The Old Boys on the Hill
Every surf town has them. You know the guys, the guys that hold the fort down, the guys that are forever perched proud, peering down from the spot with the widest view. The guys that, as a collective, stand tall over every mere mortal who enters their kingdom. The ones always smiling, laughing and shooting the shit like only trusted brotherhoods with figuratively formed inner sanctums can. The wiry, weathered crew who cruise out to their locked down hunting grounds and pick off the bombs of each and every swell and time they very well please.
Situated off Guéthary on France’s Pyrénées Atlantiques coast lies a certain surf break that demands this unshakeable presence. Parlementia is a wave that both feeds off of respect and garners a precise kind of pecking order. Collecting its name from the hallowed hill wisely overlooking the waves, the divine mystique of the place and its connection to its people dates back to some time in the 12th century.
See, this holy hill is dripping in history, dripping with forged minds through the raptured ruins of time. The Basque men of centuries gone would congregate on this very hill to discuss their differences and build a more refined purpose, which in turn guided them into a more civilised future with order sorted. The hill gave them their voice, their parliament to speak on, the sacred soils of Parlementia hill demanded respect all those years ago just as the triumphant waves of today always have.
The bells of Saint-Nicolas are chiming their 8:00am chime on this darkened 2021, early February morning. The hardcore crew of local chargers are wide awake, eyes and minds fixated on the booming, here today, potentially gone tomorrow burgeoning-prize-lines. Having ticked off their ritualistic pre-surf happenings, having stretched out their tired old limbs the best they can, having each eaten a light breakfast consisting of something along the crusted lines of yesterday’s baguette smothered in butter and jam with a side of fruit, having caffeinated their brains with stiff and black coffee. Having already done all that, they’re each eerily alert before the sun’s consideration has soaked, or even sensed, this stretch of coast.
After strapping their 9ft+ jousting swords of surfboards to their cliché cars in their own time, the men solely yet collectively twist their cars into gear and putter on down to the hallowed hill from wherever it is they happen to live. That being as close as affordably possible to the only place that matters - their wave and their hill.
A few of the crew have, by now, parked up, slowly shuffling down from the carpark, they begin to gather at their sacred spot on the hill. Right beside the petitely built 400-year-old Chapel Saint Joseph lies a stone bench, which is, without a single shade of doubt, as old as the Chapel itself. This spot is the exact spot where this same core crew of Basque surfers have been meeting since some stoned out of minds time back in the 70’s. Meeting to examine, to discuss, to gripe each other about missed waves and drop ins from swells past. But above all else lies the eyes that don’t lie, and they’re all studying the swell of today.
With the first whispers of purple beginning to throw streaks across the before dawn sky, filling in the blackness of the night, the surfers are getting their first glimpse of the thundering new swell. From their dotted about, traditional as sin, green and red trimmed Basque homes, each man has been periodically, between sleep listening to the marching swell lines that begun to beckon in through the night. Filling the air with a palpable call to arms, a heightened effect of sonic, signifying sound that has forcefully transformed this stronghold of French-Basque life.
Here, the local crew seems to be endlessly evolving, like an even to them secret whisper of approval that welcomes in passionate young blood, while ultimately, here and there, having its oldest and noblest begrudgingly hang up their surfboards for the very last time. This evolution is a natural thing, it is never exactly decided upon, being more of an eventuality. Kind of like time itself having the last sleeve hidden card, the final play, the definitive say of who is in and who is out, and which blow ins weren’t and never could be considered. Also, just like time, this translucent idea of the old boys on the hill can be related to a single day, an entire year, a defined decade or even a stretched-out lifetime if you so imaginatively will. For instance, today, right now, we’ve got Michel, Joan, Paul, Jean and Michael perched and peering out at their holy wave of all waves, the mightily resplendent - Parlementia.
