DEPARTURE | Heaven and Heartache on a Cold French Beach

Every surfer knows the feeling of those rare sessions when everything – the wind, the tide, the swell, the sun – seem to come together all at once into one grandiose, transcendental mirage of oceanic bliss.

These end up being the kinds of sessions we recollect over and over countless times throughout the years – unforgettable sessions that become etched and branded into our memories like cigarette burns on the backseat of a worn-out Volkswagen bus.

1115161732e~2For me, the most recent of these ‘cigarette burn sessions’ took place on a cold, empty French beach just north of Hossegor – a stretch of sand famous for its shifty tides, topless beaches, and thumping, sand-sucking barrels.

It all started when the opportunity came about to work remotely for awhile (from December to March, to be exact). In my perpetually tube-seeking rumpus and misaligned romanticisms, I’d decided to make an overseas campaign, and arranged to sublet a small apartment behind the dunes of Seignosse Le Penon. I figured I’d relax, get a little work done each day, drink wine, eat chocolate-covered pretzels, and get barreled off my nuts for three months straight. What could possibly go wrong?

I made arrangements to sublet my own place back home for several weeks, tossed my 4/3 wetsuit and some booties in a duffel bag, and was gone in a flash with nothing but Tom Curren-esque bottom turns and cold Atlantic barrels on my mind.

As it turned out, consummating the wine drinking and pretzel eating was easy enough, but the ‘cold Atlantic barrels’ part of my master plan failed to materialize in they way that I’d initially hoped for; I ended up fending off bouts of circumstantial depression brought on by weeks of rain, onshore winds, bitter cold, and closed-out storm swells. Not to mention, the entire village of Le Penon was virtually boarded up and vacated for the winter – a minor detail which the property owner apparently didn’t feel was worth mentioning beforehand. Not a single one of the cafes, bars, or grocery stores was open for business – the whole town was like a colder, shittier, French-speaking version of Cocoa Beach, Florida.

And another thing, even though I’d lived in Bilbao awhile back (which is just down the coast in Spain), I’d apparently forgotten that in the dead of winter, more often than not the Bay of Biscay is a nasty, ferocious bitch — like a menopausal housewife hellbent on making miserable wops out of everyone around her.

Suffice to say, it didn’t take long at all before my refined French ‘staycation’ started to transform into quite the mésaventure from hell.

Until one evening, that is, just as I was tap-tap-tapping away on the computer and contemplating opening a second bottle of wine, the heavens decided to take a respite from their relentless hiemal weeping. I glanced up doubtfully from the dim glow of my computer screen, walked over to the balcony doors, and was no less than amazed to see a bit of sunshine poking through the dreary Basque sky. This inspired me to fire up the espresso machine for une noisette, and I pulled on my puffer to step outside for a breath of fresh air.

Being that there wasn’t much swell in the water and it had been raining all afternoon, I hadn’t even bothered to check the surf that day. But as I stood there looking out over the garden – balcony tiles still wet with rain drops – I noticed that the air was completely still, so I decided to take my coffee and make a quick run over to the beach. I figured with slack winds, a sunset, and a pulsing high tide, I just might be in for a treat.

A treat, indeed.

As soon as I made my way across the parking lot, climbed to the top of the sand dune, and got a glimpse of the surf, I was hauling straight back down to grab my board and jump into my wetsuit.

Now, let me tell you something about southwest France that you should, but might not know. When it comes to the fickle, thumping, shore-pounding beach breaks of this flighty little region, tides are truly master of the domain – the tides giveth and the tides taketh away. As such, when you have a pulsing high tide that’s playing compliment to a small, long-period ground swell of just the right angle, magical things can happen. In this particular instance, I was greeted with perfect, head high, oil glass barrels rifling down the beach not more than 50 feet from shore. And the best part? There wasn’t a soul around.

Given that the evening sun was sinking fast, I made quick work of getting into the water – after hustling into my wetsuit I grabbed my board, galloped leash-free across the cold, wet sand, leapt into the shorebreak, and within seconds was sitting on the peak, waiting for a set.

After the commotion of my frantic rush into the lineup, time seemed to slow down to a strange, lethargic crawl, and it was then that the surreal aura of the whole scene began to settle in. I sat there in the oil-glass water, schools of mullet swimming lazily by just below the surface, and watched in a trance as the evening sun and golden-hour sky merged uninterrupted with the far edge of the sea out on the horizon. Maybe it was the rush of frigid water straight to my head, or some chemical reaction of wine, espresso, and Nutella that scrambled my cerebral circuitry, but whatever the case was, I went light-headed for a moment and the entire globe before my eyes – a muted arrangement of pinks, purples, yellows and oranges – swallowed me up into some kind of astral, Neptunian mirage. I couldn’t tell up from down, left from right, or anything in between. Instead of a surfer in a wetsuit, I felt like some insignificant speck of nekton, cleaved open and left to bleed into the marrow of an oceanic acid trip.

I don’t remember my first wave, or even a set approaching. All I remember is floating – I don’t even think I paddled – down the face of a head-high wall of glass, rising to my feet, shifting into a soul arch, and disappearing behind a sapphire curtain as my brains melted into the most perfect French barrel I’d ever seen in my life. I could have died, been placed on the suture of heaven and hell, and been none the wiser.

2016-11-17-23-35-16After a few gems all to myself, a couple of the local guys ended up paddling out – stumbling upon the otherworldly conditions just like I had. We took turns trading off wave after wave, hooting and hollering each other into the most perfect pits any of us had seen all winter. Nothing big at all, but it was exactly the kind of session we’d all needed after so many weeks of rain, wind, and general misery.

1116161802aAt some point I decided to run up the beach and grab my phone for a few blurry pics, and I stood there in the shorebreak, my newfound connaisances pumping down the line, pulling into barrel after barrel right in front of my face. Some of them were made, most of them weren’t. It didn’t matter.

1116161802bWe rang the evening out until the last feints of sunlight drifted below the pale horizon, and we capped the night off on the beach in proper French style with a fire and a bottle of wine that one of the guys had brought in his backpack.

A truly unforgettable session, and a brand new cigarette burn etched into the fabric of my collective memory for a long, long time to come.

1115161719a~2

Modern_Canvass, 2017

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