Visited Biarritz in September 2021

I used to go surfing at Scheveningen frequently, several days in a month or so. I stopped doing that after our first and second daughter were born, because I didn’t have enough time anymore. Another reason was that Hart Beach, my surf school there, stopped offering the lessons which they planned ad hoc on the day of the week with the best surfing conditions. Instead, they would just offer lessons on a fixed day and time, resorting to skateboarding if surfing conditions were bad. I didn’t like this and stopped with their lessons completely. Efforts to go surfing on my own were further complicated by scarce days with good surfing conditions and my inability to seize the days which did offer good conditions.

I still love surfing though. I was looking forward to go on a surfing holiday to France, Portugal or Spain again, where the waves are typically much better than in Scheveningen. In September 2017 we visited Peniche in Portugal and had good waves. In May 2019 we visited Capbreton in France, which was supposed to have good waves as well. The World Surf League (WSL) organizes world championships in nearby Hossegor after all. Instead we got rather mediocre waves in May. I felt we arrived at the wrong time of the year and it would have been better to go in September or October (during which time the WSL actually organizes their events there).

I asked Stephanie whether she was okay with me going on a surfing trip for six days in September, since she doesn’t like surfing herself. She didn’t like the idea of being alone with our children for so long, but she was so kind to let me go. I’m not sure if this is normal for young parents, but I do know that it was never a problem for my own parents. My mother took care of us while my dad usually went on a winter sports holiday with his friends for a week, every year. Vice versa, he took care of us when my mother went on holiday with friends.

Because the Spanish state railways (Renfe) stopped offering the sleeper train from Irun to Lisbon due to COVID19 my options were more limited this time. I insist on not using aircraft and didn’t want to spend more than two days on the outgoing and return journeys. I decided that I’d go to France again, Biarritz this time. Biarritz is a nicer place to stay than Capbreton or Hossegor because it’s a bigger city with more character than the those two smaller villages.

Before I decided to go in September, I consulted Magic Seaweed for statistics. In September, the Côte des Basques beach on the southern edge of Biarritz is supposed to have 60% of days with surfable waves. Maybe not as good as the 82% for the Cantinho da Baia beach just north of Peniche, but certainly better than the 9% for Scheveningen.

When I arrived at Biarritz I paid for an intensive surf training (two lessons of ninety minutes every day) with the Jo Moraiz Surf School. This was for all four days I stayed in Biarritz. This school, like several others, gives their surf lessons on the northern end of Côte des Basques, where it’s sheltered by a headland extending into the sea and the waves are supposedly better. Even in September (which is not as busy as the summer months) this spot is very busy, with many surf schools concentrating there. I often had to abandon an attempt to grab a wave because there were others in front of me or because I risked ‘dropping in’ on others who had priority for that wave.

This beach is also very limited by the tides, because it disappears at high tide. At high tide you shouldn’t surf there because there is a risk of colliding with the rocks on the shoreline. Due to this limitation the second ninety minute lesson followed directly after the first, without a break, on three days. Nothing I couldn’t handle, but it’s harder to grab waves if you’re too tired to paddle after the first lesson.

What was most important to me was the quality of the waves. Unfortunately these turned out to be rather mediocre. Most of the waves I saw were closeout waves which broke quickly, all at once from end to end. These are not suitable for surfing. In the worst case, these gave me a nasty wipeout, getting dropped from my surfboard and then being submerged and somersaulted by the wave. In the best case I got a boring straight ride to the beach without any opportunity to maneuver on the wave.

Surfable waves are left handers, right handers or a-frames, which break respectively to the left, right or both the left and right from the perspective of the person surfing them. I saw very little of these and noticed that everyone else was struggling as well, it was difficult to ride a good wave. On one day the waves were tall, up to two meters, on another day one meter, but they seemed to behave the same in closing out. On the last day the sea was mostly too flat and messy to catch a rideable wave.

To my disappointment I didn’t get any wave which was better than the one I once got on a stormy day in the autumn at Scheveningen. I managed to catch a nice left hander there relatively far from the beach and was able to ride it for at least five seconds. In that moment, time seemed to stop for me, as I apparently entered a state of flow. I was riding that wave as if I was Poseidon himself, even though that wave was tame by the standards of much better surfing spots. I had hoped to have more experiences like that in Biarritz, but this didn’t happen.

I asked myself, where are those easy waves which are suitable for longboarders, which are slow too break and allow for a very long ride on the wave? The kind of wave you see in this video of Batu Bolong on Bali? After some more searching I found that the 2018 Longboard Pro, organized by the WSL, was held on Côte des Basques from 7 to 10 June in 2018. June, one of the months with the lowest chances of good waves if we are to believe the statistics on Magic Seaweed. But on the highlight video for that event I see some fine waves. I had expected better waves for September, but I guess good waves depend a lot on luck. I see the WSL reserves eight days or more for many of their events, just so they can select the day with the best surfing conditions for their championships. Obviously my four days weren’t enough and I had some bad luck.

I feel that I wasn’t able to improve my skills significantly due to the mediocre surfing conditions in Biarritz. What didn’t help either was that my surf school didn’t match my expectations. The instructors and others from the Jo Moraiz Surf School were nice people, but they didn’t put enough effort in knowing their customers. The instructor I started with on the first day adapted his teaching well to my experience, but when I had two lessons with different instructors I had to explain my level of experience to them again. This could have been avoided with a proper intake and briefing of the instructors. Everyone could speak English, but in some cases there still was some language barrier.

During two lessons there even was no instructor for the group in the green (unbroken) waves where I was, just one for the group with the beginners in the white (already broken) waves. In fact I didn’t get the lessons I paid for at that time, I would have been better off just hiring a wetsuit and surfboard.

Even more problematic was that they didn’t teach anything about surf etiquette and paddling technique. For the latter, it’s as if you’re not telling a child that they should maintain speed to avoid falling when they’re learning to ride a bike. As Kale Brock and Rob Case tell us on YouTube, paddling is an essential skill and doing it efficiently makes a big difference. Most of a surfing session consists of paddling after all.

In their defense, this surf school had a lot of people who got there for one or two incidental lessons, not an entire intensive program of four or five days. I understand that you can’t spend as much time on surf etiquette and paddling technique then, but I don’t think that’s an excuse. If it can be explained in a YouTube video in a few minutes, you surely could cover the subjects for five or ten minutes during your lesson.

While it wasn’t bad, I wouldn’t recommend the Jo Moraiz Surf School. I’m not sure how the other surf schools in Biarritz compare with them, but compared to the instructors at Hart Beach in Scheveningen or my surf camp in Peniche it wasn’t good enough. In that surf camp the instructors tracked the progress of their customers. There was video analysis and adequate theoretical explanation of surfing, even though they didn’t spend much attention to paddling either. Next time I’ll ask more critical questions to a surf school about their curriculum to determine whether they’re worth it. Or maybe I’ll go to a surf camp or just hire a wetsuit and board. I intend to go surfing at Scheveningen more often again so I don’t start my surf holidays out of shape.

This post became rather long, but I want to end it on a positive note. Even though it was not what I expected and I was disappointed, I still enjoyed it. For me, being in the water is always enjoyable to some degree. The best part of this surfing holiday was my company, my father. He didn’t join me for surfing, but to ride his bike around Biarritz. It was very nice to spend so much time with him again. This holiday left me wanting for another surf holiday next year. I want to be able to nose ride a longboard and transition from a longboard to a shortboard. Maybe even get barreled if my luck and skills allow it.

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