The Sightless Surfer: Aitor ‘Gallo’ Francesena’s Story
Surfers often talk of being able to “read” a wave, and whilst surfing is a multi-sensory pursuit, in such a dynamic environment as breaking waves the sense of sight is arguably the most critical. Most surfers would probably cite the ability to see, process and react to the wave as a fundamental requirement for successfully riding a wave. For Aitor 'Gallo' Francesena, that is no longer the case, nor a possibility.
Aitor, or ‘Gallo’ as he is often called, has been a lifelong surfer but as a child he was diagnosed with a congenital progressive form of glaucoma meaning that he would eventually and inevitably lose his sight. In spite of that ticking time bomb, or perhaps because of it, Aitor threw himself into everything. He learnt to surf and in 1988, at the age of just 18, he founded the Zarautz surf club and co-founded the first surf school in the country. He surfed and coached at a high level, becoming the national coach for the Spanish Surfing Federation and working with some of the country’s top professional surfers including the likes of Kepa and Eneko Acero, Axi Muñiain, and Mario Azurza, and top 44 competitor Aritz Aranburu.
Aitor surfing in the ISA Adaptive World Championships at Pismo Beach, Claifornia, wearing a C-Skins ReWired 3:2 Chest Zip. Photo credit: ISA
In 2011, Aitor’s condition had progressed to the point where he lost his sight, but he has continued to ride waves. Surfing is not considered an accessible sport at the best of times, and although the recent develops of the ISA parasurf games have opened up the sport to differently abled competitors, Aitor has been dealing with challenges of accessibility in the sport since before there was any awareness around the issue.
It is always remarkable to hear stories of surfers who have pushed against the odds, and against challenges that would have caused many others to stay out of the water. Aitor however has pushed past those limitations to not only develop the sport of surfing in Spain but also to achieve groundbreaking achievements in the field of Spanish surfing not only for his surfing ability but also his groundreaking works as a coach.
“It is not easy to opt for an athlete when the Gipuzkoan academy is in one of its best moments. For example, we have Nadia Erostarbe as European champion and other surfers who are achieving very good results. However, Aitor's name comes up as a candidate every year and we have decided to give it to him this time for his entire career. In 2016 he won the gold medal at the World Championship in California. It is an example of continuous improvement, of positivity, dedication, effort and, in addition, results. Not only has he been able to self-manage his own limitations and become world champion, but the only one to take another person to the top: Aritz Aranburu's entry into the Top 44 has been an unprecedented event. “Gallo” sees further, with his heart… passion, moreover, serves as the engine to always be so great”.
- Gipuzkoako Surf Federazioa, on awarding Aitor a lifetime achievement award
Just three months after the leaving the hospital, with the official diagnosis and inescapable reality that he was now legally blind, Aitor returned to surfing. With the help of a guide who explains the conditions and acts as his eyes for positioning and takeoff, Aitor is able to catch and ride waves. Once up and riding, he is able to surf completely unassisted and it is safe to say that neither age nor lack of sight has taken away his ability to tear a wave to pieces. His surfing ability has since led him to be crowned as Spain’s adaptive surfing champion in 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019, 2 x ISA Para Surfing World Champion in 2016 and 2020, and most recently taking second place in the 2022 Hawaii Adaptive Surfing championships earlier this year.
Aitor competing in Hawaii, photographed by @asiabrynne
After his success in Hawaii and then in the 35th Abanca Pantín Classic Galicia Pro in his home waters, we caught up with C-Skins rider Aitor to learn more about his unique experience of surfing.
Is it possible to describe the difference in feeling between the sensation of surfing blind and surfing with sight? As I understand you have also surfed whilst being partially sighted as well and how would you describe those differences, what sensations do you have to focus on to be successful as a blind surfer? (Es posible describir la diferencia de sentimiento entre la sensación de surfear a ciegas y surfear con visión?)
When I still could see, I would get out of the water frustrated for not having done what the wave asked of me. Now that I'm blind, when there's a synchrony between what I do and the wave I'm overcome with an incredible feeling. To tell the truth, nowadays I almost enjoy surfing more because the sensations are even greater.
Cuando veía normalmente salía enfadado del agua por no hacer lo que me pedía la ola. Ahora que soy ciego, cuando lo que hago y la ola se sincronizan es increíble lo que siento. Si digo la verdad, ahora casi disfruto más porque las sensaciones son mucho mayores.
What sensations do you have to focus on to be successful as a blind surfer? (En que sensaciones uno tiene que enfocarse para tener éxito como un surfista ciego?)
One has to use his hearing a lot. But more than anything, assimilate all the information transmitted by the wave – its speed, shape, and power.
Usar muchísimo el oído y sobre todo quedarse con toda información que transmite la ola. La velocidad, la rampa (curva de la ola) y su fuerza.
