When the elements align, there is no better left-hand rivermouth wave than the Basque Country's Mundaka. And, as it is with all superior spots on the planet, there's a hardy local crew who know every intricacy of that wave. Out of those aficionados, there's arguably no one who can go toe-to-toe with the Spanish gem quite like Kepa Acero.
For years, Kepa's been a part of (almost) every gleaming Mundaka session. Yet, despite those deep pockets of experience, Kepa suffered a horror wipeout in January, breaking his neck and back in the process, lost function in his arms and legs during the hold down, went temporarily blind before blacking out and almost drowned. To say it was a heavy situation is a gross injustice.
But Kepa's a beaming light amongst surfing's enclaves, a spark of pure electric positivity and the outpouring of well-wishers was phenomenal. We're happy to report that Kepa returned to the water a few months later, keeping it breezy with a little extra foam under his feet, and is now feeling almost at full health. During his down-time, you may remember the internet was set ablaze with Mick's wave, The Snake, and rumours that Kepa may have surfed it years ago, before it even first panged the interest of ol' white lightning.
Anyway, we caught up with Kepa to check in, talking wipeout, what's next and how the rumour mill was churning at max velocity when Fanning's mind-boggling right blew up.
How are you feeling right now after the accident at Mundaka back in January?
The truth is that, I feel very well and I cannot believe that I was so close to becoming a quadriplegic or even dying. It's not been more than two months since the accident and I am already surfing.
Stoked to hear you're back in the water Kepa. You're one of the most experienced surfers at Mundaka, can you talk us through what happened?
Basically it was down to a matter of chance and luck. We had been surfing for weeks at Mundaka with conditions more dangerous than that day. In fact, January 1st was the best day throughout 2016. The sand bar was very dry and fast and there had been several accidents on that day.
January 2 was smaller and the sets were slow but there were a few perfect ones. It was super cold too I entered the water and waited about an hour until a wave of about four feet arrived. It was a bomb, a shaky wave, but not unlike thousands of waves I've caught there in the past 25-years.
I took a lot of speed because the section was lengthening. I was going very fast, I entered the tube and suddenly the foam ball took the board off my feet and made me trip. I remember I was shot flying to the bottom and, suddenly, I felt a strong blow to the head. I do not remember much more, it was like when you turn off the television. My head went out.
I remember that seconds later I woke up under the water and tried to swim to the surface and breathe, but I realized that my arms and legs did not move, they did not respond at all. Then I literally thought I was going to drown. It was good luck that I was wearing a very fat suit and floated to the surface. Then I lost control again and lost my sight. I became blind and barely moved my body.
When I paddle out at Mundaka, I never think that this could happen.
I can only start this post thanking everyone who has accompanied me in these hard days. Especially Gaizka and Iñigo who saved my life at the Mundaka sandbar. I will be eternally grateful. On January 2, at noon, I had a fatal fall in Mundaka. I fell headlong into the background and at that moment I lost consciousness. The only moment I can remember was under the water, wanting to reach the surface, but my hands and my legs were not taking orders. Then I thought I'd never go out. I do not remember anything else. Then I learned that Gaizka and Iñigo got me on the board and I was removed from the impact zone. I lost sight of it. My friends @ natxogonzalez1 @nando_arostegi @eukenimasa and @aletxugironi got me out of the water and after hours of agony I arrived at Cruces hospital. "I was told that I had broken my neck, with a broken-shifted cervical and a broken back. "Miraculously the spinal cord was not damaged, so I can give thanks for being able to feel and move my body, legs and arms. ‘’I have the feeling of being born again twice in one day, and my thanks go to all those who have accompanied me, those who rescued me, doctors, you who have encouraged me. At random that he has wanted it and life, especially life. Thank you very much again and now, more than ever and really, enjoy life, eat it that is yours. I have surgery on Wednesday. Huge hugs to everyone.
You had a good crew out there to help you get to shore - what happened after that?
