The History of Belharra: France's XXL Unicorn Wave or Just a Mushburger?

Matt Rode

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Updated 13d ago

Last week, big wave surfers in Portugal, Spain, and Ireland been scrambled to get into position. While COVID-19 has made it difficult to chase spots like Nazare, Punta Galea et al it isn’t impossible for internationals to visit spots outside their home countries.

But one wave in particular will likely get downplayed—both because it is one of the most fickle in Europe, and because France has gone back under emergency COVID-19 lockdown. For the next few weeks, French residents will only be allowed out of their homes for essential activities, which means that Belharra will likely be relatively empty during its once-per-decade swell.

Related: Remembering Hercules

Things weren’t always so grim for French big wave surfers. Before Spain and Portugal were added to the Big Wave Tour and the attention turned squarely to Nazare, Belharra frequently found itself in the limelight. Located in the northern Basque region of France, off the coast of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, the wave is created by a shoal 15 to 20 metres in depth, and had been known to take ships that were moored at Socoa before a jetty was built for added protection.

Belharra requires a pretty unique swell to fire, often going years without breaking properly, and was only surfed for the first time in 2002. Predominantly considered a tow wave, the oceanic avalanche off the coast of France went mainstream when Gautier Garanx won the XXL Biggest Wave of the Year for 2013, then took things to another level when Jamie Mitchell wiped out on one of the biggest paddle waves ever attempted in early 2014.

Region guide: France

Jamie Mitchell’s wave was paddled during the Hercules swell, which many pundits have compared to the one currently buffeting the European coast. In other words, today’s swell may be the biggest at Belharra since that historic day in January of 2014. Yet with France under lockdown, there is a good chance it won’t even be seen, let alone surfed. Nonetheless, we figured this was as good a time as any to reminisce on Jamie’s session—and to chat with fellow Belharra acolyte Benjamin Sanchis, who has put in about as much time at the wave as anyone over the years.

Sancho knows the drill at Belharra.

Benjamin, when did you first start surfing Belharra?
I think it was 20-years-ago or something. My ski broke on that first day, so I didn’t get to surf. I watched the whole session from the boat. I was very upset, but that mistake made me want to surf the biggest waves on the planet.

What about you, Jamie?
Funnily enough, my first session was that Hercules Swell in 2014, when I got that big wave. I had kept my eye on it over the years, but like many other offshore waves, it was hard for all the conditions to line up.

Talk us through that first session during the Hercules swell.
JM: That whole trip was sort of nuts. I was in Hawaii when I saw the swell, and I remember telling Twiggy about it, and we went back and forth about it until we decided to pull the trigger. We both have some connections there, so we called a bunch of people to try help us out and started to piece together a plan. I was able to borrow a ski from Stephen Bell (Belly), the Quiksilver team manager at the time, and Twiggy was being followed by Sam George for a story, so we sort of just barely pulled it off to be ready for the swell. Dorian and Sancho and a bunch of locals were paddling, so me and Twiggy jumped off the boat and paddled out. It’s a super hard spot to line up a wave—it’s really just luck

We put the ski in the water the night before in the harbour to save time the next morning, but overnight, when the swell was at its biggest, the surges through the harbour were so big it flipped our ski over and sunk it. So our plan of being ready with a ski for either towing or safety was sinking in the harbour at first light.

We had to jump in the water fix that problem, and then eventually got out to the spot. We got out there late and had no ski or safety, but I knew some friends who were out there with skis and they had said they would keep a eye out for us.

Once we got out into the lineup, it was huge and there were guys trying to paddle, but there were also teams towing it. Dorian and Sancho and a bunch of locals were paddling, so me and Twiggy jumped off the boat and paddled out. It’s a super hard spot to line up a wave—it’s really just luck.

It seems like Belharra is mostly thought of as a tow wave—there haven’t been too many paddle sessions there. Benjamin, in the past 20 years, how many sessions would you say are tow versus paddle?
BS: Well I’ve probably had 20 sessions there total—that’s an average of one per year, which is pretty crazy. It’s hard to get the conditions right. And of those, I’ve probably only paddled four times. It’s a really, really hard wave to paddle because it’s super hard to know where it will break. Plus, people don’t realise how fast it is.

Just ask Twiggy, Nathan Fletcher, Shane Dorian, or Jamie Mitchell—they are the main big-name guys who have tried it. Jamie is the only one to almost ride a real one. I think the wave is next level, as far as paddling goes. The only ones that look good are the really big ones, and to get one of those is almost impossible. I hope more people will try over the next few years, but personally, I’m done with it!

one of the most iconic images out of Hercules, Jamie Mitchell pre getting steam rolled at Belharra.

one of the most iconic images out of Hercules, Jamie Mitchell pre getting steam rolled at Belharra.

© 2020 - Alex Laurel.

Belharra looks really different than a lot of other big wave venues.
It’s definitely different. It’s like an avalanche. You go so fast, and the drop is so long. The wave isn’t as photogenic as a lot of others, but it’s definitely beautiful when you are out there.

And what about the wave that you caught during the Hercules session, Jamie? How was that?
I had been trying to catch a wave for a few hours with no luck, and then it seemed like Dorian and Twiggy and I sort of split up to try and catch waves in different spots. Shane was furthest out, I was in the middle, and Twigg was inside.

That’s when I saw that huge lump coming. It was coming straight for us, and no tow teams looked at it. I saw Shane start paddling for it, but I could tell he wasn’t going to get it. I thought I might be a touch too far out, but decided to just turn and paddle my ass off.

That’s when I saw Twigg scratching out towards me out to sea, and I thought, “Maybe I am in the right spot!” As it turned out, I was—but I didn’t make the drop, and that will haunt me forever. The wipeout felt like I was being dragged underwater like a fishing lure. I must have gotten dragged 200 metres underwater, as I didn’t have a leash on. It was a pretty crazy wipeout. 

That was definitely one of the biggest wipeouts we’d seen at that point, and probably still stands as one of the biggest paddle attempts in history. It probably felt good to know that you had knowledgeable locals looking out for you on the ski.
Of course! I have always been thankful for Rico Leroy and the other locals who were watching over us out there, and for Peyo for all his help while we were there. Also Pilou Ducalme for letting us stay at his house and driving us everywhere.

It seems like there’s a pretty core group of locals that surf Belharra when it is on. Benjamin, who do you see as the main guys out there? Who stands out when the buoys get crazy?
BS: Definitely the original guys—Peyo Lizarazu, Yann Benetrix, Seb Saint Jean, and Stephane Iralour. And more recently Pierre Rolet.

Some size.

What is the standout moment for you at Belharra, Benjamin, after 20 years of surfing the spot?
When Gautier Garanx won the XXL awards it was absolutely incredible—by far the best I have ever seen it in 20 years. There were no bumps, the lip was top to bottom, and there were both right and lefts. It was the best day ever!

Over the years I have had a few good wipeouts, but mostly only good memories. That place is so special.