The sun is now starting to strike the sky with a few more defined tones of entangled morning’s moody reds and oranges, getting nearer and dearer to breaking over the mighty Pyrénées to the east. It’s becoming blatantly clear that the swell is as big, if not a fair chunk bigger than anticipated. The tide is still suspiciously low, turning only two hours ago and filling in for a midday high tide. The reef is currently being pounded with hauntingly potent four to five metre swell line after four to five metre swell line. A heightened state of shared awareness is starting to filter into gear, the whispers and small talk have come to a defined halt as the biggest set of the last 30 minutes folds itself on the outside part of the reef where only the biggest of winter swells break.
A deafly silence fills the air as the older men start to inwardly question whether they’ll even paddle out. The last wave of the set gurgles and hisses on the inside reef, giving a final note of nastiness on what could be considered a bone shattering predicament if one would happen to be washed through the dry-reef-death-zone with this sized swell and on this time of tide.
Jean speaks first with a gulp of hesitation in his dry, trying to find saliva throat. ‘Fucking shit, that’s the biggest waves we’ve seen all winter. To me, it doesn’t look to be breaking that good this morning, maybe it’s too big or the swell is too north, what do you guys think? I might hold off, wait until it gets more manageable with the higher tide?’ Michel finds an in, stuttering from his knee shaking post on the back left of the pack. ‘Yeh, I agree with Jean, it looks like morning sickness to me, the waves aren’t lining up that good yet’. ‘Don’t be stupid Michel, there’s some good ones out there, just steer clear of the sets and you’ll be fine’ asserts Joan who is the unspoken leader of this tight-knit local crew.
Although not spoken about or documented upon, it’s clear Joan leads from the front foot, always catching a handful of the best waves on every swell that matters. He’s also the only one of them who dares to throw his surf cap at the forever fickle Unicorn of ‘Belharra’ - that is whenever the mystical beast decides to break. Belharra is a true big wave break, breaking over a 15-metre-deep shoal some two and a half kilometres off the coast of Saint Jean De Luz, it's the kind of wave that needs a specific set of blue moons aligning within an inked in the scriptures kind of day, on a particularly wild winter to even consider grunting into existence. Today is not one of those days.
‘Come on boys, let’s just get out there, stop questioning it and let's just go. It’ll be hitting the reef’s sweet spot in an hour or so and I want to be out there and in position for when it does’. Joan further instils this assured aura into the quaking in boots group, with the rest of the crew speechless, still on the lookout for another set of a similar stature. Joan becomes slightly agitated and decides to leave their sorry selves, heading back to the carpark, he starts to channel his sustained inner focus as he wrangles his wetsuit on and waxes his longest of guns at 10ft in length.
Joan will need every last inch of this colossal surfboard if he's to have any chance at gaining the momentum needed to drop down one of the bomb sets of the day, breaking way out the back, which is exactly where his focus lies. From now until he paddles out to his triangulated spot on the reef, he’s ticking things off and mulling things over. Preparing his mind for the eventuality of taking off without hesitation on one of the biggest waves of the day.
The rest of the men start to follow suit, one by one peeling off from their congregative post, they head back to the carpark to suit up and wax on before marching their ways down the wet and muddied, thick with overgrowth track. An eery hundred metres of slippery darkness before they reach the concreted path below. On a day like today this spooky track can’t help but give the men a sense of walking through a sneering tunnel of fear and out into the firing line of a great natural colosseum of profound wonderment. They each do this at their own pace, leaving the sustaining strength of the pack to gather the same kind of inward focus for which Joan gathered before splitting the scene and starting off down the track some five minutes previous.
Each man going over his own internal preparations of the physical and spiritual human experience. Letting in every last bit of empowerment that this high-spirited, righteously alive stretch of coast allows for. The four remaining men congregate down at the designated paddle out point just to the north of the fishing port of Guéthary. Protected by a man-made, constantly built upon stone wall, this nestled little spot has been a working port since the earliest days of Basque life. Through offering protection on the inside of the headland and reefs, this natural alcove is a sanctuary for fishing boats to moor and tuck themselves away from the wild Atlantic storms that roll on through each winter. The old day fisherman piled up the stones and filled them in with mortar, building a break wall of respite and it has been standing in some form or another since its earliest of inceptions.
