Waves, waves, waves! all around the world-
This is the story of my undying love for waves and the sea, and of how I failed at surfing and discovered stand-up paddling.
As long as I can remember, I have been cursed (or blessed) with a restless obsession for the sea and the waves. I was two years old the first time I nearly drowned: I was spending the day on the beach with my parents, and all it took was a minute of absent-mindedness for me to escape and run straight to the sea, jump head down in the waves, and float with my face in the water, yellow hat emerging from the sea. A gentleman had witnessed my stunt and rescued me. A few years after that, respectively at nine and twelve years old, I nearly drowned two more times, and it was in both cases the same story: I saw big waves in a distance, and I wanted to play, to bodysurf, to be carried on top of them and jump from the top of the falls, to forget that I had legs and lungs, and be part of the sea. I forgot all about the rip currents, the distance from the shore and the hazards of the “washing machine” which roars where the waves break, I just wanted to feel those waves. And I nearly drowned. The last episode happened on a beach in Costa Rica, and it did traumatize me a bit – I dreamt of tsunamis and submersion every night after that, and told everyone I knew I would die in the water. It did make me more cautious. But it could never extinguish the obsession.
Big waves fascinated me the most. These were times before the surge of the internet, and I would be desperately looking for images of waves in the magazines and on TV, just like the boys of the 90’s surreptitiously watching out for boobs and butts on late night shows and top-shelf magazines, except that I wanted to see curves, foam and lips of a very different kind. The bigger, the better. When I was about eight, I read a portrait of Laird Hamilton in a magazine. This Hawaiian surfer had invented a technique to catch the waves so big and so quick they were out of the reach of regular surfers until then: the tow-in. Laird made a jet-ski bring him on top of the wave and release him into the moving mountain of water, at Jaws, Pea’hi, on the island of Maui. He had opened hell’s gates. This was the beginning of big wave surfing.
The name of new and terrifying spots would then make the news: Mavericks, California, the cold evil wave which took Mark Foo’s life. Cortes Bank, a ghostly seamount a hundred miles offshore southern California and Mexico, where a freakishly huge wave breaks over a shipwrecked submarine lost in WW2, and about which Chris Dixon wrote Ghost Wave, one of the most haunting surfing books I have read. Teahupoo, Tahiti, the thickest slab one can imagine, breaking over shallow water and sharp coral reefs. Shipstern Bluff, Tasmania – one of the most dreadful and gnarly spots I have ever heard of, as you may judge by this series of wipeouts. And recently, Nazaré, probably the biggest surfable wave on the planet, right here in Europe: in Portugal. I will see that wave one day, this is a promise to myself.
To this day, I still can’t look away when big waves are crashing. I can’t escape the dread and awe I feel when the ocean darkens and rises, when the inside of the forming tube opens windows so dark you’d swear you will fall into the void only looking at them. What I fear and love the most are the last moments before the blow. The unutterable monster stands still, lips wide open, jaws gaping, marching on. Have you ever heard the hissing of a really big wave? Before it crashes and erupts in gushes of liquid thunder, with such force it can burst rocks and cliffs, the wave howls and warns you. In the last seconds of the ominous quiet preceding the impact, you hear it blowing and whispering. This is the scariest and the most fascinating sound I have ever heard.
Another phenomenon which fascinated me as a child were the waves devouring ships without a trace. I had heard tales of rogue waves, or as some may call them, “freak waves”. Both names suit them well. They are gnarly, unpredictable beasts, monsters arising from the deep and taking men and ships down with them, to the bottom of the abyss. A rogue wave is a wave which is two, three, four times higher than the other waves, or even more, and which moves like a living wall of water, at the high speed its massive height commands, for there’s a rule of infinite increase in monstrosity: the higher, the quicker. All hell breaks loose. Sailors fear them more than they fear the devil. And for a long time, nobody believed them when the few survivors told of what they saw, of the freakishly swift and tall moving cliff of water, darkening the horizon on such a broad scale that they cannot be bypassed, hitting the ship head-on like a raging creature, and tearing it to pieces, sending it to the bottom. My parents had a weird acquaintance we barely saw, an old sailor just like in the books and movies, a raving “ancient marinere” telling his tale of horrors at sea, and he told me of his encounter with a freak wave. Of the utter destruction of the ship, as if it had been hit by an iron wall, and of his own survival, of the hours he spent floating on driftwood until a passing ship rescued him. Nobody believed him, of course. Freak waves? Drunken tales of crazy seamen. But I did believe him. (You can read another account of an encounter with a rogue wave on this fantastic blog).
