The romance of exploration is seldom more contagious than when Basque surfer Kepa Acero is at the helm. A decade ago, his exploratory YouTube shorts began to take off in the surfing world, and in contrast to the performance-oriented competitive surf circuit, the youthful excitement for adventure the films conveyed was a refreshing change. Despite years of solitary wave riding on a global scale, in 2017 an awkward fall on a shallow sandbar at Mundaka, close to home in northern Spain, saw him fighting for his life. The rehabilitation that followed forced him to grapple with some of the core questions of existence: what does it mean to lead a good life, and how can we achieve that? I caught up with Kepa as he was packing for a last-minute trip to Algeria to talk about wave riding, the adventurous life, and how to best use our time on Earth.
A while back you made a big decision to step away from the competition circuit. What fuelled that move initially?
Well, there were a lot of things going on in my head at that time. I was competing in the WQS [World Qualifying Series] which was a privilege, because I was getting paid for surfing. But I never had the spirit to fight with all those kids in the water. The standard of international professional surfing is really high, and everyone really badly wants to make the cut for the WCT [World Championship Tour]. I was going everywhere, but not enjoying the places I was staying. As a rich white person, you try to live as simply as possible in poorer countries, but I felt a lot of conflict about this and it made me think.
Since then, your surfing career has centred around documenting exploration and adventure. Tell me a bit about your travel philosophy.
The first time I travelled solo was the best experience I ever had. I was really scared when I stepped on the plane, and also when I realised I was completely alone out there. But you meet people when you travel, and in the end you can create a family everywhere you go. We come to this world to love and be loved, and to learn from our mistakes. We try to find a passion, and we try to survive. Through that process, we have to say goodbye to people that we’re never going to see again. For me, what’s really important is the process you use to reach your goals. I want to end up as an old man proud of what I did in my life.
I think it’s fair to say that surfing, for you, is about adventurous travel as much as it is about the waves, which probably separates you from much of the professional surfing world. How do those two things sit side by side?
I love every little detail about surfing, from the observation of the ocean to the specific speed of each wave. If it wasn’t for my passion for surfing, I wouldn’t have had the push to go to some of the places I’ve been. But the human aspect of my travels has been vital; the people you meet are often the part of the trip which really changes you as a person.
Is that why travelling solo is so important to you?
Travelling alone is all about knowledge and understanding yourself. You need to make decisions fast, to make the right ones, and to learn from your mistakes. I think you also develop an instinct for who to trust and the right people to be with. You get to truly understand freedom, but sometimes loneliness is the price you pay for doing so.
Can it be hard to find people who share your exploratory approach to surfing?
I love to travel with good friends who are ready to do anything to find a place so idyllic. Natxo [Gonzalez] and Aritz [Aranburu] are exactly those kinds of people. Also my friend Dane Gudauskas who has been my partner on a few African expeditions. You need really passionate people, who are mentally very strong, and who have a romantic sense of surfing. Aritz is the kind of person who would be priceless in the military. He is physically and mentally an animal, and therefore the perfect addition to an adventure.
Tell me a bit about how you locate the best waves on your exploratory trips. How long does it take between conception and paddling out for the first time?
Well, I first heard about using Google Earth to locate possible breaks on that trip Corey Lopez and those guys did to Skeleton Bay in Namibia. Since then I don’t think there is a corner of the world I haven’t looked at on the map. But you do not know what’s going to happen based purely on research; you don’t even know if you’re even going to reach the spot. With swell direction, predominant winds and the offshore depth all in mind, I choose a place I think there could be potentially perfect waves, but who knows? That’s the beauty of it. That’s why I always say that it’s such a romantic way of travelling. Uncertainty is the true essence of adventure. But technology is advancing so fast, sometimes I wonder if we’ll be the last generation to have that opportunity, to experience going to places without knowing what’s going to happen.
How do you think living so close to Mundaka – Europe’s best river mouth for surfing – has impacted your approach to wave riding?
Mundaka has been the key to understanding what a wave can provide my soul. I started to go to Mundaka with Alfonso Fernandez. I was about 12 and Alfonso around 30 when he first used to take me there. He was totally hooked on that wave. He was, and still is, a very good tube-rider and the way he talked and approached surfing was pure poetry. Then, when I was 16, I started to travel to other world class waves and got hooked on the feeling of each of them.
In 2017 you broke your neck out there. Looking back, how do you think that experience affected your outlook?
It’s weird. All the experiences I had before the accident made me a more complete person. But they also meant full commitment to searching for and surfing dangerous waves. You calculate the risks and weigh up the reward, and you do it. But looking back, I think sometimes the risk was too high, but fortunately nothing ever happened to me. Paradoxically, on January 2nd 2017, when I was surfing Mundaka at home with friends, I caught a wave just like thousands of others I’ve taken there in my life. But I fell and hit my head on a sandbar, and the lights switched off. I don’t remember anything after that. I heard that some friends rescued me from the white water and saved my life. At the hospital, they told me I’d broken three sections of my spine. Luck was on my side according to the doctor, as I could have never walked again.
