The Sleeping Giant

It was a moment that Tom Constant and Matt Etxebarne had been anticipating for a long time… When the conditions in the mid-Atlantic sought to send a swell so big and so perfectly aimed, that it would wake the sleeping giant that is Belharra in the Northern Basque region of France. They’d been watching and waiting, and the day finally came…

Photos: Jérôme Houyvet 

Tom Constant

My friend and teammate Matt and I were enjoying some tow-foiling in Nazaré on the first swell of the winter when we saw the conditions line up for the Belharra wave to awaken. We had been waiting for this moment for two years. It was the perfect opportunity to try out our new big wave tow-in equipment.

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Belharra is a wave located 2.5km from the coast, and the way it’s set up means that it arrives at the spot where it forms with a lot of speed, so when we get towed into the wave, our velocity will be very high and it is essential to remain highly concentrated so as not to make a mistake.

From the very first set, we rode the waves as far inside as possible, with as much commitment as possible. That was our goal. We had some incredible rides at speeds close to 60km/h, but we also had a few big wipeouts that were not serious, but the violence of the impact and the time spent underwater are not to be underestimated – we triggered our cartridge vests several times.

When you fall, you are quickly taken deep underwater, so you have to release the vest quickly enough so that it inflates fully before being overwhelmed by the pressure.

The frequency of the waves that day gave a real advantage to foils over the other riders present, and highlights a promising future for tow-foiling.

Matt Etxebarne

For several days while we were up at Nazaré, we observed this huge swell that was going to hit the Basque Coast. Along with my friend Tom, we decided to go to Belharra with the objective of catching one of the biggest waves possible, drawing lines on a foil that were as close as possible to surfing.

The line up in Belharra is huge, it is similar in size to several soccer fields put together. We towed back and forwards for long periods, waiting for the bomb.

Then the moment came where we saw this huge set of waves coming toward us from the open sea… and that's when I caught the biggest wave of my life. When I let go of the rope at the top of the wave, I was concentrating on not falling, but it was difficult because I was going so fast on the wave.

Following the drop and when I got to the bottom of the wave there was a zone that was full of turbulence, and so it was inevitable… I fell very violently and the foam covered me. After what felt like forever underwater in this violent maelstrom, I popped up, and Tom came to get me with the ski. After this wave we towed back out and I was able to catch two or three very big waves too. We were so happy to live this moment and to see that all those months of testing, development and training had finally started to pay off. The road is still long but we are ready for the next swell.

Jérôme Houyvet (Photographer)

As a photographer, it’s always an exciting challenge to shoot new waves… I’ve had the chance to shoot Jaws many times during the last 25 years, as I spent half of my time in Maui. Despite the fact that I’m French, I never had the chance to shoot Belharra, which is a shame. So when Tom Constant and Matt Etxebarne invited me to join them two days before, I must say that I was pretty honored and excited! But until the morning I saw it breaking, while the sun rose over the Pyrenean mountains in the background, I knew that thousands of things could happen to destroy the dream before it even started.

For a first shooting attempt, I thought that a boat would be the best option, even if I’m pretty experienced at shooting from a ski. We left the harbor soon after dark and were immediately surrounded by the huge swell. Our captain knows the place, but as it’s two miles out from the shore with no landmarks around, you’ve got to be pretty careful and ready to escape the impact zone at any time, as it kind of moves around constantly!

Luckily the conditions were pretty smooth, with light offshore winds and a beautiful sun shining… I couldn’t have asked for more for a first shoot with these solid waves. Tom started with his first wave and, well, check the photos! He now has enough experience on a foil to draw lines close to the peak like any other surfer, which gave me far more interesting photos than we used to get with big wave foiling.

Training, equipment, research and development pays off… you can definitely see it when watching Matt and Tom riding theses giants. These guys are writing big wave foiling history for sure. Can’t wait their next invitation… for Nazaré hopefully! 

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