Surfing has been going on around the world since at least 900BC, when Polynesian tribesman in the South Pacific would ride ‘Olo’ boards for both inter-island transport and ceremonial reasons.
The first recorded surfers in Europe were documented off the coast of Portugal in the 1920s. Before that new footage, discovered and released to the public in 2012, many researchers would have said the first surfers in Europe were British. English holidaymakers, especially in the brilliant conditions off the coast of Cornwall, enthusiastically took up wave riding after newspapers published pictures of Prince Edward trying out the sport during a trip to Hawaii.
Hemingway and French Surfing: An Unlikely Connection
It would be another 30 years before surfing took hold in a big way in France, beyond the odd visitor from down the Basque coast in Portugal. The fateful event would be the filming of the 1957 Hollywood adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s novel, The Sun Also Rises. Based on the adventures of an alcoholic American travelling around Europe in the late 20s, many key scenes take place in Biarritz. In one of the final moments in the film, the main character (played by Tyrone Power of the original Zorro movie) bodyboards into the ocean to cleanse himself after a long night of drinking.
For that scene, the film’s crew had to bring over a surfboard from California – as no-one was producing them in mainland Europe at the time. Coincidentally the producer Darryl Zanuck and the scriptwriter Peter Viertel were also keen on becoming amateur surfers themselves, and often practiced during their downtime when shooting the movie. Soon they recruited a host of local youngsters to join the practice with them, including George Hennebutte, Jacky Rott and brother Joseph and Jo Moraiz amongst others. Many names from this crew would go on to become legends of French surfing and pioneers of the sport in Europe.
Riding into the Modern Day
These guys would go on to open up the first surfing club in France, the first surfing school and the first surfing shop. The original surfing shop in France, The Jo Moraiz Surf Shop, is still open to this day – run by the granddaughter of the very first owner himself. A few of these dudes can still be seen shuffling around the beaches of Biarritz in our times as too, even as they move well into their 70s and 80s.
As for surfing in France, the next big development was probably in 1979. This was the first iteration of the Lacanau Pro tournament, which took place just up the coast from Biarritz in Lacanau. It was the first professional tournament of its kind in Europe, although an American surfer – Greg Loehry – took home the first-place finish. It would be another three years before a French surfer, Thierry Fernandez, would take the title in 1982. Today, Biarritz, Hossegor, Cap Feret and the like are globally known surfing destinations that bring in billions in tourist revenue every year. All thanks to some enthusiastic and enterprising young people and couple of Hollywood surf fans filming an Ernest Hemingway movie.