The Persistence of Hope

Nelson Cloarec. Photo: Tim Nunn

Back in the spring, after many false starts due to wildly tempestuous weather charts, we finally got this trip called on… It was a mission. But a fun one. Here’s what I wrote for Carve Surfing Magazine. The film got premiered on the cinema screen at the London Surf/Film Festival which was rad as hell.

“Every surf trip is about hope. Hoping to score and hoping to have some good times. Some trips make you hope for better days more than others…”

Frenchman Nelson Cloarec, Australia’s Micah Lester and Basque chap Adrian Fernandez de Valderrama spent ten hopeful days somewhere in the colder reaches of Northern Europe hunting for perfection. This is their story.

In the modern age we have super computers in our pockets. Computers more powerful than the ones used to send man to the moon. Devices from which we can access the world. We can book flights, video chat to friends anywhere on earth, keep up with the news, track storms and surf forecasts with ease … As long as you’ve got a signal.

All the information in the world at our fingertips is not always a good thing. Especially when it comes to planning surf trips in Northern Europe. The Atlantic is unpredictable at the best of times and calling a photo trip on, where riders and photographers need to converge from around the globe to make sweet visual gold is a big ask.
Long range forecasts look good for days then change wholesale. Flight prices leap. Windows of availability change daily. Pro surfers have to keep busy. If they’re not competing or shooting or training then they’re not progressing. 
So getting this trip off the ground wasn’t as simple as saying, ‘Hey guys! Be here on this date.’
The area of interest had a very specific set of conditions and the trip would be a bust if those conditions weren’t met.
Thankfully the on/off, on again, off again, book flights, rearrange flights, definitely call it on this time shenanigans were up to trip photographer Tim Nunn and Jan, the O’Neill dude.
I just had to rock up along with everyone else to press the big red button on the video camera to record the action.

After many false starts, thanks to the strange post-El Nino European spring conditions, it was finally on. A ten-day window looking good in every respect. Light winds, good direction swell, no rain. We were full of hope for some crazy sessions.
Some swift phone prodding later three surfers were airport bound from three different countries and two photographers were driving for two days to converge with them … damn all that luggage.
 
We picked up the Blue Steel good looks of Micah first from a big city airport. He’d flown in from Hawaii, where he happens to be living, even though he’s from Burleigh Heads on the Gold Coast originally. The lucky git.
He had, what appeared to be, swine flu. Which is all kind of ironic seeing as he ‘flew’ from the other side of the world for this mission. While we were loading his board bag on the car he was on his knees in the car park apparently coughing a lung off.
Within an hour of him being in the car I had flu too. Dick move Micah. Not stoked. Hadn’t even started the shoot and and two out of three of us were at death’s door.

Nelson and Adrian we grabbed a few hours later from another airport and soon figured out that three pros and two surf photog’s were never going to fit in one estate car. No matter how well we packed things. A rental car acquired we drove on for many hours more leaving modern conveniences like mobile reception behind.

We’d planned to camp for some of the duration, seeing as it was late spring, but the unseasonal weather was out of hand. An air temp of 0C during the day and minus at night would not make for camping fun. Hypothermic surfers aren’t the most photogenic things. They don’t perform well and tend to complain about the ice in their wetsuits. Frozen photographer’s tend to gripe about their batteries and they hate camping due to the lack of plug sockets. We’d come equipped for spring camping, not deep winter camping.

Our chart full of hope and good times, as is the way with these things, evaporated the second we arrived. We’d hoped to be jumping straight into great surf the next day.
We didn’t. What had looked so good now looked like onshore gales and snow. Sometimes being able to see weather charts updated every few hours is a curse. A destroyer of hope. In the old days you’d wake up and look out the window. Now you can know with pretty much 100 percent certainty the new few days are toast.
The call to get a place made of bricks, as opposed to canvas, for the first few nights was wise. As it was flipping cold even in the old stone walls of the house until we figured out how the heating worked.

When you’re far from home and the surf’s not so good but the terrain is sublime you explore. So we did. We drove hours of coast. Explored nooks and crannies and hard to get to back beaches sheltered from the gale but also removed from civilisation. Without a four wheel drive of the finest calibre, or a helicopter, we could but wonder. As single track lanes gave way to dirt tracks eventually to fields. Thanks to the wonders of satellite maps accessed via the pocket computer we could tell we were miles away. 
We marvelled at empty roads, quiet villages, lengthy sea lochs diversions, tumble down ruins and snow capped mountains. We got chatting to every village shopkeeper baffled by a real life visitor from Australia. 
We found a fun little beachbreak. One of those, give it a few hours of tide and it’ll be fun. We waited for hours. It got fun for about twenty minutes then the tide got too high. Fickle ain’t the word. But after all the flights and road miles it was good to get wet in crystal clear water. Even if it was just chest high fun. And as much as it was cold it was at least sunny. On the first day at least…

