Most residents on the Côte d’Azur know the Mediterranean only for its warm and inviting summer conditions. But there is a more temperamental and wilder side of the Med that periodically visits the coast from September through May. The storm systems that arrive mostly from the south have been causing ever-increasing damage to the shoreline roadways and businesses. There was even a 10-meter rogue wave that severely damaged a cruise ship in Marseille in March of 2010. Yet while the majority of residents are mildly inconvenienced by such storms (they simply avoid the coast when the storms hit), there’s a small group of committed surfers that relish the arrival of these powerful weather systems and the world-class waves they can generate.
Bostonian Scott Bell has been a Riviera resident for nearly 20 years. Says Scott: “Although not a formal organization, there’s a local surf community made up of mostly Australians and Americans. And for about twenty days out of the year you can find a good swell off the island of Ste Marguerite in winter.”
Readers are probably not familiar with surfing, so it’s perhaps useful to provide some terminology prior to discussing surfing on the French Riviera. A surfable wave is one that can peel along a wave crest, ahead of the wave breakpoint, gradually breaking along the wave crest and allowing the pocket to move along the wave crest. This is termed as a peeling wave to right or left depending on the surfer’s point of view. The speed to which the wave peels along the crest determines the surfability and the degree of difficulty. When surfers follow the peel of the wave, they travel at speeds much faster than the wave’s forward-moving speed and therefore must complete manoeuvres to reduce their speed and catch up with the wave. Surfing requires a steep unbroken wave face to create adequate board speed for performing manoeuvres, and a state of the art definition of a good surf break in a peeling manner is where the breaking region translates laterally across the wave crest.
Not generally regarded as a premier surfing region, the Mediterranean is a semi-enclosed basin with limited fetch length, but it can occasionally generate powerful wind swells and deliver top-notch waves to the numerous surfing breaks. Due to its geology and morphology, the coastline provides a great diversity of set-ups including beach breaks, reef and sand point breaks, slabs – many of them could be considered as popular surfing breaks when conditions are favourable. The biggest problem is the frequency of the swell events and the long periods of flat spell, with most breaks turning on a couple times of year at most.
Good surfing windows are very short-lived because the wind swells are generated close to shore: it can be pumping at sunset and totally flat the next morning. But when all weather conditions come together, we see some of the best waves on the planet. In fact, when local secret reefs are firing, this is comparable to top breaks in Indo or Hawaii. So a true French Rivera surfer needs a flexible work schedule, a good car (as you may end up driving for two hours), advanced meteorological data interpretation skills and, most importantly, a good dose of luck … One of the most familiar phrases among surfers here is: “Bro! You so missed it … should have been here an hour ago.”
Most of the surfing season is concentrated in fall/winter and occasionally spring. Mistral winds blow out of the west/northwest all year long, but tend to dominate in summer. Although they generate positive surfing conditions in other places along the French Mediterranean (the Blue Coast, for example, near Marseille), the mistral is not a swell maker for the surfing breaks of the Riviera. Neither are the east winds, which are dominant in winter and generate good conditions on the nearby western departments in the Var, all the way to Pyrénées Orientales in Languedoc-Roussillon. What really lights up the breaks on the Riviera are the rare south swells, called coups de Sud or coups de l’Abbé. This optimal scenario happens when a depression, either travelling off the southern coast of Spain or generated in the Mediterranean basin, intensifies near the Balearic Islands. This type of weather event can generate a healthy fetch between Spain and Corsica creating a pumping surf for the French Riviera.
However, good surfing conditions are not all about wave climate. The geology and diversity of coastal morphology provides great setups for a variety of breaks from long peeling point breaks to heart-fainting reef breaks/ledges/slabs and off course mushy beach breaks. The geology is very diverse with several underwater canyon systems that enhance wave action. The swell conditions working in conjunction with a diverse set of bathymetric components such as underwater canyons and shoals can transform an average wave (1m/8 sec) into a total drainer. The similar wave enhancement processes due to submarine canyons can be found at Black’s Beach (San Diego) and Hossegor (La Graviere).
The best waves usually come with foul weather – wind, rain, air temps around 0°C and water temps around 12°C. So in addition to possessing some decent surfing skills a quality wetsuit is definitely in order; a decent swell is not a wave for beginners.
So if you are up for it and adhere to some basic wave etiquette, feel free to paddle out for perhaps one of your most memorable surf sessions ever, right here on the Côte d’Azur.