In 2011, I finally read the book that proved this old man I remembered from my childhood wasn’t lying. It was The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean by Susan Casey. She had chased the monsters of the sea and came to tell the story. The story of a boat full of scientists caught in a storm in the North Sea, who had all measuring equipment aboard when a wave thirty meters high suddenly attacked their ship, and who lived to prove the world they had been wrong. The story of gigantic liners being ripped apart by freak waves, the iron-wrought hull creased and torn like a paper ball. She talked with ship insurers, who shared terrifying data with her: everyday, boats are lost at sea, and freak waves are the number one enemy. Satellite imaging has proven how common, how dangerous they are. The horror was real. And then she told the stories of big waves surfers. She had followed Laird Hamilton in the Jaws spot in Pea’hi, and other daredevils chasing giants. After spending months in the company of big waves surfers, following them everywhere the swell arose, she was finally granted with a fantastic gift: she rode Jaws on a jet-ski, along with one of the expert pilots. If envy really is a capital sin, Casey’s case will have me torched in hell.
When I was twenty-three, my brother spent a year in Sydney and became an accomplished surfer. He lived with dozens of other people from all over the world in a big house beside a frangipani tree in Coogee, and he only had to cross the street to throw himself into the ocean. Every day before or after his classes at the university of New South Wales, he would head for the waves and surf. When Christmas approached, I took a plane to the other end of the world, and I spent three weeks with him in Australia, driving along this heavenly coastline which stretches from Sydney to Brisbane and we call the Gold Coast (rightly so). I had never seen happier people on Earth. Tall, handsome, blonde and tanned boys and girls would leave their jobs in the late afternoon with a surfboard on the roof of their car, and go straight to the beach. Imagine England, with the luscious gardens, tea times, good jokes, unshakable composure, but without the rain and the dreadful food. Imagine England, but set in a tropical heaven by a warm sea, filled with surfboards instead of red telephone booths, and with cheerful giants greeting you with a “Hi mate!” on every occasion. This was Australia, and this was awesome beyond words. I saw countless perfect beaches on the Gold Coast (read more about my trip here), but the one which stole my heart was Byron Bay. It would have been the perfect place to take up surfing: a wide open bay of white sand, with long smooth waves slowly, almost lazily rolling in. Somehow I didn’t, and I still regret it.
I was twenty-five and traveling alone in Honolulu when I took my first surf lesson. Why haven’t I tried earlier on? I was scared of being disappointed in myself. And to tell the truth, I was. I didn’t have a suit, the water was colder than I expected – it was in January, and Hawaii lies too far North to be fully spared by winter –, it was a disaster. I didn’t catch a single wave. But I was thrilled to spend a few days on Waikiki. At night, people swam in the bay wearing luminescent wristbands, defying the darkness which let the waves take you by surprise, defying the cold and the instinctive fear of the black, unbound vastness of a nightly ocean. The night sky and the ocean were merging, and the soft glow of the colorful bracelets made the bay look like a colorful pointillist painting, haunted by mermaid people fluttering from one immensity to another. Some of them ventured so far I dreaded they wouldn’t find their way back to the shore, and I envied them a little.
On the Northshore of Oahu, I saw people surfing the mythical spots of Sunset and Banzai Pipeline, lucky heroes gliding in the tubes and leaping in the sky when the wave closed in a final white spurt.
I saw otherworldly sunsets on the raw and lush shores of Kauai, the lost garden island, and winter storms assaulting the Na’Pali Coast with deafening insistence. I listened to the waves at night and couldn’t find any sleep, and I remained awake for so many hours everything felt like a dream. Hawaii still fills me with a longing I can barely express.
The summer after that, I decided to take up surfing more seriously, and so I went to Hossegor, on France’s Atlantic coast, to take classes every day for a week. But I had to face the truth: I wasn’t gifted at all. Apparently, all those hours spent on YouTube watching surf videos counted for nothing when you got on the board. I spent hours and hours falling on my knees, crashing my head against the board or against the sand, being washed by the waves, swallowing sea water, and cursing myself. I was so bad I had the feeling the ocean was personally insulting me.
Then I had a revelation. I was in Saint Tropez, on Pampelonne, that beach a naked blonde Brigitte Bardot made immensely famous in the 60’s. Stand-up paddle boarding (SUP) was the new trendy sport on the beach, which is the kind of information that usually leaves me cold, but in that case, I was interested: it consisted in standing on a slightly wider and longer board than a surf board, and propelling yourself with a paddle. As nearly everything related to waves and surfing, it came from the ancient Polynesian culture, and from Hawaii in particular. The sport was called Hoe he’e nalu in the Hawaiian language: surfing waves with a paddle. Obviously, I had to try. I did and oh! Wonder of wonders! I was actually good at it. I found my balance immediately, without falling a single time, and a sudden surge of confidence and pleasure rushed through my veins. My board moved swiftly over the water, and I headed for the open sea, further away from the shore. I could escape all the fashionable noise on Pampelonne’s beach, the beats coming out of the speakers of all the private beach clubs, the approaching yachts and jet-skis, and be alone again, alone with the sea. It felt like walking on water.