It’s much easier to appreciate life when you’re close to losing it. In the hospital, when people came to visit me, I realised what’s most important: simply to do what I enjoy, to spend lots of time with my girlfriend, my friends, and my family.
Now I’m back in the sea getting barrelled, but something in me has changed. I continue to travel and with more strength than ever. But I count to three before paddling into a wave somewhere remote. I am more careful, because now it’s time that matters to me the most: the time we have left, how we spend it, and with whom. I’m interested in the value of what’s important: good health, friendship and life.
People ask me now if I’m afraid to ride waves like that again. Whilst I am more cautious, I know that the most intense moments are when I’m most connected with nature, in the heart of my life. The vast majority of things that we fear never actually happen. And so this short trip of life has to be an opportunity to have the best time possible.
I read that the Spanish explorer Julio Villar played a big role in inspiring the new film. Why is that?
Julio’s book Eh, Petrel is very important to me. He was a climber, but he got injured and so couldn’t go to the Himalaya, but he decided to keep the adventure going and bought a little sailing boat. With very little experience, he started sailing and travelling the world solo; he spent three years sailing in total. While he was sailing, he wrote what became Eh, Petrel. The book doesn’t really talk about the navigation, just about the introspective effect that a journey like that has on your soul. It’s a holy book for many adventurers, and it was a crucial influence on my way of life. I decided to make a short movie with Julio. There are some other writers who’ve inspired me, like John Muir and Henry David Thoreau. I am so thankful for their legacy. I’d like to think that my work can inspire someone to re-think what is possible. Even if just one person has been inspired by me, I’d be happy with that.
Which trips have really stood out as landmark moments over the last decade?
I think the first solo trip I did to Africa, in 2010. I remember I already had the plan for a solo adventure for months, but the real crunch time was when I was about to click to buy the ticket. I had a big internal battle between what I wanted to do and my fears of doing it. And then I just said ‘right, you have to do this, it’s your dream…’ So I bought the ticket, and for the next two weeks before catching the flight everyone was telling me – you know how Westerners can be – that cannibals with bones in their noses were going to cook me in a pot, and things like that. Then I faced all those fears. I took the flight and that trip was by far the best thing I ever did. It changed the path of my life.
And is that search for new waves a continuous cycle?
Sometimes I try to go back to places I’ve been before. But there is some kind of calling that questions constantly ‘where’s next?’ It’s a great feeling. I’m still young and I feel strong, but with the time I might not be able to go to all the places I am currently able to. I’ll always try to not lose the capacity of questioning what’s next for myself.
Your adventure documentaries have evolved from your hand-held, self-filmed missions in West Africa–which I think really captured the imaginations of travelling surfers–to the release of your film En Ningún Sitio. Was that transition always part of the plan?
Thank you, Chris. To be honest nothing has been planned. En Ningún Sitio is the result of my friendship with Bernat Sampol, the director. A long time ago I gave Eh, Petrel to him, and he was also deeply inspired by it. Bernat then became a very talented filmmaker. I like to keep a kind of punk, DIY style in the productions I work on. The thing the majority of surfing films have in common, though, is that they’re all independent ideas.
Inevitably people are going to question the effect on the environment that long distance travel has. How do you feel about this issue?
This is a tough one. It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about in the past few years. I’ve been to very isolated places, such as islands off the Alaskan coast for example, and have seen plastic everywhere. Seeing waste plastic in very remote places makes you think a lot about how global consumption is out of control, and how unsustainable humans are in terms of using natural resources. I see myself in deep contradictions all the time – travelling by plane for example–but I do believe that humanity must face the challenges posed by climate change. This is everyone’s problem. And it’s important for me to provoke others to think differently.
I’m working on a project now with my girlfriend in Senegal, trying to educate people to re-use plastic. It’s a huge problem in Africa, and in most of the places the locals don’t even know how bad it is. We are simply bringing them a tool to melt the plastic and reuse it. We’re trying to educate the villages to be conscious of the problem. In the end, it’s not the plastic or our consumption of oil itself that’s the biggest problem, but our way of being and acting globally.
So, where’s next?
Lately I have been very focused on Africa, but I have a love-hate relationship with the continent. When I’m there for a long time it can be very hard, but when I get home I miss it so much that I can’t help but go back. There are amazing waves all around the coast of Africa; I love the culture, the people, the colours. Everything about it. But right now I’m looking for new places to surf in the Southern Hemisphere.
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