Pipe Dreams

The Quemao Class surf and bodyboard contest is Lanzarote’s biggest regular waveriding event, and what a wave it is! We headed up north to find out more about the most notorious reef break on the island, and the event that celebrates it.

El Quemao is Lanzarote’s toughest waveriding challenge.

Throughout the winter, huge waves barrel onto the northern coast of Lanzarote creating an ever-changing but constant landscape of blue skies, deep blue seas, jet black rocks and blinding white surf. Those waves are what have led surfers to call Lanzarote “the Hawaii of Europe”. And if Lanzarote is Hawaii, then its Banzai Pipeline of perfectly formed tubes and barrels is a wave called El Quemao.

El Quemao means “the burnt one” and is the name of a bar in the village of La Santa that was opened in 1973 by a man who was scarred from a childhood burning accident. Over the following years, the bar became a popular haunt for surfers who were catching waves in and around La Santa, and eventually, the most famous wave in the area took the name, too.

That wave, which breaks right in front of the fishing village, is a monster. It starts as an immense swell of deep blue water before rearing up and taking on a brilliant turquoise hue in the sunlight . Then it curls over in snow-white foam, breaking left and right and forming deep tubes that expel spume like a dragon breathing smoke. You could sit and watch it for hours, but unless you’re a surfer you wouldn’t dream of getting too close to it.

Jorge López, who has ridden the wave since the age of 17 and has the scars to prove it, explains that the wave is at its best when there is a “Moorish wind” (viento del moro), a weather phenomenon that also brings calimas from the African mainland. “Today it’s good,” he tells us as he rushes around organizing the contest.

If El Quemao looks dangerous, that’s because it is. The reason it rises to heights of several metres and breaks so perfectly is because, after travelling hundreds of miles across the ocean, the wave suddenly reaches shallower water, causing it to rise up and break. Any surfer who tackles it is risking several tons of wild water taking them down and scrubbing the seabed with them. And La Santa’s is not a soft, sandy seabed – it’s made of jagged, rough volcanic basalt.

A plaque on the sea wall in the village commemorates the 35-year-old Fuerteventura-based surfer David Infante, nicknamed El Fula, who died in 2009 after wiping out in El Quemao and suffering a head injury. Several other surfers have had bad experiences with the wave, and two ambulances, emergency jetskis and trained emergency personel are on hand throughout the Quemao Class event.

The Quemao Class surf and bodyboard competition is unique among sporting events on Lanzarote in that its timing depends entirely on weather conditions. This year, for example, the window for the event was announced to last from late-October to the end of December, and scores of surfers and surf fans eagerly kept an eye on social media for updates.

In the last week of November the call went out, and on the 28th and 29th, surfers and body boarders converged on La Santa for one of the most exciting contests on the island. Hundreds of people lined the sea wall, sat on the sandy beach and climbed up onto the roofs of white houses to get a view of the proceedings, and organisers provided a constant diet of music and commentary.

On the first morning it was the turn of qualifying heats for bodyboarders, with big names such as David Hubbard and 20- year-old Alexandra Rinder – the only woman competitor and the youngest World Champion ever – waiting their turn to tackle El Quemao. On this day there was little wind, and the wave’s famous pipes were a little messy, with several bodyboarders disappearing in white foam. But conditions improved for the surfing heats later in the day.

On the following day, both competitions came to an end in almost perfect conditions, with El Quemao curling over and forming perfect barrels. French bodyboarder Amaury Lavernhe grabbed the opportunity to triumph in his final, while Tenerife surfer Jonathan González took spectators’ breath away, catching a seemingly endless right break and surfing it right to the end to clinch the top spot on the surfers’ podium. “This is a championship that every surfer who loves riding tubes would love to win,” said a delighted González after his victory.

Experiencing his first major event at Quemao Class was a two-month old labrador pup called Buda, who is training as a search and rescue dog with the island’s Civil Protection services.

Buda was rescued from a rubbish container, where his previous owners had dumped the helpless puppy. But at the side of his new handler Dunia, he has a rewarding life ahead of him, and was one of the unexpected stars of La Santa’s biggest surf event.