St. Jean rides the 60-foot Belharra Superwave, March 2003.
St. Jean rides the 60-foot Belharra Superwave, March 2003. (Eric Chauche)

New Wave

A North Atlantic monster puts European big-wave surfing on the map

St. Jean rides the 60-foot Belharra Superwave, March 2003.
Eric Chauche

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THE NEWS THIS PAST March that ten relatively unknown Frenchmen rode 60-foot-plus waves at Belharra Reef, two miles off the French village of St. Jean de Luz, in the Bay of Biscay, hit Hawaiian and Californian surfers like a longboard to the head. Fred Basse, 42, and Sebastien St. Jean, 33, caught rides huge enough to qualify them as finalists in the Billabong XXL Big Wave Awards, an annual worldwide contest—sponsored by the apparel maker—to surf the largest wave. Though they were inched out by a 66-footer surfed last November at Jaws, the famed Maui break, a European star was born. “Just wait,” St. Jean declared after the victor was announced. “Next winter Belharra will win, and it won’t even be close.” Maybe. The seafloor topography that turned a large storm swell into the French giant isn’t going away. But then again, neither is the fact that, in this part of the northern Atlantic, waters are so chaotic that giant waves are usually unrideable. “That was a rare situation for that spot,” says Sean Collins, chief forecaster for “A huge swell rolled in, and it was perfectly calm locally.”

Even if Belharra is never heard from again, other giants will be. Sleepers exist all over the globe; it’s just a matter of tracking them down. “The pace of discovery is about to pick up rapidly,” says Bill Sharp, 42, the mastermind behind a Billabong promise to pay $250,000 to the first surfer to ride a 100-footer. Sharp has scouted for Jaws II in Canada, Australia, Spain, and South America.

“We know where to look,” he says. “Now it’s about being in the right place at the right time.”

From Outside Magazine, Jul 2003 Lead Photo: Eric Chauche