One by one the surfers glide gracefully into the calm water, beginning the long yet cruisy 20-minute paddle out through the thankfully deep waters where no waves can break. To their left is the raw and angry wave of Avalanches, another big way feather in the Basque country’s cap. Which, on its given day, can handle even more swell than Parlementia, with steeper drops and the occasion barrel gaping open for whoever dares to enter it. Except for Joan, none of the other men like surfing Avalanches as it’s a trickier and riskier wave to surf. They leave it to the younger locals to try and tame, for their beating hearts and old souls ache solely for Parlementia.
The men have unintentionally formed a defined paddling line as they paddle out through the channel, like ducklings tightly following their mother through soon to be turbulent waters, they are being led by Joan, who is just starting to reach the outside part of the reef. One by one the men paddle past the inside section of the reef, inspecting this most sinister of stretches that’s periodically being pulverised by the leftover ocean energy from the bombs out the back. Although the waves typically halve in size by the time they roll down the 200 metre reef, they have a certain ferociousness when they implode on the inside ledge. Almost seeming to enjoy finishing their majestic, rolling through open water, Atlantic Ocean crossing expedition by putting a final note of fierceness down onto the centuries battered, rocky reef. The men try with all their might to stop themselves from looking and imagining the disastrous ramifications if one was to be washed through this most sketchy of end-sections.
10 minutes more paddling and all five of the men are out the back, precariously asserting themselves amongst the line-up, finding their place amongst the pecking order of who’s in line for first wave. Joan is sitting another 40 or so metres out from the rest of the pack, lulling himself into a calm, almost transient, sedated state, as he is keeping a watchful eye on the horizon. Luckily, on the big days you can spot a proper set from a good kilometre off as they roll over the slowly shallowing ocean floor, rising up and presenting their dominant lines in an ordered, authoritative fashion.
It’s nearing on 9am now, the sweet spot of the tide, the peak of the swell and the morning sun are culminating to create a bubbling pot of unrestrained, shimmering life. The cool offshore winds are sweeping down from the Pyrénées, travelling over the fields out behind Guéthary, channelling in through the tight streets of the town and pushing out over the ancient cliffs, whispering along the rocks below, making their way out to the waves, blowing the tops off of each of them and unintentionally creating delicately smooth surfaces to surf.
The offshore spray is being blown a good 20 metres out past the breaking waves with the morning’s golden light raining through the water, turning a bitterly cold morning into something remarkably vivid to witness. The great natural amphitheatre of Guéthary’s cliffs to the south give the men another reminiscent scent of being in the centre of an ancient colosseum, of doing battle with the monsters of the deep, aiming to tame these rolling giants with their knife-shaped-surfboards. They allow themselves to become one with this elevated place in which they relish in, their souls being lifted above what is commonly felt as a human being.
The sky is now burning a bright orange as the sun keeps on rising, allowing tiny chunks of the much needed and appreciated feelings of calmness and gratitude into each of the on-tender-hooked hearts of these brave men. With no sight of another surfer paddling out for a good while yet these five men are positioned some 800 metres from shore, out in the grand old wintery scenes of the Atlantic. Each eager yet associatively content in waiting for their chance to take off on a wave that will be lodged deep into the memory bank for as long as they care to keep it.
It’s been a good half hour since the last set stood up and the tension amongst the men is icy clear, being yanked taught in a string of sense, but without words, tuning into exactly what they all know as the clock strikes 9am and the one-sided window of the swell’s peak comes into play, whispering in a silent knowledge that some chunky walls of water will be with them soon.
In the minutes past Joan’s focus hasn’t faltered once, still positioned way outside the usual take off point where the rest of the men are waiting. Squinting to see even further than his sight will allow him, Joan gets his first glimpse at the stacked line of giants that are just starting to show. Shouting with all his lungs might ‘Seeettttttttttt’, he signals to his comrades to start paddling as wide as they can as big waves are coming. The pack murmurs nerves and anticipation as they lay on their boards and do what they’ve been, in one word, told.
