As autumn beds in here in the UK, the attention of many surfers, both here and across Europe, turns to southwest France. Whilst Californians have the border hop to Baja as a coming of age surf trip, for many British surfers catching the ferry to France is more than just a rite of passage and is more of a long-term relationship.
Our Mat is one of those surfers who’s made that return journey many times, in many ways. As we get deeper into October and more and more surfers from across Europe begin migrating towards the beaches of the Landes coast, we had him pen a memoir of the changing face of his French surf trips over the years.
It started as the most accessible and affordable overseas surf trip in my late teens – cram as many of us into, and as many surfboards on top of, a car as soon as one of us had a driving license, get the ferry to France and keep driving south. Over the last fifteen plus years, I’ve now done that trip many more times by train, plane and automobile, over sea and under it, for “business” but (mostly) for pleasure.
My formative trips to France were the classic friends road trip; for a few years on the bounce we aimed for the stretch of beach immediately west of Bordeaux, on the Gironde, where crowds were non-existent. Most of the campsites were already closed or closing for the season, and at least one year we spent two weeks sleeping three people to a (small) two-person tent because we’d left the other tent behind on my Dad’s driveway. Tents were pitched and hammocks strung between pine trees in empty campsites, and in my memory we existed almost exclusively on a diet of bread, cheese, pasta and red wine. We scored long period hurricane swells so good, on beaches so empty, that we unanimously agreed to return the next autumn, and we got it just as good that time too.
35mm film photography by Cynrig Williams
One year I ended up surfing southwest France on multiple trips; early in the summer I joined my Dad on a trip to the Basque region, catching the ferry to Bilbao. After a week he dropped me off in Biarritz where I rented a board and surfed La Grande Plage getting an ear infection before getting the train all the way back to Cornwall (via Paris and London). At the other end of that summer I then went on a field trip to Hossegor with my university course (we were quite the rent-a-crowd), and we scored great shorebreak barrels next to the old (and now no-longer-there) pier at Le Penon. In hindsight, I’m sure our lecturers were just having a laugh at our expense, sending us out to try to measure sediment movement in the impact zone of a headhigh shorebreak and watching their students get smashed up the berm and crawl out of the sea spitting out sand.
The train ride to Biarritz makes it a legitimate option for taking a surf trip without the need to fly – following that first experience, I then visited Biarritz again several years later, one Easter, as a friend and I tried (and succeeded) to take our surfboards all the way to Morocco by train. To be perfectly honest, the stretch to Biarritz (where we stayed overnight) was the easiest part of the whole journey; we managed to carry our boardbags in the guard’s carriage or the overhead luggage racks all the way to and through London and Paris, and the TGV was quick and easy. Taking a surfboard on the Spanish rail network was a whole different story….
Surf trips to Hossegor, for many, means a van trip. I’ve been lucky enough to experience it this way too, with a friend from Western Australia in an aged and decidedly unfashionable and slow VW Westfalia campervan nicknamed Turtle (Turtle was not a swish T4 or T5, nor a trendy #vanlife conversion job). We parked and slept in lay-bys and on roadsides, and on a garage forecourt in Spain for about 3 nights when we inevitably broke down (the first time). We ping-ponged back and forth over the border between Hossegor and Mundaka, making the most of the opportunities on the Spanish side when the straight beaches of Landes were closed out by storms.
In later years, I was lucky enough to visit southwest France several times for work (with another company that I work with), and each time I took with me one of the fishes from the racks here at Otter. Staying in a “staff” house on the dunes right above La Grav that we’d lucked in to, we had front row seats for one of the best waves in Europe during prime season. Despite our temporary neighbours including Jon Jon Florence and Taj Burrows, the fact that this particular property was in need of some serious modernisation meant that despite it’s A* location, it languished down at the bottom of the rental agencies lists. It was such a score that the team I was working with booked it out for several years in succession in a single hit so as not to miss out. During those trips work took up the majority of our time, but we bodysurfed the shorebreak out front on an almost daily basis (sometimes in waves that I now feel fortunate to have survived!) and enjoyed some amazing surfs when the best swells coincided with our days off.
Most recently, trips to France aren’t surf trips. My in-laws live in Brittany and we visit at least once each year, but every now and then I’ve been able to explore some new stretch of French coast during these visits; after getting married we “family-mooned” as far south as we thought we could easily travel with a toddler, on the Vendee coast. We “camped”, but our semi-permanent pre-pitched safari tent was the other end of the canvas spectrum to the old two-man tent I’d shared with two friends over fifteen years previously. I couldn’t even touch the roof of the thing!
That “spectrum” of accommodation could easily be translated to represent my French surf experiences as a whole, actually. As the years have passed I’ve found myself enjoying the fine waves that France often offers in the autumn over and over; sometimes on dedicated dirtbag surf trips, sometimes whilst passing through, sometimes whilst working, and now, increasingly, opportunistic moments whilst sharing time with my family. Every time has been distinct and I’ve rarely re-trodden old ground; even when returning to now-familiar surf spots, the context has always been different. That’s what I’ve grown to love about surfing in France; it’s never a carbon copy surf trip (the swell and sand banks can see to that, however hard you try and hope otherwise), but the cold, gold, early mornings, the mist that rises off the lines of a big new swell as its approaching peaks are warmed by the sun, and the ozoney smells of the salt spray hanging in the air and the warm pine sap in the forests behind the dunes are sensory memories and markers that don’t change. And when you find a good bank, on a good swell, and the elements all come together on one of those sunny offshore mornings that France is famous for, you’ll get waves as perfect and memorable as anywhere else in the world.