A Southern Commute | Lessons from French and Spanish Swell

Toby Butler

PHOTOS: Toby Butler

LOCATION: Hossegor and Basque Country, France and Spain

I couldn’t help but be intrigued by how the locals here knew where to sit and how to ride this wave, like a boy would learn his way back home from school. It was something these foreign wave riders would never forget, a connection to this foreign land they call home, one that would stay embedded within them for a lifetime.

It’s 19:20 and the sun is rapidly setting, heading towards the horizon line, ready to put on its last orange dance for us all to dream into before being gone for good. Until the morning, at least, but that isn’t on our mind. As usual, we’re convinced this could be the last time we ever see light this good. Two good friends race through local roads trying to make it there to capture this endeavor, running late as per usual, but ready nonetheless. Some call it the golden hour, others call it a sunset, we just know it as a bloody good time to nail some photos.
There you have it, one of the many odd segments that puts together my life. The life of an outdoor adventure photographer from the Southwest of the UK. I’m nothing special, just the average guy within a rapidly-growing world of time-capturing friends. I’ve slowly grown up acquiring a drive to get out and document the forms of life that wander this planet, the ones that intrigue me. After taking on the life of documentation I soon figured that I was chasing this dream along with 70% of the rest of the population with a smart phone and the app that is encased in an orange box, or is it white now? That hasn’t put me off just yet — I can make it. I can be different, stand out. I have what it takes. I can win this race.
I recently spent a short while in a land not far from my home. I had ventured out there before but never really felt I’d accomplished what I wanted to. Never really documented the people that huddle together on the sand dunes, watching lumps roll in from the Atlantic, lumps that I believe these people in rubber want to ride on precisely shaped bits of foam like myself and my friends do at home, yet in this different part of the world that has rock-deprived beaches and sand-dependent waves. It has intrigued me, made me want to work out this new land, understand it and become a part of it, for a little while anyway.
So I planned a trip to a town called Hossegor, a town that is situated in the Southwest of France and is known for these figures that stand and natter in rubber suits, the type we call surfers. I know them well, but this town offers such a new version of this type of life, to me anyhow. A different form to the usual waves and wave riders I have become used to.

I wanted someone to accompany me and help in documenting this new land. A surfer from my hometown seemed a fitting companion for what I was taking on. I picked my good friend and fellow traveller Jack Harvey. We know each other well, having spent many a night cooped up within vans and tents amongst the Europe surf, trying to explore our homes on other journeys where, again, I longed to find this new version of a similar front. You may figure that this is a regular occurrence, and you couldn’t be more right. Why not take this urge further afield? After a few lines of persuasion. Jack was in. And after simultaneously bunking our jobs as soon as we could, we jumped into Jack’s rather full T4 and began the trek south.
We’re now back to this evening, where we’re both rapidly moving down the local roads in a rattling old T4, chasing the evening light that we’d yearned for since the commute had begun.

