Despite the fact that the surfing tradition in Cantabria dates back to the 1960s, it was not until about 15 years ago that the regional governments and coastal town councils were encouraged to promote it. From that moment on, surfing began to dominate appearances in the media and people began to learn about a sport that, despite being practiced, continued to be largely unknown to many. At that time, Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria and the Basque Country began to receive a different type of tourism that generated the appearance of dozens of surf schools, as well as people who traveled through the Bay of Biscay trying out its beaches.
As the number of boards in the sea became more and more noticeable, there was less and less space left for bathers and they began to complain about the dangers of being hit by a board or having an accident. However, those who had been practicing this sport for years on its beaches were stunned to see how the real danger did not come from surfing, “but from inexperience”, and defended the value of schools and learning the sport to avoid recklessness.
Meanwhile, the schools continued to grow like foam, and although initially their owners were people linked to surfing and with extensive experience, seeing the opportunity many entrepreneurs decided to enter an unknown world but that they saw as profitable.
For this reason and seeing that the surfing business did not stop growing uncontrollably, the Coastal Demarcation made the decision five years ago to establish measures that sought to control the use of maritime space by schools. These measures also involved the municipalities, in fact, they were the ones who decided the number of licenses granted to schools and who limited the spaces dedicated to surfing and bathing. However, a fee was also charged for each board that entered the water and a maximum ratio of eight students per monitor was established.
Arjuna Zapatero is the owner of Surf Buena Onda, in San Vicente de la Barquera, where, in addition to the general rules, a maximum number of students in the water at a time has been established. “The first year affected us a lot because they put a maximum of 30 students when we had been working with more for 20 years, but we made some allegations and they have already extended it to 50,” says the surfer.
However, and despite the fact that Zapatero confesses that it was “necessary” to regulate the number of schools and considers that the norm has been “effective” in slowing down growth, he believes that the rest has focused “too much” on the economic while they continue without control the professionalism of the teachers: “There are companies that make surfing fun without being schools. They camp and sell the word ‘surf’ as a claim, but there are no qualifications”, he insists.
On the other hand, David ‘Capi’ García is the owner of the Escuela Cántabra de Surf, in Somo, and in his case, that the schools went out to public tender did not seem like a good idea: “I have been in this for 32 years and I started from the bottom without giving any kind of problem. And now that I have a school with an investment of millions of euros, I depend on having the municipal license”, he maintains. Likewise, he points out that if the administrations had paid “more attention” to the schools when the bubble began to swell, “they would have tackled this problem much earlier”.
All in all, Capi agrees with Arjuna that it gives the feeling that the rule has been put in place for “mainly collection” purposes and both point out that they do not have the feeling that with that money they are providing more services to surfers: “They could make changing rooms, showers, or simply put lifeguards all year round. I don’t care if they take away what they have to take away from me, but that it goes somewhere,” warns Capi.
This newspaper has contacted the Ministry for the Ecological Transition as a representative of the Demarcation of Coasts and has only responded to one of the questions raised. This was if they plan to determine how many surfboards enter the water: “It is not the responsibility of this Ministry since it does not affect the protection of the waters and the marine environment,” they have indicated.
Lifeguards and the “lack of authority”
Similarly, regarding the effectiveness of the regulation, both teachers and professional surfers tell how the beaches have not had the decongestion that was sought due to the fashion of a sport that the administrations themselves “have made an effort to popularize”, and the two blame having used little logic in that surfers outside the centers do not have to comply with any rules.
Precisely, the zone of the schools and that of the bathers is separated and, according to Arjuna, there are occasions, especially in summer, in which the bathers “fail to fulfill their part and you have to put yourself to deal with them”. In addition, he points out that non-school surfers also sometimes put swimmers and even themselves at risk: “Now everyone can buy a board and there are no signs here. Surfing is not like snow, where if you don’t have a level it doesn’t occur to you to get on a black slope. There are also mediators there who make sure that no one is where they shouldn’t be. What happens on the beach is that people get into the water, and if you question something they tell you that it is a space for everyone, ”he argues.
Capi shares his colleague’s opinion and adds that the problem of overcrowding “is not going to stop with the schools”: “Many boards are sold to people who have never surfed in their lives, and those people are the ones who get into water and causes problems. Wouldn’t it be better to go to a professional school and be taught about the sea, the currents, the winds, the safety rules or how not to hinder other surfers? We are professionals and we should have more freedom to move”, indicates Capi.
Thus, for both Arjuna and Capi, one of the solutions would be to give more authority to lifeguards and for them to be there throughout the year: “In countries like France they delimit an area and people abide by it. We live on beaches where there are waves and where there is a surfing tradition. We surfers are there all year round, but when the tourists come in the summer, we bother them”, concludes Capi.
Similarly, Arjuna reiterates the importance of lifeguards having the ability to fine: “They are the ones who have to regulate who has a level and who does not to be in according to which zones. I think the Administration has gotten out of hand. We are the beach of Spain and Europe and there is a lot of overcrowding. It’s getting dangerous and people here don’t want to surf in the summer. We are selling our heritage but with nothing in return because nobody contributes to the well-being of the environment”, concludes Arjuna.