I thought of the first Hawaiian people, exploring the archipelago they had just discovered, after thousands of miles lost at sea. I thought of the tales of the old Gods, such as Pele, the goddess of fire, walking from island to island, floating over the deep dark ocean to bring the fire to another pit. SUP relived ancient traditions: today, the most famous SUP race in the world goes from Oahu to Molokai, following the sea routes Hawaiian ancestors had discovered.
The Hawaiian archipelago is like a handle of fiery stones thrown in the midst of Earth’s widest ocean – these men and women truly were people of the sea, the first ones to cover thousands of miles on lonesome pirogues, trusting only distant constellations, the first one to tame the waves. The Oahu to Molokai race lies deeply rooted in this never ending love story. This connection to Hawaiian culture in SUP thrills and moves me. Just like some Westerners fall in love with Nepalese mysticism by doing yoga, I felt instinctively that something deep and meaningful was hidden beneath the sport, and I tried to understand better and respect the spirituality involved in SUP. Hoe he’e nalu. “Nalu” means wave, this much I knew. And the other day, I read this beautiful article on the blog Kaila Hawaii:
“Today’s Hawaiian word of the day is nalu.
Nalu most commonly refers to the waves or surf of the moana, the ocean. It’s also a verb, showing the state of waves… Ke nalu nei ka moana, The ocean is full of waves.
Nalu carries more poetic, less obvious meanings, however.
In keeping with the concept of water and liquid, nalu is the amniotic fluid that surrounds and protects an unborn child.
To nalu is to mediate, ponder, contemplate. For some reason, the water imagery personally works well with this word, such as the tranquility created by the repetitive flow of waves. Or it’s the antithesis of the idea of waves itself, water free of waves, so calm and still that we can contemplate what is below… or a mind free of the waves of thought and mental disturbance.”
This beautiful text summed up perfectly how I feel about SUP. You see, this is a many-faced sport. You can choose to paddle through lakes and calm seas, enjoying the peaceful rocking of gentle water, meditating on our profound connection with the primeval ocean. Or you can surf waves. Laird Hamilton – yes, it’s always about Laird Hamilton – even rode Jaws on a SUP. If you are hooked to waves, SUP won’t stand in the way of your addiction. (For mind-blowing SUP action at Jaws, check this video out.)
I saw stand up paddle boarders riding waves for the first time on Nartelle’s beach in Sainte Maxime, on the French Riviera. Sainte Maxime is a famous SUP spot, where the French national cup is being held. On a beautiful September day, when I couldn’t let summer die just yet, I drove to Sainte Maxime to be near my beloved Mediterranean, and I was blessed with a fantastic SUP show on the moody, stormy sea.
Then in Le Lavandou, another beautiful spot on the French Riviera, and probably my secret favorite place on the coastline, I took my first actual SUP lesson. Until then, I had simply rented a board and paddled freely, trusting my instincts and my love for the sea – but a bit of technique can never be a bad thing. I met Patrice, a great SUP instructor, who awakened my longing for waves by telling me I could catch them. And so I’m waiting. I’m waiting for spring to come on the French Riviera, and for Patrice to organize a wave riding SUP session I could join. I’m eager to learn. I feel like an abstinent wave-aholic when I am away from the sea.
I paddled last Christmas in Guadeloupe, a heavenly island in the Caribbean. Finding a bright sun and crystal-clear warm waters in the middle of the European winter and practicing SUP in such a setting overjoyed me. Caribbean Indians called Guadeloupe “Karukera”, island of beautiful waters. It seems only logical that the world second longest SUP race, Ze Caribbean Race, is being held in Guadeloupe every January. SUP lovers call it the Caribbean Molokai – and indeed, there was something about Guadeloupe that reminded me of Hawaii, the deep forests, the volcano, the jagged coastline and remote paradise beaches, the stand-up paddle boarders, an aura. Maybe there’s a magical brotherhood of tropical islands which bring people back to the core of their selves, to their deepest longings and instincts. It reminds us of long lost paradises where everything was possible. There’s a place in our heart which remembers the ancient times, when we walked on the water and floated in the sky, just like Gods do. Once upon a time, when we were free.