Fortunately, a friend was very close and saw me floating. Iñigo, along with other friends like Gaizka, Eukeni, Natxo and Nando saved my life. They pushed me to shore and called an ambulance. I gradually regained my sight and my mobility. The moment I got ashore, I thought it was over. I was taken straight to the hospital.
What did the doctors say?
When I arrived at the hospital, I was very sore, but very quiet. I had an MRI and when the doctor entered the door he looked concerned.
I still didn't know what the news would be. He did some sensitivity tests on my arms and feet and I, fortunately, could move well.
He told me it was a miracle I was not in a wheelchair He then told me that I had two broken cervicals, a cervical displacement and a broken back. He told me it was a miracle I was not in a wheelchair. Then I burst into tears and from that moment, I give thanks every day, to life, for being alive and well. I had surgery a week later and luckily everything went well.
And now, you're back in the water, right? How's the recovery going and what's next?
I am happy. It has only been a few months since I had surgery and I am already surfing. I went to Portugal to surf for a week, and I think I will return to Africa soon, which is where my heart is.
Talking of remote spots. Recently, there's been some speculation about The Snake, aka Mick's wave and its location. A lot of people pointed out that you may have surfed there before him. But you said that it was not the same spot - What do you make of Mick's wave? It looks pretty similar to the one in your edit.
Yes, the rumour spread across the internet that it was the same wave I found in Mauritania. The truth is that it was identical! The morphology of the wave, the shape of the sand ... it was like a dream. When I saw it I also thought it was the same, but then I started to study the circumstances and I think that in Mauritania it is very difficult to be out in boardshorts, among other things. I came to the conclusion that it was not.
It does blow open the debate that there still are waves to be surfed - on your travels, is there anywhere you'd like to revisit?
There are certainly world class waves that remain undiscovered, but I have to say, in my opinion, waves of that category – there aren't many. Perhaps, when the quality of technology (Google Earth ...) the secrets will be finished. Maybe we are the last romantics that go to the sites without knowing what we are going to find.
As I say, there are places in Africa that I miss. Sometimes I spend whole nights waking up imagining that I'm in those places.
Would you ever consider going back on the QS?
[laughs] No. I was doing the QS for a few years. The tour is crazy, there are so many good surfers too. I have neither the motivation nor the spirit nor the talent to do it.
But I love watching the guys compete in the QS and CT. It is exciting. I hate that stream that tries to separate free surfers and competitors. I'll stay up all night watching the Aussie leg of the CT. I am crazy about all surfing and I admire the competitors. It´s all surfing, after all.
You've carved a niche for yourself, with travelling all over the world. How hard is it to stay relevant in the surf industry?
I think it isn't easy to make a living out of surfing these days, I feel privileged. But I think what's really interesting is having something to tell, a good history to tell and add value to the people who want to see you.
There is so much content these days on the internet where people are giving you their time to listen to you, so think about what you have to say, what is your message?
I consider myself a surfer, but above all a storyteller, and I am trying to provoke, change the mentality of people through the stories I tell. That makes me happy to think that we, as surfers, artists, whatever you want to call it, we can do that and make a living on it and I can say that I live on this.
I have tried to align my passion with my work. I work on what I love. But I also have to say that it takes a lot of work to make films be a publisher, director, writer, producer, traveller and surfer all at the same time. And all alone.
Finally, any words of wisdom for anyone who is going through a difficult injury at the moment?
Having such an experience is hard. But I tell you one thing, it is, at the same time, the most beautiful and enriching experience I have ever lived. Being in the hospital in these circumstances is something unique. You have the feeling that you have been about to die, but that there are people who believe that this world is better when you are here. Humanity, it is a fascinating experience and you learn to value friendship and every moment.
I have always said that you have to enjoy life, but after having an experience like that, I say it more forcefully. As soon as I get better, I will not stop travelling and fulfilling my dreams.
For rehabilitation, I would advise to be passionate and have patience, not lose hope. Enthusiasm is an engine in life. I have been happy to think that I will return to Mundaka and that soon I will be paddling the same wave with which I had the accident. I just dream of getting into that tube again.