In partnership with Canon, we went down to the shores of Soorts-Hossegor with a Canon EOS 5D Mark III to document the waves and speak to the surfers, who we found to have cultivated a unique community there.
Off the South West coast of France, an under-water ravine called the Gouf De Capbreton moulds the incoming waters of the Atlantic into the kind of waves most surfers dream of.
When the quality of surf was discovered in the 1960s, word spread fast. Before long, surfers from the US, Australia and all over Europe were descending on the town of Soorts-Hossegor, eager to sample the power of its waves. It's certainly not a scene for the faint-hearted – a cubic metre of water weighs a tonne and during some months, waves regularly exceed chest height.
The legendary status of those waves has placed Hossegor among Europe's most important surfing destinations. For those in the know, it's definitely a better choice than the larger, flashier neighbour Biarritz. "Hossegor is the best place for surfing in France", says Adrien Toyon, a pro-surfer from Réunion Island, who ranks among the world's top 100. "All the best surfers are here. The quality of the waves is just amazing, when the conditions are all together you can get some of the best beach breaks in the world".
"Everyone moves here for the surf", says Alex Obolensky – a Hossegor resident and co-owner of local business Wasted Talent. "It's very multinational – there are lots of Germans, Brits, Scandinavians, obviously French and Spanish, quite a few Aussies as well, who all move here for the surf and for work, because it's where the surf industry is based in Europe".
Hossegor has long been a destination for French artists and writers too. From the 1900s, a creative commune would assemble on the shores of Lac d'Hossegor every summer. Their influence is visible in the innovative architecture of the villas they erected, and the continuing tradition of summer residency still followed by many artistic visitors. However, as more surfers settled in recent decades, the town developed a distinct character.
Shops selling surf essentials and clothing inspired by the scene emerged, while a proliferation of cafés and bars provided places to congregate between hours in the sea. Attracted by the relaxed vibe and sense of community, photographers, illustrators, graphic designers and musicians from across Europe began to gravitate towards Hossegor. Many of them are surfers, too. Around the turn of the century, Quiksilver established an annual pro competition with art shows often accompanying the event.
"Most people work in an industry related to surfing here; it is the driving force of the culture," says Alex. "Increasingly, people are looking for different things to do, apart from just surfing, and everyone feeds off each other, both in and outside of the water. I think it's a good place to draw influence from".
An average day for these creative pilgrims tends to start early, especially in the summer, with everyone rising at first light. Carloads of people head straight to the beach, calling each other along the way to discuss where the best breaks can be found. "If the waves are good, we usually jump in for a surf until 8.30 or 9.00", says Alex. "Then we get out, go to the bakery, and grab a croissant and a coffee."
After going their separate ways to offices, studios and shops, everyone assembles again around 1 PM. "We go for another surf until three, then you're drying your hair in the car and eating a sandwich, high-tailing it back to the office", Alex says. "Usually at six, a couple of the guys will come around and we'll have a couple of beers at the office with everyone, then maybe another surf if it's good. If not, we'll have a BBQ or dinner, then in bed at 11 ready for the next day. It's not bad!"
Adrien agrees: "You can surf everywhere along the coast; if you find the best peak before everyone else you can spend some sick sessions alone with your mates – it's the best feeling ever!"
Conor Maguire, 21 and a rising star on the surf scene, is originally from Ireland but, like Adrien and Alex, spends a lot of time surfing in Hossegor. "I tend to veer towards terrifying myself, rather than surfing normal, fun-size waves," he says. This is a desire Hossegor fulfils perfectly.
"Surfing wasn't very popular in Ireland when I was growing up," says Conor. "Before I even started surfing, I saw a few photos of Richie Fitzgerald, Gabe Davies, Al Mennie and Andrew Cotton pioneering Mullaghmore, which is one of the heaviest big wave spots in the world, and they blew me away."
Inspired by the pros, at the age of 11, Conor and his best friend began taking lessons at a small surf club in Bundoran, County Donegal. "We used to get abuse when we were running to the beach from a few older people driving by, but we didn't care," he says. "We would give it right back and keep running to the waves. I think we thought: 'Those guys don't know what they're missing'."
In Hossegor, things couldn't be more different. "Hossegor is such a great place for surfers of all abilities because good waves break consistently throughout the year", says Conor. "The food and nightlife is great and there is a very high level of surfing, so you tend to improve quite quickly from surfing with people better than you. Also, contrary to popular belief, the French are very friendly!"
"Everybody looks out for everybody. It's kind of an unspoken rule – and human nature, I guess – that if someone gets into bother, whether it be because of lack of experience or just bad luck, other surfers will do their best to help".
"One of the greatest things is probably to get some waves alone with your friends," Adrien adds. "It's all about having fun and living in the moment."
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Words by Rachael Healy. Photos by Sebastian Thomas.