The old global pandemic card, which, going by the name of Covid 19 – has severely affected the world over, but perhaps non more so then the plight of global professional surfing. Heavily reliant on Travel, usually across the entire world and also reliant huge beachside crowds to add the all-important vibe on the beach and crucially return on investment for sponsors. And if there’s one thing that Covid really destroyed public attitude to; its large crowds and international travel. Goodnight pro surfing. Maybe see you next year?
All Images – Alan van Gysen
In previous years, or well until march this year the WSL had legs in America, Australia, South Africa, South America and Europe. The competition structure takes the form of a qualifying series with the world’s top 1000 in a tiered format, all battling for qualification on the world tour were the world’s elite top 34 battle it out across the worlds. Evidentially, Covid 19 had other ideas. It is perhaps of no surprise that the 2020 championship tour and qualifying series were cancelled outright.
So for the world’s elite surfer, for the first time perhaps ever, as with many of their pro careers start travelling the world at 16 with the pro junior series they were left somewhat rudderless. Confined as such to their respective hometowns with not much clarity as to when competition would resume. Suddenly a structured format of living, with each year following the same pattern of travel based on contests was all in limbo. A holding pattern like the world over.
So the question arises, with surfing being a highly individual sport, how does one organise a Covid Free surf contest? Enter the French Rendezvous of Surfing, a one day ‘speciality event’ forming part of a two-stage contest, the other being in Portugal as part of the ‘European Cup’. With all ‘official’ events on hold until 2021, the Euro Cup is the World Surf Leagues’ way of kick-starting things a little. Only taking the top, predominantly European men and women into an innovative contest format with prize money donated to charity (nice touch) and all points not actually counting towards anything – it would seem the pressure is off to roll out a good time.
And no better place to hold it than Anglet, nestled in France’s south western corner, just north of Biarritz and about 20 minutes north of the Spanish border. Anglet is steeped in Surfing History, along with Biarritz considered somewhat the birthplace of surfing in Europe, it has hosted numerous world series competitions as well as world class surfers. It’s easy to get to location and surfing pedigree combined with its rocky groynes channelling the raw Atlantic swells into great surfing waves makes Anglet an obvious choice for hosting such a speciality event.
“Two years ago I was in the final there with Coco Ho, one of my best friends from Hawaii and one of the world’s best surfers. It was more of a ‘friendship’ final and a great memory for me – it’s one of the reasons I love to compete in Anglet – it’s full of good memories and moments – that’s the reason I compete” – Maud le Car.
Oh and the Covid free part of said contest? Well only the WSL staff and surfers were allowed onsite. No braying crowds. No media. Masks to be worn everywhere onsite, (apart from in the sea) and also strict social distancing – picture awkwardly placed interviews with microphones on booms. The event is effectively private, with the WSL working hard behind the scenes to broadcast a live stream from Anglet to the world.
“We had to get tested two days before event, and then self isolate. We could surf but we had to avoid all social contact, even to the extend of surfing less crowded waves. As for wearing a mask and socially distancing at the event – it didn’t feel that weird. It’s just a reflection of life everywhere at the moment. It seems like the testing and self isolating will be here to stay – the new normal.
Not having a crowd at your home spot definitely makes a difference though – I miss that!”
But before we get to the contest day itself. We must meet Maud! Maud le Car, born in the Caribbean island paradise of Saint Martin, where she grew up and learned to surf. She now resides in Hossegor, about 30 minutes north of Anglet. Maud, like pretty much all other surfers found herself a little lost as the world entered pandemic meltdown mode. However, the plucky French surfer didn’t let it get her down.
“During the confinement I respected the rules like everyone else and stayed at home, I trained a lot too which kept me focused. I made some art, did some painting, worked around the house and took some time to do all the things I don’t usually have time to do with such a busy travel and contest schedule. It made me want to surf more. In a way it was a little vision of what life would be like if my surf career ended so it made me think ‘I don’t want this to end’ It made me work harder, to make my dreams come true as time flies fast!
When the confinement ended, I spent a lot of time in the water. Working on my surfing, summer in France is a great time to do that and be totally surfed out!”
