Following the sun on a European Winter surf tour.

Writer Tom Keyes is producing a series of articles for Northcore offering some invaluable guidance to those intrepid surfers looking to escape the more Northern latitudes.  Starting in France our series will chart the five main surf destinations on route to chasing the sun and surf South through Europe. 

There’s no escaping the fact – it’s on its way. The light is slowly drawing in, the water temperature is rapidly dropping and the length of those after work surf sessions is reducing all too drastically. At the end of next month, the clocks will go back and discreetly herald the official arrival of the dark gloomy months, that’s right, Winter is calling.

Autumn sunset

UK Autumn Image ~ Tim Nunn

The onset of Autumn is not necessarily a bad thing for surfers, we have more to gain from the absence of Atlantic high pressures and September can often bring a welcome influx of swell to the British coastline. But whilst this swell has duly arrived, partly due to a brisk bit of activity in the hurricane belt of the US, it hasn’t been coupled with favourable winds, September has been rather relentlessly (and rather frustratingly) howling onshore on many of the western coasts of the UK.

So what to do? Fortunately, British surfers have another trick up their neoprened sleeves. Alongside repeatedly denouncing the quality of the UK’s fickle waves and routinely uttering disparaging remarks about the non-existent summers, British surfers are blessed with the perfect mix of motivation and opportunity for the classic surf trip. Perched on the door step of some the world’s greatest waves, this is the time of year to strap the boards to the van, head to the nearest ferry port, and charge down the French toll roads in a southerly direction to explore all that a European winter has to offer.

Part 1 – France

It’s no secret that France has supreme quality waves. The WSL dream tour has Hossegor and its surrounding breaks firmly embedded on the seasons calendar, and it always delivers. September and October see French surf spots doing a pretty convincing impression of the north shore of Hawaii. The waters off the south-west coast of France are notoriously deep, resulting in a momentous unleashing of power as the lines of swell trundle from the Atlantic horizon and meet the iconic French sand dunes. But with notoriety and recognition comes every surfer’s worst nightmare, crowds. The travelling circus of professional surfers shines a spotlight on the area, meaning that whilst the waves will hold their own against some the planet’s very best surf spots, there’s no shortage of people attempting to capture their own slice of the action.

WSL surf competition Hossegor

The annual Quik Pro Hossegor Image ~ Tim Nunn

Happily, France shouldn’t ever be excluded from any surfer’s European surf trip. The south-west coast stretches for hundreds of miles north of Hossegor and the constantly shifting sandbars mean that the opportunities for exploration are readily rewarded. Situated 200 kilometres north of Hossegor, yet with the same potential for quality peaks, sits Hourtin. A small often overlooked town that serves as the perfect base for discovering quiet French perfection. Most surfers will bomb past this pretty French town on-route to the glitz of more famous French spots, hopefully they continue to blat on by. A little over 7 hours drive from Roscoff, or 10 hours from the port of Calais, a trip to this region of Gironde in the Autumn months will leave you wondering what exactly it is about the UK that keeps you there.

If you’re feeling less adventurous, or are happy to share a few waves, then Hourtin-Plage itself is a pretty decent break. As with all French peaks in this area, the rise and fall of the ocean has a big part to play in the makeup of the wave. Keep an eye on the tide, especially in big shifting swells, as the same break can look completely different several hours later after the water has risen or dropped a few metres.

Autumn SW France Atlantic

Steam rising off the Atlantic – ocean temps remain warm as air cools. Image ~ Tim Nunn

But the real draw of this area is the relative ease with which you can find empty line-ups. Further south of Hourtin is Crohot des Cavales, a consistent peak that is only accessible on foot or bike, via a track that weaves its way through the aromatic pine forest. Better still, explore the 10 kilometres between Hourtin and Crohot des Cavales and you’ll find numerous sections firing unridden that haven’t even been graced with a name. A feat that nowadays is usually reserved for those spending days at sea dodging Dengue with other intrepid surf explorers. One look at a chart of the area, or a few simple stabs at Google maps, and the potential of this unspoilt landscape is obvious, the lack of roads leading to the coast an obvious indication that numbers will be low.

I’m not sure of the legality of camping amongst the beaches and forests of this area, in fact I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to, but were you to take your chance and risk an unlikely encounter with the French authorities, some decent camping equipment and the benefit that travelling 500 kilometres south of the UK has on the climate, you could quite happily go back to nature and experience a truly off-grid surfing adventure, even in Autumn. Make sure you’ve packed some of Northcore’s Adventure Division gear like their camping mugs and a hammock which would be perfect for French woodland camping. Most campsites close in mid-September, but if you’re travelling in a campervan there are a few municipal motorhome stopovers in which you can park-up. AireCampingCar is perfect for pinpointing a place to hook-up. There’s also heaps of accommodation available on all the usual websites if you’re craving the typical creature comforts.

Off grid camping

Going off grid

Board selection for this area is tricky. It can get big, especially towards mid-October, so best to err of the side of caution and bring one of your longer boards. You want to be up on the wave early rather than attempting to survive a late drop. The power of French waves is notorious so take plenty of spare equipment like a Northcore leash or set of Slice fins. You’re not far from all the usual trappings of a surf resort, but even a half hour trek back through the forest for a new leash is frustrating, especially if it’s avoidable. The water is warm, and the air temperature should see you comfortable in a summer suit, but this isn’t the tropics, so you might feel happier in something slightly warmer. A set of surfers earplugs is also a recommended addition to any surf.

France A frame surf

French barrels. Image ~ Tim Nunn

Whether the first stop of a winter European tour, or simply a last minute escape to break the monotony of the onset of winter, there are few places that offer such easy access to secluded Autumnal waves. The real beauty is the effortlessness with which you can find isolation, both in and out the water. Simply travel a few kilometres south of Hourtin and the howling onshore winds of the UK will seem a world away.

Follow our weekly blog posts as Tom takes you further on into Europe in search of surf. Next, part 2 – Northern Spain

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