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Basque Barrels Part I: Surfing in France

A few days of great waves on the Basque coast of France.

There is a photo from a 1970s era Surfer Magazine of a man leisurely sitting on a bench in the Basque Country of France. He is overlooking a perfect right—a blue-green bomb peeling into an empty channel.

For me the photo encapsulated all the reasons to travel—finding empty beautiful waves in picturesque and exotic settings.

So two weeks ago, I was elated to find myself in exactly the same spot as the photo. I was above the legendary Parlementia reef in the picturesque seaside village of Guerthary, France.

And just like in that historic photo, the waves were pumping.

I had come to France to introduce my children to the country of my father, whose family still lives in and around Paris. The boys flew over with their grandpa first.

After they spent a wonderful couple of weeks in Paris and the French countryside, I flew over to take them south to the Basque Country—ground zero for the European surfing scene.

After a couple of days of sampling the sights and bubbly delights of the Champagne country southeast of Paris, where my uncle has a house, the boys and I loaded up a 2002 Renault mini-wagon with our surfboards and camping gear.

My cousins Vincent and Margaux accompanied us. Both had enjoyed spending summers in Imperial Beach (Vincent was even an IB Junior Lifeguard) and love the ocean.

Vincent spent last year’s summer vacation in the village of Seignosse, home to what Surfer Magazine recently called the world’s best beachbreak and one of the world’s best waves.

After an uneventful eight-hour drive, we arrived in Guethary just south of the French surfing capital Biarritz. The village is precariously perched above the Palmentaria reef.

At the Basque Surf Company Pro Surf Shop in Guethary, where I rented a 6’8” epoxy fun board and Vincent rented a soft-top, we met shop proprietors Romo and Esteban, both longtime locals.

“The surf is going to get big tomorrow, 8-10’. Palmentaria is the Sunset Beach of France,” said Esteban, who had grown up speaking Basque in Guethary and was of mixed Spanish and American ancestry.

The boys and Vincent paddled out at a nearby beachbreak. The waves were small, but the water was a balmy 68 degrees.

That evening we sat around our tents in a nearby campground eating pizza and imagining the waves we would surf the next day.

The following morning, the boys and I were up early. While some south wind was making things a bit sloppy, the sets at Palmentaria were in the six-foot range and there were just a handful of surfers to sample them.

We all caught a few rights and then paddled in as the wind came up.

Later that morning, we realized that there was another wave to the south of Palmentaria, a left called Alcyon, that is the “Big Rock” of France.

Alcyon is a grinding left that is best at low tide.

Israel paddled out and caught a few gnarly 4-6’ lefts.

“It was super shallow and the takeoff was super tight,” he said. “Some guy started yelling at me in French, and I had no idea why he was angry.”

The next day the wind was offshore and the waves were pumping. The sets at Alcyon were in the 6-8’ range. Only a handful of guys were out.

Across the bay I could see triple overhead peaks breaking over the Palmentaria reef. The scene reminded me of a winter-day at the Sloughs.

I snapped a few photos of the boys surfing Alcyon. Then I put on my rashguard, grabbed my board and paddled out at Palmentaria.

The waves were breaking close to a half a mile from shore. Big peaks came out of deep water and heaved across the reef.

An eclectic crew of hardcore longtime local surfers were out on 9-10’ big-wave guns. There were a couple of visiting Japanese surfers and another American.

Everyone is friendly and stoked to be surfing an overhead swell in the summer.

I was completely undergunned on my 6’8”. But I managed to catch a few of the smaller set waves (I couldn’t even paddle into the larger ones), get caught inside and hammered. I appreciate why Palmentaria is compared to Sunset.

While I wish I had been able to surf on of my own big-wave boards, I was still glad to experience a wave I had dreamed about since I was a teenager.

On our last surf day, we head to the fabled beachbreaks of Hossegor north of Biarritz. Miles and miles of sandbanks provide deep and often empty tubes for visiting and local surfers.

The world’s best surfers assemble here each fall to compete in the Quiksilver Pro France.

The boys and I pop over the sand dunes of Le Penon in the village of Seignosse. The waves are 3-5’ and offshore.

“It is going off,” Daniel said.

For the rest of the day, we catch dozens of waves. Israel broke his board on a stand-up barrel.

At low tide I find a sand bar spitting out A-frames. One other surfer joins me, a local, who like me is mystified that on a Saturday afternoon during their height of summer, we are the only ones out.

I can’t wait to go back.

Next week: Basque Barrels Part II: Surfing in Northern Spain.

Serge Dedina is the Executive Director of WiLDCOAST and the author of Wild Sea: Eco-Wars and Surf Stories from the Coast of the Californias.

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