Kepa Acero, surfing’s greatest living explorer?

Kepa Acero has never been the best surfer in the Basque Country.
He’s not even the best surfer in his family.
Has no known frontside fin chuck, and has probably never done a proper air by today’s standards.
But the little fucker sure can tube ride.
And he just might be the greatest living surf adventurer on the planet.

Following, if not in the footsteps, then in the principles of surf explorers like Peter Troy, Kevin Naughton, Craig Peterson and Mike Boyum, Kepa has been trekking the globe, surfing the edges of the earth, exploring the remotest coasts of Indonesia, Africa and India. And while his films of his travels have found a huge online audience, make no mistake, Kepa isn’t travelling for the adulation, or the exposure. He is travelling for the adventure and for the experience. He is travelling for himself, for the people he meets, for the lessons and perspective it brings.

The younger brother of one of Spain’s most successful pro surfers Eneko Acero, Kepa grew up in the Basque Country, surfing the waves in and around Mundaka. After seeing the travels, waves, girls and experiences Eneko was scoring, early on he decided to emulate his success. “I remember thinking, I want some of that,” said Kepa.

Blessed with talent and freaky wave knowledge he quickly had some junior success, became the European Junior Champion, gained sponsors and hit the WQS. After three or four years though, Kepa worked out that his more cruisy style and love of high quality barrels wasn’t quite suited to the grind of the WQS.

Luckily though he was given another lifeline, his sponsor Reef backing him as a freesurfer. And while that could be considered a dream gig for any surfer, and Kepa rightfully acknowledges some incredible times, it was still a formulaic existence. “Each trip had always four or five surfers, plus a photographer and a filmer,” he says, “so it left little scope for spontaneity or real interaction with the local people. Sure I was travelling around and surfing great waves, but I felt I was barely appreciating what real travel could be like.”

His response was a brave one. He decided to set out to explore some of the world’s most remote and hollowest waves and to do it alone. His sponsors, perhaps understandably, didn’t see the economic value in this hair brained solo approach, but undeterred Kepa just saved his money, bought his fares and went anyway. His first stop was Namibia. Like most in the surfing world he had seen the lefts ridden by Cory Lopez riding the wave at Skeleton Coast and vowed to surf it. “When I bought that ticket I was really nervous, really scared, I was like, “Fuck, I’m really going to Namibia. I had no idea what was ahead and I had never travelled alone before.” 

Having no knowledge of the wave or how to get there, Kepa turned to Facebook and found some surfers in the general area, befriended them online and asked if he could come and stay. They agreed and after the long haul, they showed him around before he cut out alone exploring the desert coast and surfing the now famous left, and others, usually on his own.

He also started making a few clips of his surfing and travels. “I had made one video before, a minute of footage of my dog going for a walk,” he laughs. “But a friend who is a cameraman advised me not to learn any more than the basics. Just talk to the camera and that way I wouldn’t be able to manipulate the story or bend the truth.”

After picking up a tripod so he could document some of his surfing when in the water, he then had time to make a few basics clips. “I had days and days in the desert living in a car, so I started to edit some clips put them up on Facebook and Twitter and that’s how it started. People were interested and it was good to have a connection with people, seeing how isolated I was. Plus telling a simple story as it happens was a really powerful idea.”

It helped that apart from the incredible waves that Kepa was surfing, his character came over well in the clips, and watching him barely contain his infectious positivity and the joy struck a chord with online viewers in a big way.

Back home in the Basque Country, Kepa’s fire for adventure was lit. He quickly set about targeting the remotest, most inhospitable areas on earth that might have world class waves. With backing from new likeminded sponsors like Patagonia, VSTR and Reef and using Facebook and Google Earth he embarked on a series of expeditions that have taken in Alaska, Peru, Chile, Patagonia, India, Indonesia, Angola, and Antarctica to name just a few. He has discovered countless waves, some of them world class, made many friends and put himself in some positions that few could imagine, let alone survive.

In Alaska for example, out on the frontiers after three weeks alone he was forced to knock on doors and fake being lost, just to talk to people. On the island of Kodiak, he flagged down a car that had a surfboard on top. The car had a Chilean bear hunter stroke surfer and two Alaskan fisherman. After a few days surfing together, Kepa explained his Google Earth theories for waves and the fishermen agreed to use their boat to sail the 15 hours to search. For five days it was idyllic, surfing new waves, then roasting deer and salmon by fires at night. Until one afternoon a big low tide left the boat dry docked on sand. Kepa and his Chilean friend decided to walk to help. Kepa being lighter, walked ahead, only to discover his friend was sinking, the wet sand being quicksand. With no rope and no where to tie one even if he had, he was sure his friend was going to die in front of his very eyes as as he sunk to his neck. Eventually after a few hours, his friend just managed to struggle free, and after a few days they managed to get the boat back in the water. “That is one of the times when you question the whole experience,” he says. “And I knew that after sharing such a heavy, near death experience that we would either be friends for life, or we would walk away and never see each other again. I’m still in daily contact with that man.”

Of course it is the extra hardships that bring extra rewards. In Angola for example Kepa went through some extremely harsh condition to find new waves. “After 40 years of war you have to be very careful there. Driving in a car with cameras and computers you are a target and I understand that. That was the only place I had to act like vagabond, even acting drunk so not to arouse suspicion. And I’d always have to go the village and ask permission from the head of tribe to go surfing. I’d show them my surfboards, and all the villages would come and were so curious as they’d never seen one.

I’d then walk up the point and catch a wave and they would scream and yell, like God walking on water. I felt like a hero or Kelly Slater,” he laughs. “I took a few of the kids surfing, and they are so sporty and stood up and surfed straight away.

