AWAKENING BELHARRA

Hark back to last autumn, in late October, when the eyes of the worldwide surf media were firmly trained on one of the world’s primary big wave spots, Nazaré in Portugal, as the swell born of Hurricane Epsilon reached the shores of Europe and detonated…

Meanwhile, further north in Basque country, foilers Titouan Galea, Tom Constant and Matthieu Agirregomezkorta Etxebarne (aka Matthieu Aguirre) were taking on the fickle big wave spot of Belharra. And although there was a fraction of the media coverage, the session was none-the-less well documented by scores of photographers who braved the rogue sets to capture the occasion from the decks of fishing boats. We dug a little deeper to find out how the session went down…


HEY GUYS. SO FIRSTLY, TELL OUR READERS WHERE BELHARRA IS AND GIVE US A BIT OF AN OVERVIEW OF THE SPOT…

TG: Belharra is a wave that breaks 2.5km out from the shore in the Basque country, Southern France. You need a lot of organization to get out there!

TC: It’s definitely one of the biggest waves in the world. It’s situated between Saint Jean de Luz and Hendaye.

TALK TO US ABOUT THAT SWELL. HOW FAR IN ADVANCE DID YOU SPOT IT ON THE CHARTS, AND WHAT PLANNING WENT INTO GETTING READY?

TG: We saw the swell on the charts a week before it arrived. My friend Tom Constant called me to see if I was interested in getting out there, and I immediately answered yes! We managed to get all our gear ready and organize ourselves to be out there on time.

TC: Yeah, I saw the forecast for Storm Epsilon almost 10 days in advance. I called Matthieu to talk about what we were seeing, and he told me, “It’s gonna be the biggest Belharra for a long time…”. I then called Titouan to ask him if he was in and he didn’t hesitate! 

MA: On the charts it just kept getting bigger. Little by little we realized that we were going to have some huge waves at Belharra. We then got preparing all the necessary foil equipment, including all the safety gear and jet skis too.

WHERE DID THIS SESSION SIT AMONGST FRANCE’S PANDEMIC LOCKDOWNS AND WERE ANY RULES ‘BENT’ TO BE OUT THERE?!

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TG: This session was just a day before the second lockdown, so we were really happy to be able to get out there without any restrictions at the time.

MA: Yeah, the feeling in the water was very special. It was good to take advantage of it while we could.

TC: Right. It was a beautiful present to receive right before another period of confinement in France…

WAS IT CROWDED OUT THERE? THERE WERE CLEARLY A LOT OF PHOTOGRAPHERS!

TG: Yeah, I was surprised how many boats were out there, probably about 25, and most of them were there to watch the show!

TC: There were a lot of boats and people for sure, it was a big attraction in more ways than one! But I was more focused on the waves and my performance.

GIVE US A SENSE OF WHAT IT’S LIKE RIDING THAT WAVE… 

TG: It was my first time in Belharra, and my first time riding waves this size. It feels totally different to riding normal waves to me, it’s more like going down a huge slope than riding a wave. You can’t do much as the wave is going so fast, the only thing you focus on is keeping the foil in the water and holding the speed.

TC: The speed and the power of this wave is pretty indescribable. When I was riding I really wanted to look at the white water, to really sense the power of this giant wave, but I kept focused!

HOW LONG WERE YOU OUT THERE RIDING?

TC: We arrived the day before to do some adjustments and test the jet ski, and then we woke up at 4:30am to get to the harbor at Hendaye to prepare our stuff, inflate our vests, get the jet ski ready etc. We left for Belharra at 7am, in the morning twilight. 

MA: Yeah we left at daybreak with Peyo Lizarazu, who had organized this day really well, including having a doctor on site and an additional safety jet ski. He was the first to ride this wave and I’m so happy to ride with him now. He’s gradually imparting his experience in Belharra to me. We spent most of the day in the water, and there was that added danger of having a lot of boats in the line-up. But it was too good to be out there with all my friends in the water. The atmosphere was very good, despite the global situation.

TG: When we first got to the line-up that morning, we sat and watched the locals to see how the wave was working. Then we rode through till the afternoon.

WERE THERE ANY PARTICULARLY HEAVY WIPEOUTS OR HORROR STORIES?

TG: No wipeouts from me, in fact I didn’t hear anything particular happening this day concerning the riders. However, just before I got into the water, I was on a big 30ft boat, rigging up my foil, and suddenly this huge set came out of nowhere. The boat went full speed toward the wave, and we made about 10ft of air with this massive boat! I was lucky I ended up in the water, but unfortunately one guy fell into the back of the boat and broke two of his vertebrae. So that was a big adrenaline shot, even before taking my first wave ever at Belharra…

TC: On the day before, Titou and I watched some really heavy wipeout videos of Belharra. We kind of lost some confidence after that…

THIS WAS THE SAME SWELL THAT SO FAMOUSLY HIT NAZARÉ TOO. IS IT ANNOYING THAT NAZARÉ GETS SO MUCH INTERNATIONAL COVERAGE AND YET BELHARRA DOESN’T?!

TC: I wanted to ride Belharra because it was one of my childhood dreams. I don’t care about media coverage. In fact it’s a good thing for Belharra to be in the shadow of Nazaré. It means the local riders get to have fun on a wave that is equally as good as other big waves.

TG: Yeah I agree. I don’t care much about the coverage, I do it for myself because I love it, and the waves were plenty big enough in Belharra. Anyway, I don’t have the experience to get out in Nazaré yet, and for foiling I think Belharra is a better wave to ride.

MA: Belharra is less publicized than Nazaré for sure, but that doesn’t bother me either. On the contrary, we are far more peaceful here! 

WHAT IS THE VIBE LIKE IN THE WATER? IS IT COMPETITIVE?

TG: It was ok, I don’t think it was competitive, not for me for sure, I was there to watch first, ride second.

TC: Yeah I felt only good vibes in the water, and I was stoked that so many highly respected riders have since congratulated us after our foil riding there.

WHAT WERE YOU RIDING OUT THERE, AND WHAT PRECAUTIONS DO YOU TAKE WHEN RIDING BIG WAVES WITH A FOIL?

TG: Tom and I were riding an Escape 530 foil with the 105 mast, and a 4’2 rocket surf from F-ONE. I only had the inflatable vest from Quiksilver, but I think it could be nice to wear a helmet and an impact vest next time!

MA: I was on a 4’4 surf foil board with a 670 foil front wing. For the past few years I have been training every day, ready for when the waves are huge. I go cycling and swimming amongst other sports. So that’s how I prepare, by training a lot.

TC: That was my first experience tow foiling in big waves. I tried to stay focused on what I have to do, what I’m capable of, and tried to remain calm. Everything went perfectly! Now I want to continue in that direction, and that’s why I’ve signed up to the BWRAG (Big Wave Risk Assessment Group) courses. I’m going to prepare myself physically and mentally for this in the future.

TO BUDDING YOUNG BIG WAVE FOIL RIDERS, WHAT WOULD BE YOUR NUMBER ONE PIECE OF ADVICE?

TG: Get the smallest front wing you can! Don’t try it with anything over 530cm. 

TC: Having confidence in your mental and physical abilities, and staying humble!

MA: For anyone who wants to get started, I think you really have to go step-by-step, surfing bigger and bigger waves as you go. But above all, equip yourself with a lifejacket and a helmet. And a good jet ski with a pilot who you can trust and who likes to have fun! 

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