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The Ox Files I - Slightly lost among the longboards and legends

09:39 4th June 2007 by Alex Dick-Read
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Oxbow World Longboard Championships

Quite what the hell I’m doing here I don’t know. The Surfer’s Path doesn’t do contests, and I don’t do free trips laid on by advertisers, or write blogs. But I’d thought it a good idea to take up Oxbow’s offer to come to Anglet for a few days while their contest is on, and well, it’s time I tried my hand at this blogging lark anyway.
These occasional trips are good for touching base with people I deal with by email all the time – correspondents, mainly, but also advertisers like Oxbow (who deserve props for rekindling the fire in the world longboard circuit) and a smattering of other fine folk from the field of surf. Of course the lurching peaks of SW France are always an attraction, too … So here’s a few random moments from the frontline, where surf media meets surf contest and … doesn’t quite know what to do.

Seeking un Raison d’Etre

Our regular TSP correspondent and Oxbow team rider Sam Bleakley got knocked out in the trials, despite a general feeling that he should have won the heat, so my plan to be his number one fan wasn’t going to happen. Having a competitor to follow, I reasoned, would give me a purpose here, and a name to check on the scoreboard when wandering the site. Thankfully Sam introduced me to Ben Skinner, another English dude, and a shit-hot longboarder from Newquay . Ben’s a really good guy and he was winning heats, so I switched my allegiance to him, no problem.

The vibe at these events is always strange when you’re a member of the alternative surf press. You get given passes (access all areas etc) and can wander around among the competitors and contest organisers at will. Some of the journos sit watching every heat, writing blow-by-blow accounts of every wave and every rider’s score, and others interview the contestants, gather quotes and profiles for their write-ups etc. Like I say, we don’t really cover contests, so I tend to schmooze most of the time, and wonder how bad it will look if I sneak off for a surf.

Big Al and the Legend

The schmooze starts straight away as I enter the site. Al Hunt is standing there talking to Nat Young on the balcony. Two legends, of the friendly, highly approachable kind. Al has a genius for contest logistics, scoring and keeping events running smooth. He’s been the brains behind every big surf contest in the last two decades, the master controller of ASP events from the world tour’s conception.

A big fella with a bigger smile and dry wit, back home in Oz Al has a collection of every surf magazine ever published in the history of the world, almost. It doesn’t take long for his super-organized mind to kick into catalogue mode. “Hey Alex, I’m missing a couple of issues of the Path. Let me just check … ah yeah, actually it’s only one. Issue 44. Can you get me a copy?”

Geez, I don’t know, Al. Issue 44 was about 3 1/2 years ago. I’ll see what I can dig up. Otherwise, try e-Bay, I tell him. We have this conversation every time we meet, and I love it. I love the fact that Al’s so on it with figures and lists and scores and numbers. He’s the total opposite to me in that sense, so I view him with awe and envy. He has this huge archive back home, each mag perfectly catalogued and accounted for. Every now and then he lets students or journos come in and use it for research purposes, but otherwise, he’s just collecting them, for the sake of … well … history. He’s a keeper of the stories of our tribe. The world needs people like Al. Diligent, dedicated and doing us all a service in the long run.

Nat Young has been a familiar face since I interviewed him in Cornwall some years ago. Plus, he’s best pals with my colleague Drew Kampion, so it’s always a pleasure to see him, despite his “Legend” status. He’s here representing Oxbow and supporting his son Bryce, whose about to make a huge splash on the surf world, apparently. Turns out Bryce, 16 years old, is the spitting image of his elder brother Beau, and he surfs like his Dad.
“He’s not sure if he’s gonna do the longboard or the shortboard tour yet,” Nat tells me. “He could do either with his talent.” Nat is clearly a proud dad, and for good reason. The teenage Bryce is competing in an international world championships, making his way steadily through each round with radical, stylish surfing, and all on his sponsors’ Bic pop-out.

Nat is as generally stoked and as animated as ever, and it doesn’t take a minute for an audience to form around him, which he loves. I move off, wondering what to do, and if it would be ruder to ignore the 6ft barrels firing off in front of me, or to ride in them.

Nat Young by Vogue photographer Stéphane Gautronneau.