How does the relationship with your aid/guide work and can you describe how that relationship has developed over time? (Como funciona la relación con tu guía/asistente/ caddy? Y podrías describir como esa relación se ha desarrollado con el tiempo?)
I don't always surf with a guide/caddy, because for me, being self-sufficient in the sea is important – that's why I often surf alone. But when I'm fortunate to have someone to help me things are easier and more straightforward.
Usually, the relationship with the caddy/guide tends to be very good; after all, we have to know each other well. Needless to say, spending a lot of time surfing with him makes everything easier and more perfect.
No siempre surfeo con guía, porque para mí es importante ser autosuficiente en el mar. Es por eso que muchas veces surfeo solo. Pero cuando tengo la suerte de tener compañía que me ayude, las cosas son más fáciles y certeras.
Normalmente la relación con el Caddy (guía) suele ser muy buena porque nos tenemos que conocer muy bien. Por supuesto que surfear mucho con él hace que todo sea más fácil y más perfecto.
You were reportedly back in the water for the first time 3 months after losing your sight fully. Can you tell us a little bit about the first time being back in the waves? (Por lo que leí, volviste al agua por primera vez 3 meses después de perder la vista por completo. Puedes contarnos un poco sobre la primera vez que volviste a surfear?)
After leaving the hospital I thought I'd never surf again because with the "black screen" I believed I'd get dizzy. But when I had the chance to get into the water for the first time I put on some swimming goggles and, wading in, I realised that the sea provided me with a lot of information. If the wave came straight at me I was facing the North; if I turned and the wave hit my hips I knew I was facing East or West; if it hit me from behind I was facing South. At the same time, the sound told me if the wave was powerful or weak, and whether it was far away.
I began surfing in really small waves with long, soft surfboards (like those from surf schools), as though I was learning it all over again. Little by little, I realised I could start switching to smaller fibreglass boards so as to try and catch bigger waves. And it's worth mentioning that it took me no time to learn how to put on the C-Skins wetsuits by myself.
Cuando comencé a surfear tras salir del hospital pensé que nunca iba a volver a surfear porque con la pantalla en negro creía que me iba a marear. Pero cuando tuve la posibilidad de meterme a agua por primera vez tras salir del hospital me puse unas gafas de piscina y entrando al agua me di cuenta que el mar me daba mucha información. Si la ola me venía de frente estaba para el Norte y si giraba y la ola me daba en las caderas sabía que era el Este o el oeste y si me daba de espaldas al Sur. A la vez el sonido me decía si la ola era fuerte o blanda y si estaba lejos. Comencé con tablas grandes y blandas (de escuela) y olas muy pequeñas como si empezara a hacer surf de nuevo. Poco a poco me fui dando cuenta de que las cosas se podían ir cambiando a tablas más pequeñas de fibra o poliéster y poder coger así olas más grandes.
Y no me puedo olvidar de deciros lo rápido aprendí a vestirme los trajes C-Skins sin ayuda de nadie…
What do you think are the limits for adaptive blind surfing? Are you looking to chase larger waves, or are you more focused on pulling off better manoeuvres? (En tu opinión, cuáles son las limitaciones del surf adaptado para ciegos? Buscas agarrar olas más grandes o estás más enfocado en realizar mejores maniobras?)
The biggest limitation for a blind surfer is not being able to surf alone for fear of getting lost at sea due to the currents or winds, or because the waves move you from place to place too quickly. Catching big waves isn't my objective; I'd rather perfect the ability of surfing a wave according to what it asks of me.
Las mayores limitaciones de un surfista ciego es no poder surfear solo porque te puedes perder en el mar por las corrientes o por el viento o porque las olas te muevan muy rápido de sitio. Coger olas grandes no es mi objetivo, me gusta más surfear bien las olas con las correspondientes maniobras según lo que pide la ola.
We’ve read about how you experience the ocean a lot through sound. How has that sense improved over time, and what are you most excited to experience next in surfing? (Yo he leído que experimentas mucho el océano a través del sonido. Cómo ha mejorado ese sentido con el tiempo? Y qué es lo que más tienes ganas de experimentar a continuación en el surf?)
To me, my hearing is what helps me the most when I want to surf alone. What I want the most is to keep improving, surf faster and do more vertical and powerful manoeuvres. And of course, win more contests and hopefully go to the first paralympics!
Para mí, el oído es lo que más me ayuda para poder surfear solo. Lo que más deseo es seguir mejorando, surfear más rápido con maniobras más verticales y más fuertes. ¡Y por supuesto ganar más campeonatos del mundo y a poder ser… ir a las primeras paraolimpiadas!
You can follow Aitor's story on Instagram at @aitorfrancesena