“I really missed competing – way more than travelling. I’m a really competitive person, I have my goals and I’m always focused on the next contest. So at the beginning I thought there would be no contests for a year so I felt a little lost as to where to put my energy and with no close goals or waypoints it was freaking me out”
So, the day of the contest – held on the first day of a two-day window. It’s a classic Autumnal day in South West France. Chilly in the morning and much warmer in the afternoon, it’s the time of year when Puffa jackets and beanies are donned and then swiftly shed as soon as the sun pokes above the mist. Surf wise, with a high tide the waves are a little slow, or ‘fat’ as surfer would call them. However the morning’s conditions are optimal with warm water and little to no wind. A dreamy morning indeed. Surf contests are a strange affair to the untrained eye. Surfers battle it out in heats, usually with 2 to 4 surfers. In each heat, the surfers catch waves (no big surprise there) each wave is scored out of ten, and their best two waves count – giving each heat score a maximum of 20. Sound simple enough? Well not quite, as judging surfing isn’t as easy as football as there are no goals as such. Each wave is judged by the quality of the wave, and the ‘speed power and flow’ of the manoeuvres on each wave, as well as the degree of commitment required to complete said manoeuvre… Lost? Imagine scoring gymnastics – the more spins and the quicker they are – the better the score. Easy.
Maud has the first wave of the whole contest – somewhat fitting start to the day. She surfs her way to the inside with a two manoeuvre score with a decent score and priority. She cruises through her first heat with ease, earning her a place directly in the quarterfinals. Competitive surfing is officially back on in Europe and you can almost taste the excitement.
“I was a little stressed in the morning, seeing everyone for the first time in a while in that environment threw me a little. I didn’t really have the chance to surf before my first heat however once I got that under my belt I felt a lot more confident and ready to have fun. The first round is always the most stressful for me, it really helps my mindset to make that one .I felt my surfing was a little frustrated but that’s the nerves – it’s normal!”
By the time Maud’s quarter final comes up, after the rest of the women’s round 1 and also a few men’s heats, the conditions have changed slightly. The tide has dropped out offering more powerful waves. The wind started to come up, a classic phenomenon in Autumn where the as the day warms up, the warm air draws cooler air from the sea making the water surface a little choppy – not optimal. However this is of little concern to Maud, she blasts through her heat, eliminating German surfer Rachel Presti in the process despite losing her board after the first wave due to a broken leash – a real nightmare for any competitive surfer. However Maud holds her composure and in true form continues the rest of the heat. Winning with grace.
Next up it’s into the Semi’s – Maud’s surfing – light with her feet, fast and quick transition between turns really suits this kind of quick low tide wave. By the time Maud enters the water the wind has really come up and the weather has set in. With rain squalls and strong winds battering the beach, it’s victory at sea conditions out there. Maud is up against Johanne Defay a French surfer from Reunion Island – one of Europe’s most accomplished female surfers and top ten competitive surfer on the world tour, there’s potential for the sub prime conditions to be a great leveller. However it was not to be, Joanne narrowly beats Maud with 11.5 points to Maud’s 8.5.
“Losing to Johanne in the semis wasn’t that bad – It was great to surf with her, we’ve been surfing together since the pro juniors so it felt great to be back in the water – she’s such an amazing surfer. Of course I still wanted to beat her but that’s ok – maybe next time!”
And so, ends Maud’s journey at the French Rendezvous of surfing. Johanne goes onto win the event and with their old friendship in the balance Maud seems anything but bitter. Despite the lack of crowds on the beach, and the usual media presence, it seems that the event was a success, if not only just to show that competitive surfing in Europe isn’t dead. It was merely having a break, and who knows – perhaps for better the other side. And Maud? Well it doesn’t seem all bad for her for the rest of the year and beyond.
I’m looking forward to Portugal; hopefully we have better waves than in Anglet. It’s nice to surf these contests without the pressure of rankings, points, prize money etc. It just makes it more fun
For the rest of the year I’m going to stay in Europe and train a lot, try and surf bigger waves as well as a few other things I haven’t done. In December I will go back to my hometown in the Caribbean and get ready for the contest season of 2021. I’m excited for new things and to get out my comfort zone – always ready for new adventures!”