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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, August 13, 2002

Surf's up on coasts of France

By A. Craig Copetas
Bloomberg News Service

Schoolchildren on their summer vacation take a surfing lesson on the beach at Biarritz on France's Atlantic coast.

Bloomberg News Services

BIARRITZ, France — The story of how the French came to dominate the luxury European surfboard industry begins on an autumn morning in 1956, when the actress Deborah Kerr played out what surfers in Biarritz insist is the second most famous moment in beach history. At the time, Kerr's adulterous romp in the sand with Burt Lancaster in the 1953 film "From Here to Eternity" was ranked No. 1.

"Kerr was sitting alone on the beach, watching her husband Peter Viertel ride the waves on a surfboard he had brought from America," recounts Philippe Barland, president of the French surfboard maker Barland SA. "It was the only surfboard in France, and my father walked by and asked Kerr what he was doing with it in the water."

Within a year, metal-shop owner Michel Barland was in the surfboard business and the locals had crowned Kerr Queen of The Waikiki, the country's first surf club. At that time, few people thought the French Atlantic coast was good for anything except oysters.

Nearly five decades later, France boasts at least 30 luxury-surfboard makers. Olivier Pasquet, concierge at the swank Hotel du Palais, has been riding waves for 15 years and says the time he spent surfing is now a big help in dealing with unusual queries from visitors to Biarritz, a vacation town that has a reputation for catering to wealthy executives such as Microsoft Europe President Michel Lacombe, who has a home in the area, and European royal families such as the Habsburgs.

"Quite a few of our Russian guests now ride waves," Pasquet says. "Part of my job is explaining shore breaks and directing them to surf ateliers. French surfboards are chic."

French fashion designers are renowned, of course, for their ability to embroider reputations into everything from hand-fed escargots to a ramshackle farmhouse in Provence. Yet even here in the land of Saint Laurent there is something unusual about bestowing luxury status on a foam and fiberglass plank.

Boards have 'attitude'

So what makes a French surfboard so special?

"It has attitude," says Olivier Turrauba, owner and master shaper at the French board house Choka SA, which so far this year has exported 300 surfboards costing between $600 and $1,000 to customers in Germany and the United Kingdom. "You know us French, everything we make must have an attitude."

Philippe Barland's boards have more than attitude. They have naked women painted on them.

"Artisans fashion our boards, and those who desire them must come to France," the 43-year-old Barland says, running a finger across his fluffy black moustache. "The Far East makes too many cheap mass-production surfboards for me to profitably export to the U.S. and Australia."

During the past five years, Barland shapers have been going full-tilt boogie, turning out more than 1,000 custom-built, $800- to-$1,200 long boards and another 10,000 off-the-rack, low-price models in all shapes and sizes. Barland spends a minimum of 40 hours hand molding each luxury long board before the Parisian art deco painter Serge Fargues puts his brush to the fiberglass shell. "About 60 percent of our market is over 35 years old," Barland says. For these surfers, who come from around the world, high-quality artwork is very important, he says.

"Surfers aren't just kids, you know," says Hugue Pinol, a 47-year-old physician who owns a dozen surfboards and has been riding Bay of Biscay swells since he was 10. "I surf with lawyers and businessmen from all over the world."

Still, shooting the curls off this old whaling port with the doctor is a cinch compared with charting France's role in the global surfboard economy. Why? "Surfers don't like dealing with guys called Inc.," snorts Greg "da Bull" Noll, a champion U.S. surfer and shaper who since 1951 has built more than 50,000 boards, including some that fetch $15,000.

"Surfboards are now a category of artwork," Noll says. "French riders and shapers have a lot of local pride in their boards."

For Phil Jarratt, senior marketing executive for the U.S. surf-ware company Quiksilver Inc., identifying even one French shaper or any of Europe's active surfers is a vital part of his job. The global surfing apparel and lifestyle industry last year sold about $4 billion worth of merchandise, according to the U.S.-based Surf Industry Manufacturers Association. Quiksilver's European division last year had 36 percent of the company's $615 million in global sales. Europe remains the fastest growing market, Jarratt says, where sales rose 23 percent in 2001 from the year before.

Along with some 26 other surf-apparel makers, Quiksilver more than a decade ago established its European headquarters in one of the villages tucked into the rocky cliffs of southwest France. "This is where the world's surfers come and a new generation of boards are being built," Jarratt says. "There's no surf-apparel industry unless we have local boards and surfers for customers to identify with."

Finding a good wave is the easy part. The Stormrider, the Michelin Guide of the surfing set, has identified 150 beaches along France's three coastlines, and 850 more throughout the rest of Europe and North Africa, as surfing hot spots. Noll says the first professional American surfer to ride the French wave was the famed Miki "da Cat" Dora, who in the 1970s ditched the warmth of Hawai'i for the cold curls off the Basque surfing village of Guethary, where he stayed until his death earlier this year.

Business took off in 1989

Surfers are mostly independent-minded and travel frequently, making it difficult to track their habits, industry analysts say. They are reluctant to talk about how many boards they buy and what brands they prefer, Jarratt says.

"The French board business got hot in 1989, when all the American surfers followed Miki to see if the big waves were for real," he says. "Many guys arrived without surfboards and went French. The word on France started to spread."

Americans last year spent $196 million on surfboards, says Angelo Ponzi, a senior analyst at the California-based research company Board-Trac Inc. His research was the first time anyone tried to track industrywide surfboard sales. "The numbers were hard to come by because most shapers work in garages and aren't big on talking," Ponzi says.

Board-Trac reckons about 33 percent of the 407,280 surfboards sold were luxury long boards, the 8- to 10-foot models favored by older surfers. Board Trac estimates the United States is the leader in producing and selling surfboards, mainly the mass-produced variety, followed by Australia, excluding Asian knockoffs, and France. Board-Trac officials were unable to cite precise figures. "How many French boards are out there is anybody's guess, but there are a lot of them," Ponzi says. "American surfers for years have been traveling around the world buying boards to ride and then bringing them back to the states."

Surfboard analyst Alan Tiegen, the European general manager of the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association, says the French produce about 5,000 luxury boards each year, and he has his own way of following the market.

He sips chilled glasses of rose wine on the terrace of Guethary's Hotel Madrid and counts the people buying lumps of Mr. Zogs Sex Wax for Surfboards at the village surf academy, one of more than 70 wave-riding schools along the 25-mile coastal stretch between Biarritz and the Spanish border.

Pointing toward a clutch of Guethary storm riders streaming to shore, the U.S.-born Tiegen says France is the new place to be for those seeking the endless summer.

"Hanging out at the Hotel Madrid and counting the boarders walking to the beach is a critical part of our research," the 47-year-old surfboard researcher explains. "The waves out there reach 20 feet in winter. That's Hawaiian big."