The four men are quite obviously out of position for this set of all sets, instead they paddle to secure their survival by positioning themselves far enough away from where the waves are destined to break. Joan on the other hand is feverishly paddling even further out from where he was sitting. Paddling a good 30 metres in a matter of seconds, he then slows his strokes down with his eyes scouring the horizon, trying to assess if he’s found a suitable position to lay in waiting for a potential shot at one of the impending waves.
Another 30 eternally slow, almost paused seconds go by before the set is within striking distance of the reef and is standing up to imminently break. The four strong pack have paddled wide enough to ensure their safety as Joan lets the first wave of the set go by unridden. The second wave comes rushing and Joan paddles up the face of it and over, with the wave then crashing down just inside of him. Joan almost floats down the back of the wave with thick plumes of offshore spray stripping him of his sight, and for a moment, engulfing his whole self. He stops for a brief second, keeping his eyes closed, weathering the spray and waiting for it to settle so he can get a proper look at the third wave of the set.
His first glimpse brings a momentary shock of horror as the wave is already standing incredibly tall as it continues to burn rubber on its destined trajectory with the great Parlementia reef. Its size and stature mocking Joan’s mortal limbs as it keeps rising up and presenting itself in a sky-scraping, perfect peak. Pausing all thought and movement, Joan subconsciously contemplates his position in the line-up, on this almighty reef, within the confines of this fire breathing, mother nature parading amphitheatre of existence and his life and its choices. He instinctively chooses to turn and start paddling with a controlled amount of aggression and speed back toward where he believes this wave of all waves is going to break.
Joan is creating a warranted amount of momentum now, with each stroke sending him further through the water, he’s giving himself to the moment, giving it his undivided all. Every last muster of generated strength in his overworked, 53-year-old limbs to give him that vital fine-line-edge of speed to convincingly take off on this towering beast that’s now looming over the reef. He begins breathing heavily, deep purposeful breaths are taking over his body, feeding his heart and muscles as he starts to become one and all with the wave. His pack of brothers are silently holding their collective breath as they sit and pray from the safe waters of the channel.
Joan jumps to his feet just as the lip throws out and down toward the deep and moody waters below. The strong offshore wind has been sucked into this moment of extremes and for a fleeting second it stands still with time and holds poor Joan in a state of agonising apprehension. Like a feather that’s been plucked via sheer, through-sky, mid-flight force from its moulting maker. Only to then be held by the created vacuum of the bird’s path, suspended in earnest and awaiting its eventual fall from grace to the stampeding traffic of exhaust and hot tyres below.
The brave icon of Parlementia has played his best and final card. All the physical and mental preparation, the body’s focus, the mind’s stretching, it’s all led him to this very moment as he begins to knife the huge wall of water that’s steepened and dropped out below him. He tepidly on tippy toes falls down the steep, dug out face of the wave, waiting for his surfboard’s fins to reconnect with the water and allow him the chance to turn up and be presented with whatever predicament that lays ahead of him.
He just about manages to find some composure after an awfully sketchy take off. Landing somewhere at the bottom of the wave, Joan puts pressure on his inside rail and in the same instant looks up to his right at the towering lip that has started to break a little further down the line than he would have liked. He bottom-turns up into the pocket of the wave and starts to feel smaller than he’s ever felt in his entire wave saturated life. He now realises his fate is signed, sealed and addressed to the bottom of the reef as the wave begins its steamrolling, water-bending curvature down the reef. And without a breath of consideration leaves Joan dead in its wake. He takes a springboard loaded jump, projecting himself out and away from his recently classed as a dangerous weapon surfboard as far as he possibly can.
