Attention: Chiens Bizarres

In the Côte des Basques, respite is just around the next bend.

Light / Dark

I moved to Bidart, a small commune in the Côte des Basques, almost a decade ago to live and surf and establish a base of operations for my surfboard factory. One of the many reasons I left Southern California for good and made the jump across the Atlantic was because in this little area of southwest France—at least back then and with longboarding especially—surfing still felt like an activity practiced by outcasts and outsiders. The majority of the surfers here at that time rode tiny high-performance shortboards when the waves were small or decent, and step-ups and big-wave guns when it started to really pump in the winter.

So, for most of the time I’ve lived here, I’ve found summertime in Bidart, and the Basque as a whole, to be a real good fit. I’d shape in the mornings, run down to test whichever boards I was working on in the small beachbreaks in front of town, catch as many waves as I could possibly want, then run back home and work some more. It was a totally free, completely undistracted existence.

Robin Falxa, hiding in plain sight during the long days of the Basque summer.

Sure, there have always been other surfers around. It’s not like the Basque has ever been some big secret. But I felt like there was something of a natural separation between surfers in both craft choice and ability level. Longboarders, shortboarders, professionals, old-timers, visitors, locals, even total beginners all seemed to occupy different spaces. In short, the crowds in the water felt light and the overall attitude was mostly friendly, so I was able to operate, for the most part, on the margins as I like to. 

Over the past few years, however, there’s been a dramatic and unfortunate disruption of that balance. Surfing has just exploded in popularity here, as it has elsewhere. Bidart, specifically, has for decades centered its economy on summer tourism. Only now surfing has become a major piece of the commercial holiday package. It’s part of the greater “lifestyle experience,” and the beaches and surf have become completely inundated with vacationers and holidaymakers, day-trippers and blow-ins, who all come here, it seems, either to surf or to learn to surf. Boys and girls, young and old. Everybody’s going for it, sunup to sundown, every day of the week. 

Part of the present problem is that everyone rides everything—longboards, fishes, eggs, whatever—which means there’s nonstop competition for the same space. To top it off, there are dozens of surf schools with multiple instructors who take out groups of eight to ten learners at a time, right in the middle of everybody else. And this isn’t Huntington Beach or Sydney, where there’s miles of coast for the chaos to play out. Bidart is just a small village with one main road and only a few miles of shoreline. 

As a surfboard builder, it’s no doubt been good for business. As a surfer in the lineup, though, it’s difficult to mentally process, let alone physically deal with. Since the madness began, whenever I want to surf with a manageable crowd in the summer months, I head south into Spain or Portugal or even all the way down to Morocco. If I’m home and want to get in the water, I’ve resigned myself to hoping for just a single good wave each time I paddle out.

What happened last summer, then, came as a legitimate surprise. 

One afternoon in July, shortly after arriving back home from a trip overseas, my neighbor and close friend Robin Falxa knocked on my door. That itself is not unusual, as we live next to each other, and I spend more time hanging out and surfing with him than anyone else. He’s got ethics I truly appreciate and find inspiring. Falxa’s a real surf punk. He has no interest whatsoever in the commercial side of surfing. He doesn’t surf to be social, like you often see in California or Australia or other places where the scenes are very important. He surfs because he has to in order to not go completely nuts. And he’s just a ball of human energy.

That was the state I found him in when I opened my front door, and he told me to hop in his car, saying he had something to show me. As we drove to the northern tip of town, which is marked by large cliffs basically falling into the ocean, he explained that the week prior he’d found a sandbank tucked away in a spot where there hadn’t ever been one before. He’d been surfing it crowd-free every day since.

We parked just off the main road, on private property. Falxa, having grown up in Bidart, knew the landowner and was allowed access. Then we ran over to the cliff’s edge and gazed down. There, situated in a break in the cliffs, we watched a right break on the outside, roll in soft and slow over a hole, then re-form and zip across the inside section until it hit dry land with not a soul around—certainly none with a surfboard.

We looked back up at each other, then across to the main beaches, where hundreds of tiny dots bobbed around in the surf atop one another. We broke out back to the car to get boards. 

For the next few months, we surfed the little bank almost totally by ourselves. At first, it worked only at low tide. So I’d shape in the mornings or hang out with Falxa while he tended to the garden at his grandfather’s house, where he lives, waiting for the tide to come down. Then we’d go for a walk up the beach and around the cliffs to surf. Eventually, the sand filled in a bit and the bank began to work at high tide too. So we’d paddle around the cliffs instead of walk, since the water ran right up against them. 

Within a few weeks, we were trekking up to the bank multiple times a day. We found a grassy spot just above the beach and in between the rocks, where we set up a little wooden bench to hang out on. We’d bring food, build fires, have a drink and a smoke, and just surf as much as we could by ourselves. The whole thing was just strange. It was like stepping back in time. 

We didn’t tell anyone else about the bank, of course, except for a few close friends. It actually caused strife with some other people we knew, who began wondering where we’d been surfing. But the wave was there to find if they’d only bothered to look. About a month in, we actually became so worried it would be discovered that each day we went up, it was under the assumption that it would be the last time we’d have the bank to ourselves. 

On a few occasions, other surfers did stumble upon it and attempt to join us. But Falxa and I sat in the lineup, barking like dogs. They looked at us like we were crazy, but in the end always turned right back around. Eventually, we realized that the masses were too dependent on the convenience of the breaks in front of the town to walk up the beach, hike down the cliffs, or paddle around the rocks. 

The bank was by no means a beautiful wave, but having it all to ourselves allowed us to surf completely free and be totally creative. No leashes. No forcing it on closeouts. No human obstacle courses. It proved really refreshing, and somewhat reinvigorating, to be able to ride some waves and work through design concepts without the pressure of other people weighing me down. 

It was also really interesting to watch Falxa out there. I’ve surfed with him more than anyone else over the past few years, and we’ve traveled to Australia, Japan, and other places and scored really good waves together. But seeing him able to take his time was like seeing someone fully evolve. He looked incredibly comfortable with his body size and shape, his boards, and the confidence with which he whipped them around. He was just totally in a zone. There was none of that frantic mess in his transitions that so many longboarders tend to have. He was connecting everything cleanly, really leaning in on his edges through turns. His surfing was so expressive. He was really pushing it. Mixed with his overall outlook on non-commercial surfing and life, I genuinely think Falxa is one of the last old-school style-trippers. I’m four years older than he is, and I really enjoy trying to keep up with him. I find it easy to get caught up in things outside the act of surfing, whether it’s business or just other interests, and I was quickly reminded of the point in all of this.

By the end of the summer, the sand began washing away little by little, making the bank less and less consistent. In October, four storms came roaring in, one after the other. The rest of the sand was completely ripped out. Our little secret was gone. And, based on what Falxa told me about that spot, it’s probably unlikely to return. Which I kind of like. It was fully unexpected, we enjoyed it for the short time it was there, and it’ll never, ever be overrun.