Article

BORDER LAND: Searching For Surf Along Mauritania's Invisible Frontier

| posted on July 22, 2010

The characters painted alongside the hull are barely visible on the stern of the rusty shipwreck. In between sets I look up to the prow of the fishing boat and try to find a meaning in the articulate potpourri of letters and symbols piled up quite randomly: Arab, Chinese and western words seem to tell a story about people, cultures and far away harbors that ended so ingloriously on this reef along the edge of the western Sahara. Up on the main pinnacle, right where the radars and antennas used to be, a flock of cormorants warms up in the morning sun after their first fishing of the day. All of a sudden, a deaf thud shakes the boat flooding its belly with tons of water that jets through the cracks in the hull, while a cloud of whitewater springs over the pinnacle forcing the cormorants into a noisy flight. Hearing the approaching set gives you a different feeling compared to actually seeing it coming. Sitting just a few inches away from the boat we wait for the water to surge along the rusted wall up until the hatch, then bounce and wedge to create an almond shaped emerald barrel.

Click here to view unbelievable images from the trip to Mauritania.

Perched on a cliff overlooking the ocean, photographer John Callahan and our driver, Brahim, enjoy the unusual sight from their vantage point, right where the great Sahara desert meets the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. Exception made for us, nothing is small around here: the forces that Mother Nature displays are directly proportional to the largeness of the players. When the cool currents of this turbulent ocean meet the warm desert air, the result, as an on looking surfer, is simply spectacular.

Brahim finds shelter from the offshore wind in a crack of the cliff and lights up the camping stove to brew some sweet Th Vert la menthe (green mint tea), following a centuries-old ritual consisting of pouring the tea several times in each glass and adding sugar and mint in the process. He offers the first glass to Callahan then proceeds to greet us with some tea along the beach as we make our way back to the camp after a three-hour long surf. Sitting on top of a sand dune we enjoy the odd panorama while sipping more tea in the warm morning sun. In front of us, tilting to one side and stuck in the shallow reef, two shipwrecks keep company in this surreal scenery. To the north, past the bay’s edge, waves break in heavy and unpredictable closeouts on the reef before they bend into the outside point, start gaining size and momentum down the line to create an idyllic righthand setup. The freight trains speed down the reef for more than two hundred yards before they abruptly wedge and crash into the stern of the first vessel, fill the gap between the two boats and peak again on the crazy wedge we just surfed. After a few seconds of controlled chaos, the waves keep peeling down the point and into a deepwater channel as if nothing had ever happened.

“If it wasn’t for the shipwrecks this wave could’ve been one of the longest righthanders in northern Africa” suggests Sam Bleakley in his trademark academic tone, a statement that seems to meet the general consensus as we watch another perfect set roll into the bay. Gathered around the stove Raul Garca from Spain, Tristan Jenkin from Cornwall and Erwan Simon from France nod in approval while they silently contemplate the vastness of the surrounding land and seascape. There is not another surfer in sight.

Although this area is considered relatively safer than the troubled border between Morocco and the Saharawi (also known as Western Sahara), it is believed that there’s still more than sixteen thousand unexploded mines in the Ras Nouadhibou area alone. Following the advice of Thierry Vergnol, a French surfer born and raised in Mauritania, who offered to escort us on this expedition, we avoid venturing off the beaten tracks while driving in the desert.

Borderland, that’s what this is, not only geographically but also politically: somewhere not far from here until the early ’70s, was an international border that divided the Ras Nouadhibou peninsula in two, the French Sahara to the east and the Spanish Sahara to the west. Even these days it’s not uncommon to encounter AK-47 bullet casings and land mines while driving through the desert. Although this area is considered relatively safer than the troubled border between Morocco and the Saharawi (also known as Western Sahara), it is believed that there’s still more than sixteen thousand unexploded mines in the Ras Nouadhibou area alone. Following the advice of Thierry Vergnol, a French surfer born and raised in Mauritania, who offered to escort us on this expedition, we avoid venturing off the beaten tracks while driving in the desert.

The golden rule of desert driving is “follow the tracks of the cars that drove before you”, and we diligently oblige. With this in mind, it’s not hard to figure out why Mauritania, in spite of its classic setups, has never been considered as desirable a surf destination as the neighboring Morocco and Senegal.