Breaking the water’s surface, he manages to dive down for a slight moment before the wave sucks his limp body up and into its barrelling belly before pummelling him hard back down into the deep. Deep down, down deepest of the depths down where the turbulence is strong, and the mood is bleak. Joan is being torn every which way, limbs stretching, leash pulling, head exploding, the beating of a lifetime is currently unfolding somewhere below the ocean’s surface as the white water drags him along the gurgling, violent reef. He endures the thrashing, trying to remain vigilant but also as calm as he can. He knows his oxygen is a pressure commodity down here and any stress or worry will strip his depleting respiratory system quicker than he’d like to think. A good 15 seconds go by before the aggressive edge of the beating slows down, dissipating enough to allow him a chance of feeling around for his leash and pulling himself to the surface.
Popping up from the white mess of water, he takes one exaggeratedly good and long breath, and after that he proceeds to pant like an excitable, out of breath puppy. After the initial survival instincts subside his awareness comes back. He notices his 10ft surfboard is now 5ft of surfboard, being snapped clean in half, with the half that's not attached to him being nowhere in sight. The fourth wave of the set is raging towards him, anticipatedly taking him for another unwanted, unforgettably wild ride. Steadying himself for impact he takes one final gasp and dives down as the wall of water crashes over. Picking him up like a piece of street plastic in a tunnelling gust of wind and taking him on rolling trip down a cold hard memory lane, as he gets pushed underwater and pulled further along the reef with no concept of up or down, simply around.
He manages to break free from the water’s violent path, noticing he’s been carried the entire length of the reef, with the inside ledge hissing a mere 20 metres in front of him. He looks out and again sees another broken wave coming his way. ‘Of course, the set of the morning has five waves in it, fuck it’s probably got another five more in store after this one’ he thinks. A 10-wave set is rare but not uncommon with a swell of this size. He realises he has no choice but to swim in through the inside ledge and hope to Huey (the almighty surf God) that the tide has come up just enough to let him sneak through without too much connection with the reef.
He starts swimming in with the flow of the water, heading straight for the inside ledge, he needs to time this perfectly with the churning wave that is getting closer and closer by the second. Now knowing no good could come of getting any closer, he turns to face, what he hopes, is the last wave of the morning for him. He accepts that this wave will be the one to take him through the inside ledge whether he likes it or not. Quickly he unstraps his leash, releasing the last half of his board which is also his last remaining floatation device. He makes this bold move as he knows the board would only help the wave to dictate his movements.
He then dives as deep as he can, furiously swimming down and steadying himself on the reef as the wave pushes overhead. Without the board he manages to get under the wave just enough that it thankfully passes him by without too much infliction, imploding just behind him on the inside ledge. Out the other side of the wave, he then lets the surging water’s momentum take him over the inside ledge in a disturbed but not life-threatening manner. ‘Woahhhh, what a fucking wild ride’ he thinks as he makes touchdown with the shallow part of the reef on the inside of the inside ledge. He’s safe now. No more waves can take his weary body on their wild and unsavoury rides. Standing on solid ground, he turns and sees the set of all sets is continuing to roll on through, unridden, one after the other.
His brothers watched the whole thing from the channel, gasping for that fragile 15 seconds where they saw Joan’s broken board, but no Joan. They watched as he was taken through the inside and they’re watching him now, standing in the shallows with the morning sun lighting him up like the beacon of the brave that he is. Like a broken, but not quite beat gladiator who’s fought off the wild-eyed beast pulled from the depths of hell and has somehow managed to pull it off, to live and to limp to tell the tale. They remain watching their fearless friend as he trudges himself across the reef and toward the beach.
Breathing and speaking heavily, Marc starts speaking to calm his nerves down and lay bare what he just witnessed. ‘Are you fucking kidding me? That was hands down the biggest take off we’ve seen out here for years, maybe ever. What a nut-job. He was so deep when he took off, I can’t believe he stuck the bottom turn. If he was 10 or so metres wider, he would have made it. Fucking legend’. The rest of the men agree and are just as struck by what they have just witnessed. Each of them taking a good amount of time to soak it in, let it burn through their memories, allowing it to sit there, making sure it remains engrained in their brains and cemented deep into Parlementia folklore.
