When you grow up in a seaside town, there's constant pressure to take up surfing. Every other shop sells wetsuits, all your school friends spend their weekends in the freezing sea, and pale tourists flock to town every summer and walk around Morrisons in their fucking swimming trunks. When I was growing up in Bude, a Cornish seaside town, going near the sea was the last thing I wanted to do. I got so tired of the constant surfing bombardment that I decided to get a skateboard and form an unhealthy skate vs. surf rivalry with a group of other disillusioned teens. "Fuck those surf dicks", I'd think to myself, sitting under a half-pipe in the rain with a bunch of stoned older guys who, in hindsight, probably should have been at work.
It took the rose-tinted filters of Instagram to really change my outlook on surfing. The culture looks like a serene life of travelling the world and bonding with friends, while constantly holding a deep respect and admiration for nature. It's a far cry from what I imagined as a frustrated adolescent. By moving to the gritty depths of East London in my early twenties, however, it felt like the ship had sailed. The life of a blissed-out surfer was never to be for me.
Fortunately, one of the perks of this job is that you sometimes get the chance to live someone else's life, if only for a short time. That's how I ended up flying to the Basque Country in the South of France, and joining up with the Reef team in the perfect surfing microcosm of Hossegor.
With its endless beaches, palm tress, and a laidback attitude, this area is clearly a paradise for surfers. But surfing is one of the few sports that completely depends on natural conditions. It isn't like skateboarding or BMX, where you can ride whatever the weather at an indoor park. With surfing, mother nature decides when you play – and if she wants to stop a surfing competition that thousands of people have travelled to see, she'll hold off on the waves. She can be one mean mother.
With that in mind, I wanted to use my time with these pro surfers to get an understanding of what happens when there are no waves, and surfing becomes impossible. Surfing is a job, as well as a passion; if you can't do either, you'd expect morale to drop.
I discover this first-hand when I step out into a grey and drizzly Capbreton. Not that the weather makes the slightest difference when it comes to the sheer beauty of the place: the long beaches and mountainous scenery look just as unreal as they would in the blazing sunshine. We head into the sleepy town of Bidart and walk through a little café that, somewhat bizarrely, houses what resembles an overly long squash court. It's actually for pelote, a traditional Basque sport. Pelote comes in a variety of forms, one of which you may have seen in Jackass: The Movie, where they use the equipment to powerfully ling oranges at each other's bare arses (which I'm assuming is exactly what the sport's inventors had in mind hundreds of years ago).
The variation that we're playing uses a paleta (a paddle that resembles a table tennis bat with a bent end) and a rubber ball slightly bigger than a squash ball. The game is actually very similar to squash: each player takes turns to hit the ball against the wall with only one bounce allowed each time. The difference is that the court is much longer, and more than one person can play at a time, making it more intense and crowded. Arthur Bourbon, one of the surfers, tells me that they play the game whenever they need to keep active and the surf is looking shit. "We'll get a group of us up here and bring a few beers," he explains with a smile.
With the French Basque Country holding a reputation as one of the world's best surfing locations, it's natural that you'd hardly stop to consider a life away from the coast. We journey an hour inland, through jagged hillsides and traditional villages, to a little hamlet in what seems like the middle of nowhere. Think après ski meets Sound of Music. We head deep into a beautiful valley, put on climbing attire, then clamber up the cliffs to zip-line our way down. Exploring the area like this seems consistent with the way a surfer lives. Their lifestyle doesn't require simply travelling the world to see a picturesque beach and watching huge waves crash from afar like a tourist – it means getting into the rough sea and becoming a part of it. It's the same with this: many would be happy to take the stairs, stand on the side of one of these cliffs, admire the view and take a photo for the 'gram. But for these guys, there's no point in that – there would be no thrill. So, instead of standing at a viewing platform like a tourist, I'm hanging off the edge of a cliff 60ft high.
By the time we touch back down to earth, the surfers are checking their phones with grins on their faces; the surf has picked up. We jump in the car and head for the beach. Cornish long boarder Mike Lay chucks me a wetsuit and I apprehensively pull it on. I've always felt slightly weird about how tight wetsuits are, but there's no time to be a wimp about this. After years of avoiding it, I finally get one on, grab a board and shimmy on down to the beach, where a couple of the pros are waiting to teach me the ropes. It feels kind of embarrassing – given my Cornish heritage – that I'm finally having a surf lesson in the south of France. But hey, I'd rather be taught by pros like Victoria Vergara than some snotty kid I went to school with. I won't go into detail about how the lesson went, but I will leave this here...
Just as Kim Kardashian "broke the internet", I felt I had "broken" surfing.
In reality, after two hours in the ocean it felt more like surfing had broken me. I limp to the car as the sun starts to set, and we head to the Reef House to hang out with the rest of the team, have a barbecue, and play some ping-pong. During the summer months, surf companies like Reef rent big seaside villas in the Hossegor area for their team to live in during competition time. As we walk in we're greeted by surf legends Taylor Knox and Ben Skinner, who are nursing beers and talking ping-pong. When it was mentioned earlier, I assumed that there was just a house table tennis table, and that if you wanted to play you'd help yourself. Not the case: this is a full-scale tournament, featuring custom-made bats, a league table, and a commentator. I'm partnered up with one of the team managers, and get brushed aside like the pathetic non-surfer, non-ping-ponger that I am. Hours of solid whiff-waff fly by, and eventually Rob Machado and his teammate claim victory.
Surfers might seem super chill, but lurking behind the long blond hair and carefree attitude is a fierce competitive nature. It's easy to forget that, as much as they are humble characters who spend most of their time hanging out in the sea with their mates, they are also professional athletes. They didn't become competition winners by making friends with their rivals out on the waves.
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I return to England and spend the following days nursing the pain that comes with a few hours surfing. I don't know whether it's because it was my first time on a surfboard or just because I'm fairly unfit, but this is the kind of strain you're more likely to feel a few days after you've been beaten up outside a club in Hackney. Realistically, though, the pain probably just feels worse due to the fact that I'm writing this from an office in grey East London as rain lashes against the window, instead of sitting on a beach in the South of France watching the sun go down, living the life that my teenage self despised. If only I could go back in time and tell him how wrong he was.