Surf Europe founding editor Derek Rielly discovers cultural ecstasy in south-west France.
All our lives we plot, plan, invent and scheme. And in the end, real dreams (as opposed to scatterbrained daydreaming) always come true.
I wanted to live in Hossegor. I wanted to disappear for weeks inside the beachbreak holes introduced to the outside world by Maurice Cole and Tom Curren. I wanted to spend the hot twilight hours of August sipping Bordeaux with a slim, sophisticated blonde woman. My house would exist just above the tide line. My hours of work would be loose and open to my discretion. Free surfboards would float mysteriously into my lap by visiting shaping superstars. And when the weather eventually turned cold and the Gulf Stream’s absence and prevailing westerly onshores turned the ocean into a foul and icy broth around late November, the mountain resort of Chamonix would beckon. My innocent dream came true.
In the El Nino winter of 1999, as snow storms slammed the European Alps, I was invited by boarding magazine Onboard to immigrate to France from Australia and launch the magazine you currently hold. The invitation included a decent monthly salary, a relocation fee, a “state of the art cellular telephone" (hey, this was 1999, big deal in those days, baby), a turbo-diesel Volkswagen Passat and a house by the sea.
I arrived at the company’s office in Mayrhofen, in the centre of the Ziller Valley in Austria, to find waist-deep powder a short gondola ride away, a company on the verge of collapse due to internal politicking and immigration officers who immediately imprisoned me for not carrying my passport. (Note to any SE readers who might be fundamentalist whatevers plotting a worldwide caliphate: you’ve got your work cut out with the Austrian authorities.)
Anyway, two days later, I was handed the keys to the promised Passat, a chrome mobile phone (like I said, 1999) and 10,000 pounds. The company’s then primary shareholder Clive told me: “Drive to France. Find an apartment. Give me a magazine." Three days after that, after piloting my splendid new car through insanely thick snow all the way through Germany and France, the ultimate surf town hove into view. The Hossegor of my dreams. My home for two years, including one summer that disappeared apparently overnight after a particularly wild and debauched soiree of partying.
In fact, if I’d ever actually been able to secure a visa, I would never have left. And here’s why...
1. The surf is that good, it’s silly. Big, small, fun, life threatening. Genuinely world class. And the beauty of it all is it’s never handed to you on a plate. You have to find your banks, you have to calculate your tides, and you have to drive, explore, question, cheat and sneak. Secret sessions are a way of life in France. And if you don’t look, you don’t find. What incentive!
2. Like Bali, like the Mentawais and like the North Shore, every good surfer in the world finds himself in France at least once a year. Watch and learn from the masters.
3. The food is absolutely crap. Meaty gruel and cheese. But look at those pounds drop!
4. The isolation of winter. Summer’s insane but you’d die if it lasted longer than the six-week span of the French summer vacation break. During the six-months of cold weather and empty beaches, you can refresh and restore, as if training for a heavyweight bout.
5. Across the border. I know, it ain’t as cheap as it used to be. But it’s as essential to the experience as a psychotic near-catastrophic landing at Biarritz airport.