August 21, 2020
Like many common expressions, the French language has a habit of romanticizing the most mundane of things. Sunrise can be translated as "le lever du Soleil" for example, and the personification in its antonym "le coucher du Soleil" (literally the going to sleep of the sun) is infinitely more descriptive than its English equivalent. Similarly, the surfing experience in France is often viewed through a rose-tinted lens and this is one of the reasons people go back there year after year; perfect beach-break barrels, fine wine, croissants, beautiful white sand beaches, and warm water are but a few of the draws. For many Welsh surfers, myself included, the annual pilgrimage to France's southwest coast could almost be deemed essential. With our limited swell window and unfortunate position in the North Atlantic, summers are generally plagued with mediocre onshore waves coupled with persistently melancholy weather. In contrast, the west coast of France benefits from its more southern latitude, as well as a near 180-degree swell window, meaning consistent waves and 30 degree Celsius air temperatures are the norm.
By now the cynics amongst you may be thinking that this sounds too good to be true but up until the late 90s, and even as recently as 10 years ago, they would be wrong. Unfortunately, with the explosion in popularity of surfing throughout Europe and the world, France has become the focal point, a Mecca if you will, for everyone from up and coming super groms to land-locked Germans who want to learn to surf. Once quiet peaks are now quickly overrun with a conveyor belt of novice surfers on foam boards wearing surf school rash vests. Have you ever bumped into a German, Swedish, Dutch or Belgian surfer at one of the world's better-known surf spots? From Raglan to Uluwatu, Chicama to Jeffrey's Bay there are ever-increasing numbers of surfers from seemingly surf starved, even land-locked countries. A great number of these have probably learned to surf in one of the plethoras of surf schools in the southwest of France. In fact, if you were to witness first hand the methods employed in their tuition it would go some way to explain the proliferation of bad etiquette at many of the aforementioned spots. Watching a lesson is often somewhere between sadism and slapstick comedy. The instructor paddles the students outback (whether the waves are 2ft and peeling or 4-6ft barreling close-outs), points them to the beach, and tells them to "Allez!". If they are really struggling they may give them a bit of a shove for good measure. The critical part in the surf curriculum about dropping in, or even checking to see if anyone is on your inside, is omitted. This, I can only presume, is because the learner would never actually get a wave due to the huge crowds, but also relies on the surfer being provided with the safety blanket of a soft foam board (sometimes it is better described as a piece of weaponry).
Luckily for me and the many other frustrated surfers who remember the 'good ole days' (I cannot remember getting a set wave for the first 2 years that I surfed, a drop-in was punished with a clip around the ear and nobody had even heard of a surf lesson!), surf schools operate like any other business, with set hours and slots throughout the day. Never has the dawn patrol or evening glass off been more sacrosanct than in Hossegor during August. That beautiful part of the day where the beaches are devoid of holidaymakers and their sunbathing paraphernalia, the winds are light and the sky a reddish hue. I had met Thomas Martin in the water during a busy midday surf at a bank my friends and I had named 'French Noosa'. The Seignosse area is regularly blessed with finger-like accumulations of sand that lead to low tide banks which are more akin to Australia's famous sand-bottomed point breaks, in stark contrast with the dumpy, shore-break barrels a few kilometers down the coast. Thomas' surfing stood out like a sore thumb amongst the kamikaze beginners and flapping pseudo-pro shortboarders. A single fin log devotee, he is schooled in the art of less is more. 'French Noosa' only worked on a low tide, but after a few days of battling the crowds during office hours, the lunar cycle came into a favorable window. Early morning low tides with 2-3 foot of swell and light offshores. A message from Thomas pinged through one evening as I sipped on a cold beer at our campground, a nightly ritual that always had the potential for a sore head and a later than planned start.
Only a few stragglers from the previous night's festivities were sleeping in their cars as we pulled up to the beach. In a scene reminiscent of Mike Hynson and Robert August in Endless Summer, the walk over the dunes rewarded us with confirmation of what we had hoped for; chest high, clean waves with a single figure crowd. Growing up surfing in cold water, the novelty of heading straight in the ocean with the board shorts that you are already wearing never gets old.
By 6:50 am I was out back awaiting the next set wave, all the while double-checking over my shoulder for the hordes who would soon come and crash the party. The following hour was what summer surfs are made of; high wave count, maximum fun, and Thomas there to photograph it all. All good things must come to an end and by 8:00 am swarms of beginners descended on the ocean with their mass-produced mini-mals, paddling out legs splayed. The first surf lessons were performing their functional warm-ups on the sand, after all, going head first over the falls is a risky business.
The warmth of the sun had by now well and truly burnt through the morning haze and I decided it was time for my second favorite morning ritual in France; a trip to the patisserie for pastries and coffee. Parfait!
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