The higher the latitude you venture in Europe the more wild and unpredictable the weather. If the surf is hard to predict the weather equally so. 
Sure in France, Spain and Portugal you get good storms. But it’s a variation on a theme of hot, warm, nice, maybe some rain. Unless you’re in the mountains. The higher latitudes are way more schizophrenic. 
Snow. Hail. Gales. Wearing all the clothes your brought with you weather. Thank heavens for thermals. Hail the size of peas. Hail that ricochets off metalwork like bullets. Hail that feels like it’s trying to bury itself in your skull. Thankfully winter wetsuits with hoods are the ideal anti-hail wear.
All credit to the guys, if there was a surfable wave, even in the middle of a fierce gale with showers of snow and/or hail they were out there.
Then the sun would come out. And you’d feel the hint of spring warmth on your skin and forget about the maelstrom. Until it kicked back in again. Then you’d scurry for cover.
The afternoons of gale driven snow that were sketchy to drive in, due to the Arctic blasts, really didn’t make us question our backdown on camping. The forecast, models changing hourly as they were, suggested some calmer weather towards the end of the trip where we might get some under canvas time.

A week of weather dodging and not much surf having is a recipe for moral disaster. Some trips can go off the rails as the warm hearth of the pub beckons and the increasingly desperate affirmations of, ‘It should be good tomorrow … I hope,’ fall on deaf ears. It all depends on the calibre of your surfers. 
Micah is an old hand at this, he’s been travelling the world in search of surf for over a decade from the tropics to the Arctic Circle. He knows how it goes. You enjoy the good times. You do your best through the bad times. And you take your interest in craft ales to a trainspotter level and sample local culture for the taste of it. Not to get off your head. Because who knows if it might just be pumping in the morning. Even though every chart screams otherwise.
Nelson and Adrian are young bucks. New kids on the block but with old heads on their shoulders. Thoroughly professional throughout. Like Micah rolling with the punches. Enjoying a new place, new experiences, seeing the lay of the land for when a good swell may eventually turn up. Inquisitive, funny, genial company to a man. And thanks to Micah now probably members of the Campaign of Real Ale in their respective countries.

It’s easy to get lost when there’s no hope.
Any surf trip where you’ve had all of four, short, spectacularly average, mainly onshore surfs in nine days and spent days searching through storms in vain could wear you down. Hope is all we have. And until you get on that plane home there’s always hope. Hoping for better days is the default position for Northern European surfers. It doesn’t get good that often. So hope is key. Sometimes it rewards you…

We were nearing the end of our trip. The gale had lasted most of it. The snow finally let up. We didn’t have a film or a magazine feature in the bag. Not even close. On the last full day we had a glimmer. It looked like a small swell and light winds … finally. Two out of three but the tide was all wrong. We’d have to wait for hours.
Which is all kinds of cruel. Having endured nine days of trying and failing and being pushed and taunted by the weather at every turn it seemed doomed to fail. The wind would switch before we got a chance. It would start hammering with rain. Hope had all but gone.

Time moved so slowly that morning. As busied ourselves packing for the trip home the next day. A fragment of hope persisted but it’s flame was all but guttering out. 
‘Maybe there’ll be something surfable.’ 
‘Could be air/turn section if we’re lucky.’
I couldn’t stand it and suggested we just go and sit and watch and wait for the tide for the next few hours seeing as it was actually 5˚C that day instead of 0˚C and not raining. 
Micah knew the spot as he’d been trying to score it for half a decade and wasn’t keen. We’d be staring at dry rocks. Watching the imperceptible movement of the tide there or we could watch paint dry at home. But he gave in to the hopeful, puppy dog eyes of the younger two surfers and we loaded up.

Perfection. Photo: Tim Nunn

So glad we did. Wisdom around some surf spots is thin on the ground and with all the variables at play the received wisdom isn’t always right. Nelson though it looked surfable after an hour of appraisal. The slab was covered at least. So he went surfing. Five flawless barrels later any call of, ‘We should wait for the tide to push up a bit,’ was forgotten and Adrian and Micah were in a blur of wetsuits, fins and wax.

The session that followed was beautiful. Three guys, who’d only met on this trip, taking turns to get barrelled off their heads on a warping, shallow slab in the deep blue Atlantic. Three guys hooting, laughing, hollering and punching the air when someone got spat, and boy does this place spit, out of another wider than it is high tube.
It wasn’t without its concerns, any wipeout there was a visit to the reef, and a sketchy escape if another wave was bearing down on you. Which with one foot of water draining around knees to escape into is not that much fun. 
All you can do is jump into the wall of whitewater and hope. Somehow the guys survived intact. 
As Adrian said, ’No broken boards, everyone’s alive … that’s pretty good!’ A master of understatement that lad.

We’d done it. A surf trip plucked from the edge of disaster. The dictionary definition of ‘by the skin of their teeth’. It wasn’t easy but we’d hoped against hope for better days and been rewarded. The good times came all by themselves.

As to whether the down days, the road miles, the airport waits, the frustration and expense are worth it? Well, as Nelson said, ‘That was one of the best sessions of my life…’ 
And that’s pretty much the best thing you can hope for on any trip.