Michel speaks next ‘Should we go do Joan proud boys? Go get a couple for ourselves, he’ll be watching from the hill soon enough’. ‘Yeh fuck it, let’s send it, I’m getting cold and stiff sitting here anyways’ Jean replies. Inspired by the undeniable bravery of Joan putting everything on the line, the men are feeling energised, ready to take on a wave or two for themselves. The peak of the swell has past now, and the tide is continuing to rise, giving the waves a slightly softer edge. The boys paddle back into the firing line to catch their own slice of this morning’s pie. Cautiously asserting themselves into the line-up, they look to pick off the ‘smaller’ ones between the wash through sets with cat like senses.
Joan wades through the hip-high water, like a downtrodden soldier through swamp, he pulls his exhausted chassis to shore. After a long and testing morning he gets to the yellow sands of ancient shells and sighs a grateful sigh of exhale and relief. He collects the tranquilly floating two halves of his surfboard which had coincidentally been washed through and collected in the same calm waters on the inside of the reef, 50 metres down the beach. Like the golden glory of the morning didn’t want to see Joan strain any harder than he already had too.
Joan then walks back along the beach, slowly, crunching the cold sands beneath his wetsuit boots and holding one half of his surfboard under each arm with a gentle undertone. He hobbles up the slippery moss riddled boat ramp and onto the path below the hill. Enjoying the feeling of feeling safe and alive, he pauses to take a look around at the morning unfolding. A few of the younger local crew are negotiating their ways down the muddy track and walking along the path past Joan. In passing they offer a few comments and condolences about his snapped surfboard, then head down to the port to paddle out and try to stake their claim on some of the bigger waves of the day. He wishes them more luck than he was gifted and turns to walk back up the hill so he can change, get warm, pitch up and contemplate what has just unfolded while watching his brothers from the fortified feeling of sitting comfortably numb.
There’s no tail between the legs, no could have’s or should have’s circling overhead. He may have been annihilated into submission but at least he threw all that he had at Parlementia’s wave of the day, of the winter, of the likely decade. Parlementia’s dominant side is on full show today, letting even the bravest of men know who rules the roust round these historic parts.
Joan is now sitting content on their central fuse of energy, their stone bench. Sitting with arms stretched out across the backside of the bench with his flask of coffee resting patiently beside him. He’s dry and warm, with woolly coat engulfing him and beanie pulled low against his classic in black wayfarer sunglasses.
Unless it’s the eventuality of relieving his coffee, Joan Garnier, the man, the myth, is not likely to move from this particular position for a good couple of hours yet. With the tide nearing on high, his brothers are out the back, owning the take-off zone and picking off the odd rolling bomb. Making the most of the higher tide and the swell of the season. Of course, Joan could cruise home, pick up another one of his guns and head back out with his crew, but he won’t. He doesn’t need it. He knows the ocean better than that. Greed has no place within this holy space. His wisdom has come from years of association, from a few and true good times, from a few more bad times and from the occasional disastrous times. No need to fight fate today. He got served and beaten in straight sets and he’ll live to surf another day.
Instead, he contently sits back, sipping his coffee and staring out at the most beautiful spot he’s ever witnessed, or imagined he’d be lucky enough to call home. Still to this day, after so many years of surfing, living and breathing Parlementia, he knows he’s lucky. His home is a good home, this hill is a good hill, and the reef is good reef. This is where his spirit can burn through the fear. Where he can remain relevant through his older years, where respect is in an abundant and constant layering. Like a cake, he enjoys the process. The making, the baking, the cooling down, the creation of a warm and fluffy inside. This is his life, his spot, his chosen path from life to ashes, just sitting on an old hill, staring out at an old reef and relishing in everything that the modern world hasn’t managed to taint with its fast-paced and wicked ways. A sacred place for the old boys and the older hill.