This article originally appeared on VICE France.
It’s 9AM on a Sunday in late December of 2020, at the Huveaune Beach in Marseille, just a stone’s throw from the city’s famous Prado Beach. It’s 14 degrees in the water, no more than 10 outside, and the sharp, chilly Mistral wind typical of the region is blowing at full speed. Despite the weather, about 30 people have already jumped into the water, surfboards in arms and wetsuits zipped up to their necks.
“Surfing here has just completely boomed,” says Florian, 36, who founded the Marseille-based surf school La 13ème Vague (The 13th Wave) in 2010. Although business has been good for the last five years, the pandemic has given the surfing community a big boost, since gyms and ski resorts were closed throughout winter. Today, Florian splits up 80 surfing novices into ten groups of eight. He’ll be supervising them all with the help of two instructors.
“We get a lot of adults these days, especially women between 30 and 50,” he says. “They’re signing up for surfing as if it was the gym.”
The Mediterranean, with its comparatively low tidal ranges, is not usually considered a good place to surf – Atlantic beaches in the northern region of Brittany or in the southern reaches of French Basque Country are the most popular surf spots in France. But from April to November, the Mediterranean coastline around Marseille is constantly buffeted by the northeastern Mistral winds, which creates small but regular waves, transforming the area into a seasonal surf destination.
This particular spot, Huveaune Beach, takes its name from a local river that meets the sea right here. The river’s flow creates underwater sandbanks which help the formation of rolling waves, which are rarely above two metres in height and perfect for beginners. The beach also lies adjacent to the coast road, making it easily accessible by both car and public transport.
Quentin, a young private security guard, moved down from northern France for work and was soon bitten by the surfing bug. Although not a fan before moving, he suddenly felt the urge to give water sports a shot. “In a couple of months, I’ll try windsurfing and kiteboarding,” he says. “If you told me I’d be doing this when I was back up north, I would have had a good laugh.”
Paul is a veteran surfer who moved here from Brittany with his wife and four kids about two years ago. He brought his surfboard along, but he never thought he’d get around to using it. Discovering Marseille’s surfing community was “a nice surprise”, he says, though he misses the spaciousness of Brittany’s beaches – and northern surfers’ etiquette.
“The water was crammed full of people,” Paul says, referring to a surfing session last September. “It’s supposed to be one person per wave, so everyone gets their turn. People here are skilled but not very polite.” Malika, a 30-something from Marseille, agrees. “It depends on the spot, but sometimes it’s a bit wild,” she says. “You have to take up space, which is trickier as a girl.”
Local surfers know better spots outside the city, but won’t spill the beans anytime soon. “You want to keep them secret, like the parts of the forest where the good mushrooms grow,” says Nicolas Mallaret, a PE teacher, amateur photographer and surf enthusiast.
On his Instagram, Nicolas shares pictures of his surfing adventures, never revealing where they’ve been taken. These spots aren’t for newbies – in some areas near Marseille where the coast is rocky, the waves can be pretty powerful. “But even those places sometimes get packed,” says Yann, a 25-year-old Marseille native.
The surfer aesthetic has been used by advertisers for years to sell everything from aftershave to cars. But only very recently has the sport been taken seriously enough to become an event in the Olympics . In fact, it was supposed to premiere last year in Tokyo before the games were postponed.
Among the 2021 Olympic surfing favourites are two Marseille natives and brotherly rivals, Antoine and Edouard Delpero. The two have won many national and European titles, and have even brought home a win together – the teams section of the 2013 ISA World Longboard Surfing Championship.
The two now live on the Basque coast, where they have a surfing school, but they got their start in Marseille, where their family still lives. “This winter, you almost couldn’t surf at all [in Marseille],” Edouard says of the sport’s boom in popularity there. “The whole surfing mania is out of control.”
He thinks many people are in it for the look: “For them, it’s a style, nothing more. But at its core, surfing is about being in direct contact with the powerful forces of nature.”
Hervé Amouyal, one of the pioneers of the sport in Marseille, bought his first board in 1983 at a secondhand shop after reading articles in specialist magazines. Back then, the internet basically didn’t exist, nor did any of the wave-forecasting apps surfers use today.
“In ‘83 and ‘84, there were only a handful of us,” Hervé says. “It was a group of Tahitian students from the Luminy School of Architecture [a campus outside the city] who realised the area’s surfing potential.” According to Hervé, they scouted all the best surf spots in the area and really introduced the sport to locals.
Hervé and his friends went on to create a weather forecasting telephone service for local surfers. In 1992, he co-founded the Sardine Surfclub and opened a specialist shop two years later, the first in the region. Surfwear was already hugely popular at the time, but interest in the sport picked up around 2010, Hervé says. That’s when other surfing schools started popping up.
Even though there’s money to be made, the sport’s newfound popularity in the region still bugs old-school surfers. “We just want to be alone on our wave,” Hervé says. “Surfing is an individual sport.” When I ask if he goes to Huveaune Beach, Hervé laughs. “Real surfers don’t work much,” he says, suggesting he at least has enough spare time to go to those spots a little further from the beaten track.