The Big Trip by Keith Williams
In the late 60s & early 70s, Biarritz was the place to go if you were serious about surfing. Guys like Rog Cooper, Bob Ward and Tad Ciastula were regular visitors for the summer and it was like a right of passage for English surfers, a bit like gap year travels nowadays.
I was sitting with my boss at JS Whites one afternoon in early March 1973 when his phone rang. “It’s for you”, he said crossly, handing me the phone. It was Tony Mac. “I’m going to France for the summer” he said “Are you coming?”
I thought about it for about 3 seconds, & said “Yes” So it was on May 3rd we left Southampton on a Townsend Thorenson car ferry (remember them?) bound for Cherbourg in the home-converted 1200 VW that Tony had acquired for the trip. It took us 3 days to get to Biarritz & when we arrived at Bidart Plage it was dull, drizzly and windy with no waves to speak of!
Having said that, we did witness some big waves at Guethary, La Barre & Lafitenia at about 15 ft before we moved on to Spain.
I remember having to take turns to go to the local shops for our daily bread, milk etc and it became my habit, once the shopping had been done, to stop for a coffee in the square at Bidart. As I sat there, looking around at the distant Pyrenees, La Rhune, the church and all the other buildings around the square, it struck me that this was the nicest place that I’d ever been to. Now, nearly 40 years on, Bidart is still my most favourite place, despite the changes that time has wrought and the many other wonderful places that surfing has taken me to.
There were several of us from the Island down there for the summer; there was Rog, Tad, Dave Mercer, Pete Brown, Trev Woodley & us. We surfed at some wonderful beaches but on the other hand, stayed in some really dodgy places!
One of the dodgier places was Baquio, where we were parked up between the apartment blocks for several days. One day there seemed to be a 2-3 foot swell building. We all started getting changed to go in, but by the time we’d got in the water, the swell had got up to about 5-6 feet. Rog said that it was time to hit Mundaka. Tony & I set off with some trepidation, not only because Mundaka had a fearsome reputation even then, but because Rog had told us how bad the road was between Baquio & Mundaka. Sure enough, it was like driving over a ploughed field with bomb craters in it. It was six miles & it took us nearly an hour.
When we got there, Rog was just coming back from a look-see over the harbour wall. “Great,” he said “It’s about 8 feet AND they’ve mended the road”!
Discretion being the better part of valour, I refrained from surfing that day, preferring to watch from the harbour wall as guys got eaten by the ultra fast left.
As the tide flooded, I recall Dave Mercer being washed into the river & so far up stream that he had to get out of the water & walk back along the road as the current was too much to paddle against. I did venture in the next day when the size had dropped to about 5-6 feet. The waves were incredibly fast, no matter how hard I tried, I could not outrun them and ate sand.
There was another session in big waves that I remember. This was back in France when Guethary reef was working at about 10-12 feet. Tony & I decided to paddle out to watch from the safety of the shoulder. Although the waves were the biggest I’d ever been in, they were not breaking fast, so after a while, I thought I’d have a go. Trev Woodley always said that Guethary was the only right break in the world where you had to go left to catch up with the curl, so I felt I could handle it.
I paddled over to where Rog & the other guys were and eventually paddled for a wave. As the board started to plane, I stood up, but was unprepared for the acceleration down the face & was thrown off the back as the board accelerated away. On the second wave, I was determined not to repeat that mistake and so stood up quickly, transferring my weight forward onto my left foot. I guess it was inevitable, but I accelerated straight down the face & got 10 feet of the Bay of Biscay dumped on top of me. After that, I figured I’d had enough.
Somo, across the river from Santander, was another favourite place. In those days it was just sand dunes & pine trees and a gloriously long sandy beach with no-one about, except at weekends when a few city folk would come out & camp.
I particularly enjoyed the walk along the beach to the little jetty where a boat, not too dissimilar to the ‘African Queen’, would come in to pick you up for the 20 peseta (about a shilling or 5p) ride across the river to Santander. The boats were run by a company called Los Diez Hermanos, or The Ten Brothers & at least two of them looked remarkably like Humphrey Bogart in the above mentioned movie!
We would go over every couple of days for supplies in the market and a wander around followed by a large café con leche in a pavement café. There were no other English people and it was rare to see any one else on the beach. One night just after dusk, we were aware of a distant noise like chanting. As the noise got louder, we could see a procession approaching, carrying torches & some sort of figure on a plinth. We were a bit concerned for a while as we thought maybe we were about to be sacrificed by the Spanish KKK to some weird Iberian Anti-Surfing God or other. Fortunately, the procession wound its way past us & down through the dunes onto the beach, where they set fire to the figure and its plinth.
We found out later that it was an annual ceremony to celebrate Santa Maria, which was the name of the small island off the eastern end of the beach. I’ve spent 10 or 12 weeks there in all, over 3 or 4 visits, just parked up behind the dunes, surfin’ & chillin’ out. However, the last time I went there, in 1980, there was a road, a car park, an ice cream shop, diggers, lorries and foundations being laid for what would inevitably be a load of shore side apartment blocks. A sad day indeed, Lord knows what it’s like now.
That trip proceeded on to Portugal and some more wonderfully deserted surf spots. Although the water was cold after Biarritz, I really enjoyed Peniche and Carcavellos.