Hands up anyone who has done some kind of living and surfing in a van? Yes, you can include cars and motorhomes for the purpose of this exercise. I am sure you can relate when I say that your single biggest fear would be getting out of the water to find all your personal stuff littered across the car park, with anything that was not nailed down gone. Stolen. The bitter taste in you mouth as you firstly wonder how, then when, then who. You look around in case the culprits are still within chasing and punching distance. Your mind starts to tally up the things that could have gone missing and your guts drop as you realise you might not have hidden you passport well enough. Thief tossers!
This is a story of a day that started amazingly, it got worse and then, as the crevasse of despair widened to extinction level,the realisation of perspective and thankfulness kicked in. Here we go.
For this I have to wind back the clock a couple of decades, but it’s worth it, like all good lessons well learned, they remain crystal clear.
Imagine, if you will, the perfect French morning, low tide, sun cresting the horizon, a puff of off-shore and the aroma of pine trees scenting the air. There was a 2-3ft, good period groundswell being slowly pumped up the Gulf de Capbreton and layering itself on a perfectly groomed sandbar, we were the only ones for a couple of kilometers. Does life get any better?
With a heightened anticipation of the conditions, we had camped overnight at the spot in question which was a way from anywhere, nothing but the night flying insects for company. Our van was stacked with all our worldly possessions and parked behind the dune, as close to the beach as we could get it. In haste, we suited, waxed up and left for the glory that promised to be.
Utterly perfect right handers graced the ‘point-like’ sandbar, the perfect tide, it was impossible not to smile of the thought of what was about to be one of those sessions you just don’t forget. Ever. Little did we know that it might be remembered for the wrong reasons. Hooting and tripping on leashes we ran to the water and surfed out guts out in the slathering bliss of a sliders’ stoke.
Two hours and many waves later, gasping for water and wishing we had applied suncream, we headed back over the dune for a late beakie and the start of what promised to be a glorious day. That’s when I saw it. The van door was open. I looked at my partner as if to say, “Did we leave the door open?” in a the utterly vain hope that what I saw was not what it was. Pieces of paper and clothes seemed to be strewn outside the van, a pair of my shorts in the bushes and windows and doors all open. Reality sunk in with a thump. We had been robbed.
To go from one emotion to another so far apart is a strange thing. I can only liken it to spending an hour in the sauna to then jump in a cold bath or like being slapped hard awake from the most beautiful dream. This was no mirage, however, it was happening.
Boards, hastily discarded, our pace quickening, we arrived at the scene, slipped in through the open door and surveyed the dismembered interior of the van. All of our treasured possessions strewn over one another, a lot of things missing and a lot of things left. A mixture of relief and loss came over us as we ticked off the lost and found items. Wallets gone, van documents gone, passports gone, toothbrushes and washbags gone, a selection of clothes missing, photos and laptops remained though. We had some food in the cupboards and about 5 Euros of diesel in the tank, just enough to get us somewhere that was somewhere.
Packing up to get away from this now tainted spot I reached for my cigarettes only to find them missing. This would be the way with a lot of things as time went on. No money, no cards, no passports and now no cigarettes, just what I fancied, in this time of stress. Strange what you remember as important. We drove economically to the nearest police station only to find it closed (France, off-season). We drove to safety, a little camping ground behind a dune near a town, haggled with the owner, threw ourselves on her mercy and explained out story. At first we were met with suspicion and doubt, but I realize now that the level desperation on our faces must have sung a true song she could understand. We had a week to stay for free and find some money. No passports to give as security, no identity.
As strange as may sound to you, a surfer’s mind (especially when you have a good session) is all about getting another wave, the next fix. I knew the forecast, swell filling in and off-shore all day. We had camped by one of the best spots in the world for waves, it was off-shore and holding, due to hold all day and the next. All this was still nagging me in the back of my mind.
We decided to report the theft to the police in town, get a crime number, go from there. No passport to prove who we were, no address to call home, no phone to call. It was like we did not exist to them, like it was a joke. No sympathy from the men in blue. We got a temporary proof of ID with a report saying our passport had been stolen. Three hours ticked by, all the time I was spying the flag out of the window. Still a strong off-shore, still the chance of a wave. Still no money but we had food for the night.
Back at the campsite, the feeling of missing out was strong, waves. It was getting late, I scrambled to put my suit on, leaving my partner to fret on her own. Talking to some other campers, they gave me a pack of cigarettes, tasted so good. Waxing the board, my only board left, the one I had with me. I got to the top of the dune, swell, clean, pumping, escape and relief.
Paddling out I passed a guy from the car park, “What are you doing out here on that?” he said. Starting to explain I had now only one board. This big hunk of eight foot glass and foam for small perfect sessions. He cut me off, “ You had better start paddling” he said. He pointed. The horizon had gone dark. The sinking feeling. Some frantic paddling, hopeless, pointless and ill fated.
The race was on. Huge, clean and deadly, the first set wave ploughed towards a frantic, inexperienced 8ft riding buffoon. I didn’t check it for long enough, was the repeating thought as the wave and I met. It was a close race but I lost in the worst way.
Two thirds of the way up the face we met. Angry forces drove me deep, glass underneath me was now on top, hammering me down. Deep and dark, panic setting in, scrabbling for orientation, getting lighter, swimming up. Another explosion above, refreshed forces send me spinning, deeper this time out of control, twirling with the flow. A feeling of home arrived, on the sand, feet on the bottom. A change of mood, what was I doing? It was nice down here, beautiful, blue. Feeling relaxed. A tug on my leg, a white rope from above, what was up there. Time to explore, time to go up and see.
My face broke the surface and, zip, I was back, the air in my lungs burned like poison. Coughing water, vivid colours everywhere, people shouting, helping me on my board. Another explosion far behind me and being propelled to the beach, moving so fast. The bitter taste of acidic fear in my mouth. I reached the beach, couldn’t stand, being sick, so much water.
I don’t know how long I sat there. People came and went, some checking I was okay, some saying it was the gnarliest thing they had seen that day. No pride was felt, just happy to be breathing air. Gathering myself for the walk back up the dune on shaky legs, my partner still on the old path of worry met me. Asked if I had a good surf. Crying. Sobbing. Shaking.
Back to reality. We replaced things that where lost, got money wired from a friend, new passports. What I did keep forever and more was the memory of that whole day. Things that seem important are not, possessions can be replaced but life can not.
We all take away different things from lessons we learn in life, that day I learnt a great deal of lessons, the most important of which is to respect the ocean, the power and, if she exists, good old mother nature herself.
Memories linger and to this day and I can happily say I still check the surf a little longer than everyone else.