

In 2014, Pilar created the Facebook group Chicas en las Olas “I told my friend Isa Lekanda that I wanted to do something to mobilize women to bring a certain sense of community. I created Chicas en las Olas with the idea of empowering women and perhaps to empower myself in a certain way. I’ve noticed that when women are paddling for a wave and suddenly see someone else paddling for the same wave, many times they don’t go for it. Even though they have priority. And even women with many years of experience surfing. If you want to do something, go for it. We’re all the same in the water. We need to feel that”. I can certainly relate to her words, but the ones that touch me deeper is when Pilar mentions motherhood. “When you have children, it’s true that you surf less. When my kids were young, their dad and I would take turns to go surfing. But it’s also true that on my own initiative, I would often stay with them while he was surfing. As women, we easily give up things we love doing.”

Pilar doing what she loves in Pantín (Galicia), 2011. Photo by Occy Pablo Romero.

With surfing becoming more popular every season, the line-ups get more crowded and that can bring certain tension in the water. “Many times, we forget that we surf to have fun and to relax and I think some people in the water don’t know that. I think it’s alright when someone is catching a lot of waves, but not when it’s at the expense of others. I’m in favour of taking turns in the water and if you miss or fall on a wave, you just go back to the queue and that’s it. I think you should never get angry in the water. Same as outside the water, you have to talk things out. We’re very lucky living so close to the ocean and we need to learn to appreciate what we have in life.”

Smiles in Santa Catalina (Panamá). Photo by Sergio Bryksa.