Sod it. Get Wet

I decide to surf. The swell’s messy – short period with sets piling on top of each other – but conditions are clean and glassy. The contest area has the best peak – both ways and rifling with bowly sections – so I decide on the middle section of Anglet’s enormous beach, where a bank of some sort is throwing occasional jaw-droppers.

A cheeky change in the competitor’s area, fins screwed into my Point Blanks 6’8” 5-fin Bonzer and I’m outta there, making like it’s totally normal for media to skank off for a wave mid-contest.
I pass Nat on the way out and ask if he’s coming for a surf. He’s been thinking about it, he says. He checks my Bonzer with eyes of experience that few can rival, and says nothing. I can’t tell if that’s a good thing or bad thing, but it seems to help Nat make his mind up. He heads off to find a board to ride after we loosely arrange to meet out in the lineup.

I run across acres of sand to the water’s edge, dive in and am instantly reminded that we’re at the mouth of the Ardour River, and that it just rained hard for two days solid. The water’s brown, full of plastic bags and worse, with a faintly petro smell to it. But a glassy double-overhead peak with a thick, arcing roof detonates out ahead of me, so I concentrate on avoiding dramas, not swallowing water and seeking windows of opportunity.
It’s a good surf, but wonky as fuck. I’m chasing peaks all over the place and then screwing up some decent ones. But that said, it only takes a couple of good waves and everything’s sweet. And so it is. The Legend turns up and we chase peaks together while maintaining a broken conversation about his new, updated edition of ‘The History of Surfing’, due out later this year. Nat says he’s added a chapter called “From Water to Snow” or some such, about snowboarding and other offshoots that surfing has spawned since he wrote his first edition in 1983. There’s more, but conversation is hard when sexy waves are winking at you.

It’s great to see him surf. His decades of experience blend with the huge natural ability and style that made him the dominant force in surfing at a time when everything was changing in the ‘60s. He looks cool and confident on the late drops and when he bottom turns you could easily be looking at Nat Young circa ’66 – power and poise, undiminished grace.

By the time the peaks go soft and the tide fattens the whole thing out, I realize what a huge privilege is to surf with him. A full on perk of the job. That’s why I went to France. To surf with a Legend! Stoked.

Extraordinary Rendition to Guethary

That afternoon our regular contributor and overall fascinating local guy, Anthony “YEP” Colas, kidnaps me for another surf. The swell’s smaller and the wind is cross-shore, but still worth a paddle. We stop at his flat in Guéthary to pick up a board. The slipway at Guéthary has chunks of concrete ripped out of it. Colas tells me the fishermen had their worst winter ever, and the surfers their best. Alcyon, Avalanche, Parlimentaria and the rest of those heavy water breaks worked consistently all winter, big.

We drive a short way then take a trail through some bay trees and down a tiny, steep path to a headland somewhere near Lafitenia, but not. This part of the coast is my favourite and Colas concurrs. “Forget the beaches,” says Anthony, “it takes too much time to check them all and find the banks that are really working. I just surf the reefs around Cote Basque.”

That said, there are some waves on this part of the coast that he doesn’t bother with. “Lafitenia,” he says, “pretty much belongs to Quiksilver”. Being the nearest spot to their factory, just across the road and railway line, he reckons it’s their staff wave. Others, he says, are so heavily guarded that even he, a full on local, gets hassled if he paddles out.

The surf pretty much sucks but out here the water is clear and blue, the mountains loom behind, the sun shines, the Basque spirit hangs over it all and I find some tweaky traits in my 6’8” Bonzer that I never, ever expected. Fan-bloody-tastique.

An Oxbow Feast

Colas dropped me at the contest site where everyone’s dressed to the nines for some secret Oxbow party. My hair’s still wet and my nose dripping, but I figure if I can’t look post-surf scruffy here, I don’t want to go anyway.

Thankfully no one minded. The Oxbow party was unbelievable. Sorry, but it was fun. They launched a new model of car, VW Oxbow, so there were car execs and top Oxbow folk amongst the journos and liggers. I had to steer clear of them for fear of causing a ruckus with my obvious, embarrassing questions: is it electric or green in any way? Can it fit a surfboard? Etc, etc. Don’t even go there.

Nat Young’s daughter, Nava, sang sweetly to the assembled throng – she’s bloody talented, too – and we feasted on some of the finest food and drink in the universe. What can I say? Merci.

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