It was unbelievable, they had this stoke, they just wanted to surf. And I think they will find a way. You know it’s not a cultural thing, we all have the sensation and when I saw the faces of those kids it reminded me what surfing can do, and that all the hardships are worth it.”

Other times Kepa, through exploration would find the most incredible waves, and surf them all to himself. “I was Indo, in one of the really remote chains. I met this feral Australian guy who had been living out there for months exploring. We surfed some great waves for about four days and then one night he went out and got really, really drunk. Towards the end of the night he ended up telling me about this wave he had found that was incredible. At first light, while he was still snoring, I snuck out really quietly, hopped on my motorbike and went and found it. I then had five days surfing maybe one of the best waves in Indo on my own. I managed to teach a local villager how to use my camera, and you know it was hard to believe. You’d see the sets coming, like three perfect waves and think maybe I’m about to get the best wave of my life in ten seconds. It was weird not sharing that experience, but I think it’s important to show people those waves still exist, that they are there if you go look.”

And the stories keep coming, from finding a perfect left at, literally, the bottom of the world, to scoring some of the best waves of his life, on his own, at a grinding righthand pointbreak in India of all places. There’s times stuck in the African desert with three flat tyres, each tyre taking a six hour round trip to fix. There’s empty Peruvian bombs, and a life stealing wifi and uploading inspirational travel stories of a life of adventure as new friendships are forged and new waves discovered.

This past spring, the allure of mother Africa was too much for Kepa to resist, and he did a solo surf trip to Senegal. Nothing particularly adventurous about that you might think, Senegal is about as ordinary a trip to French surfers as Brits going to Barbados… Except for that the fact that he drove there.

“I didn’t have too much planned, I just bought a cheap little van in Bilbao, kitted it out and hit the road. I had no real goal as such other than to look for some waves and have a bit of fun.” Being the first or the last or claiming any kind of records or goals is never part of Kepa’s fire, his deal is always about the journey. “I met so many cool people on the route. In Morocco and Sahara, I met quite a lot of surfers in vans, not with cameras, just people living the life. Then I hit Mauritiana and things got a little different. That place was pretty heavy, there’s a different vibe there and I didn’t feel real safe. One morning I woke up and a guy was cleaning my van, and demanded quite a lot of money, and the situation turned a bit sour. People are hungry, they have nothing, I was just there with my surfboards to have fun. I felt a bit silly in Mauritania. I was supposed to stay a month, and I left after ten days.”

Wind ravaged outcrops, sand blown roads and a people wizened by the harsh reality of life in the desert gave way in beautiful flowering of exoticness, of Africa. “Crossing the border to Senegal, to black Africa felt great. I was like, ‘This is the Africa I love’. It’s just an explosion of colour, of singing, music, happy people dancing and loving life. The women I saw in Senegal blew me away, the most beautiful women I’ve even seen.”

By the time Kepa had made it to sub-Saharan Africa, being solo in charge of a vehicle took its toll so to speak, mainly in the form of official stings. “I was getting it from three sides; the army, the police and the customs people, they all wanted a piece of my cake. After getting hit by those guys a few times, I couldn’t afford to be driving any more, so I sold the car and continued south on foot.” Riding a 7 seater bus with twenty-odd passengers crammed in, Kepa got chatting when the guy who was using his shoulder as a pillow woke up, and ended up staying with the man’s family for ten days. “It was me, him, his girlfriend and their kids all sleeping in one room. People there have nothing, compared to what we’re used to, but they’ll share whatever they have with strangers. That was a highlight of the trip for sure.”

Lured on by a point he’d seen on Google Earth, Kepa hitched and took buses to Guinea, where he eventually discovered said point had a series of offshore rocks rendering it never anything other than a surfless lagoon. Having come some five thousand kilometers south by road, the direct flight from Conakry to Madrid seemed like a good idea, and Kepa headed to home.

By matter of chance, Kepa’s African roadie had happened on one of the ‘busiest’ North Atlantic swell winters in recent memory, (2013/14) a time when you’d expect north west Africa’s swell needy points to be on fire. Yet with much of the winter’s swell violence concentrated too far north and east, it wasn’t quite the swell orgy you’d expect. And yet the difference between Kepa’s trips and so many other freesurfers out there, it never mattered to the appeal. The surfing part of his DIY YouTube clips is kind of an aside to the chirpy, comedic land dance anyway. Maybe that’s the essence of his appeal; amateurish filming and editing on shitty equipment = compelling narrative. Web gazers can tend to glaze over confronted with the tedium of surf porn perfection, and while a zillion frames per second slo-mo cinematography is impressive, it doesn’t tell a story. Kepa brings a whole new ‘that could be me’ feel to surf adventure filmaking, somehow making the highly-unlikely-if-not-impossible trip accessible to the masses. Masses being of course not an overly generous description of his reach. So far, his YouTube channel alone has totted up a cool 2 million hits.

Kepa is at pains that this is a personal quest and that for every remote and wild adventure, there is someone else with a wilder and remoter story to tell. “One experience really stays with me. After ten days camping on my own in the remotest part of Alaska, I decided to drive to another part of the coast. Along the way I stopped for a hitchhiker. Turns out he was a 19-year-old Mongolian kid who has hitchhiked across Siberia, then stowed away on a boat and was making his way to Anchorage to find work. It was a 4000 mile journey and all he had was a backpack. I dropped him off five hours down the line, where our roads forked. I drove off, watching him in the rear vision mirror, all alone, in the middle of nowhere. You know you think you are on some grand adventure, that your story is unique. Then you see what some people are capable of, what the capacity for adventure humans have. It made me feel like a tourist, just scratching the surface of what is possible.”

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