Europe Surf
Europe Surf
Europe Surf
Europe Surf

Upon arrival, we jump straight into our wetsuits and rush down to the ocean, myself frantically shooting the magical evening and Jack, relaxed, enjoying the waves that are coming in and trying to get a feel for new waters. There seemed to be some kind of hectic scene happening in the ocean — heavy, sandy, dredgy, lumpy, peaky, rippy, fast — these waves were everything at once.
We were excited to be amongst this new kind of sea that demanded a constant stream of attention. We were also pretty confused, rapidly traveling the length of the beach in a side rip we had not accounted for. Yet another intriguing form that the ocean here seemed to take on, we soon figured this one out and decided to be wary about that from there on out.
We spent the next fortnight wandering the beaches of Southwestern France that seemingly went on forever. Whilst swells came and went, we followed their patterns like sheep and brought our home on wheels with us wherever we were headed. About two weeks in and we had both acquired a love for this exciting form of wave riding. The fast and constantly changing sets that would sneak in. The variety. But amongst all of this excitement and focus on chasing waves we were swiftly being stripped of cash.
It was a trip that had been planned right off the bat, like most, but whilst the first couple of weeks went by in a flash we soon came to realize that we were not surfing heroes with endless pockets, instead just a mere couple of guys with increasingly tight ones and that we seriously had to rethink. The sooner we came to realize this the better but about a week later, there we were, with a mere 15 Euros between us in a town where 15 Euros will just about get you a day’s food.
Myself and Jack have been fellow travellers for a while, we had done similar missions before and had been in similar situations time and time again but this was worse than ever. We had no ferry booked home, no food and half a tank of fuel, so, we decided that 15 Euros was to be spent on one final shop and a mere fill up on diesel. We had some inflicting moments whilst filling the bags and as much of the fuel tank as we could, ending up with a quarter more of fuel, the cheapest collection of Sardines we could find, water and two big bags of potatoes.
We needed to keep moving and with the last burst of fuel, decided to head on a 40-minute trek down to Spain. With France and Portugal either side of this diverse, colorful nation, it seems to have become a rather grey area to the Europe surf world. To be frank, we had spent little time looking into this stretch of ocean and knew little about where we were heading or what we could find. But we couldn’t stay in the bustle of this surf town for much longer, it was hard to relax and with such little money hard to find an easy place to spend the night without being moved on by local law enforcement.
After an unnerving and unexpected 50 odd miles we found a layby just outside of the small, seaside town of Zarautz and knew we couldn’t get any further, for now.
At dawn I awoke and shortly after woke Jack whilst stumbling around trying to unlock the side door and stretch out the night’s sleep. It was funny to be stuck in this place. This layby that we knew would be our home for a while now. No more trekking up and down the coast, no more chasing of swells. We had our food, our home, and now this layby. However, while both trying to push this thought from our minds, we began to gaze around. To one side of us, weathered cliffs stood tall and cast shade from the morning sun, as we gazed at these cliffs that had been shaped into intriguing forms through years of natural force we felt the breeze hit our backs from the ocean that was behind. We turned and gazed past the boulder-covered beach to the sea. We both had the same idea on our mind and with nothing very appropriate to consume for breakfast, we didn’t want to just sit around thinking about food, so we decided to try and catch some waves and took to the back of the van, unpacking, in search of our suits.
We clambered amidst the magnified pebbles that we had parked besides and made our way towards the sea. Seeing clear ripples coming in from a calm Atlantic scene, whilst sailing boats launched for a day of exploration and the sun kept growing, undisturbed. I watched a perfect miniature point break peel across the bay, giving the seaweed that was hanging off these rocks a sudden form of life, until it passed, and it was back to the original form, waiting till another pulse came – there wasn’t much in terms of surf but we went in anyway, we needed to pass the time.
We had a surprisingly enjoyable morning and both saw potential in this place we had become hostage to. And although we knew very little about it, the potential was enough.
We spent further days at this layby and got to know it well, we met a fellow couple who were trekking along the coast in search of Europe surf and had spent a week or two inland as well, they were focused mainly on Spain and we told them about the great time we had in France and a few secluded banks that had been good to us whilst we were there, luckily they too enjoyed getting amongst this hectic coastline’s offerings and this information was taken well.
The next morning, before they carried on their way, they left us with one of the two backup cans of diesel they had brought with them (I guess some people plan ahead). We couldn’t have been more thankful and after quickly scarfing down one chopped, fried, and cumin-covered potato each, we began to wearily trek a little further through this new world.
We managed to head to the nearby town and gain more of an understanding of where we were. We found ourselves driving back to our claimed layby with heads full of information. We had discovered that this place was surprisingly riddled with options for surf and that when a swell did fill in it had the potential to light up all kinds of waves. From reefs with consequence to world famous sandbanks and even this perfect little point that we had been watching break endlessly at a mere couple of inches for the last few mornings.
* * *
We had spotted weather patterns that allowed us to head inland and seek out the hectic rock formations of Picos de Europa and after managing to get some money under our belts, we made it. We had been through different segments of life and we had kept busy. But with all of the different things we had encountered we still had one place on our minds. One place we had to return to. The small inlet that was first to paint a picture in our minds of this exciting Basque region.
A day later we found ourselves sat amongst this familiar inlet as night moved in. We watched as this right hand point break revealed itself perfectly along the bending headland, almost as if it was showing off to the few locals that were sitting amidst its energy. Forming an idyllic shape over the weathered boulders just as it had done in its miniature self, this time at a size more engaging. While we sat there, breathing in the campfire smoke and smelling the familiar salty essence of this place, we were happy and glad as to where they had ended up.
I couldn’t help but be intrigued by how the locals here knew where to sit and how to ride this wave, like a boy would learn his way back home from school. It was something these foreign wave riders would never forget, a connection to this foreign land they call home, one that would stay embedded within them for a lifetime.
Acquiring the true essence that a place has to offer may take months or years of studying one place and forming a connection with it. This trip, to myself and Jack, had always been about making a connection with a land not far from home but, while we sat hypnotized by the orange flames that kept us warm, we quickly realized that our short time in this foreign territory had made us purely admire the beauty of a connection that people from other stretches of life can acquire with the nature around their homes, connections like the ones we have with special places close to our hearts, too. A connection that you can’t acquire from simply going to a place for a 3 week strike mission, one that you need to form as a child and keep learning through every stage of life, a life spent amidst this land, a life spent calling this place home.
Suddenly I wasn’t so worried about portraying this idyllic inlet, I was happy to have come to this conclusion. It made me some how appreciate the place I call home, while being immersed in a completely different environment. I began to feel that there was no rush, no race to try and push this location out through the forces of Social Media and the rest of the outdoor world. I sat back, calm and at-ease, simply gazing at the locals as they surfed this wave like I knew few else ever would.

Europe Surf
Europe Surf
Europe Surf