[As Wavelength celebrates its 40th birthday in 2021, we revisit at some of the more colourful chapters in European surfing history.]
In late 2003, a Cuban-registered cargo vessel made a distress call off the Basque coastline, while a Portuguese vessel Diana Primero sunk after having run aground near Bilbao. There were numerous other incidents at sea that winter, as is customary along a rocky, storm ravaged lee shore notorious for shipping hazards, and with an equally long history of the trafficking of contraband.
Between Christmas and New Year, rumours began circulating around Hossegor that packages containing several kilos of cocaine had been found on the beach. It wasn’t the first time drugs had washed up on the beach, with similar episodes in 1995 and 2001, but nothing had ever matched the scale of the haul that was to come.
By late January it was national news in France, with extra police sent to the south west to clean up the beaches. A typical winter pattern of high pressures punctuated by storm systems meant every time a big front rumbled over, new finds were being made on the beaches. The first offshore mornings after a storm had passed were proving more popular than ever for many local surfers.
1500kg of ‘95% pure Columbian cocaine’ were seized by French police in the first six weeks of 2004 alone. It’s fair to assume only a tiny percentage of what washed up was ever recovered by the authorities, who speculated about various vessels, perhaps a transfer at sea gone wrong, perhaps the stuff was released on purpose to avoid coastguards.
The Primero and other vessels were investigated, with nothing linking them to the drugs was ever discovered. The Bayonne Public Prosecutor featured on the TV news reminding any members of the public finding suspect packages not to pick them up and call the police.
Now, the wisdom of going on TV with the message “There are packages worth hundreds of thousands of euros of cocaine washing up along on the beaches every day, please don’t go and pick them up” in hindsight, was debatable.
Some law-abiding citizens did, of course, do exactly that.
Others, meanwhile, didn’t.
“All of a sudden, you had to have a dog” remembers Carwyn Williams. “The police were everywhere on the beaches, watching people, so there was sudden increase in people walking their dogs along the beach (laughs).”
The bundles were sealed by various means, wrapped in plastic, brick style, or otherwise. There were rumours like “It’s got Chinese writing on the package” and “There’s US dollars and coke wrapped up together.” There were very few people who didn’t claim to know someone who’d found some.
“Some local kids were walking along beach, saw a basketball and kicked it, the kid nearly broke his foot,” remembers one surf industry exec of his local beach. “They cut it open and it’s full of coke. These are just young kids, they didn’t know what to do, so they buried it in a roundabout, and dug it up every now and again to get more.”
According to basic supply and demand economics, when supply is high, prices drop.
“I remember buying a gram off someone in a car park, who had some buried in the dune” remembers one travelling surfer. “Rather than weighing it, he just eyeballed it. I’d seen people eyeballing weed before, but not rocks of damp coke. It was buy one, get 3 free.”
By the time summer 2004 came around, there were longer toilet queues in local bars and restaurants than ever before, and late nights were going later than ever. Your chances of scoring near-empty waves on a dawn patrol were pretty good that summer.
A long summer season with, ever-increasing surf tourism rebounding from the Prestige oil spill disaster of 2001 culminated in an eventful Quiksilver Pro France with a giant swell, Hawaiian style surf at La Nord and an epic Bruce vs Andy final that would make the event famous around the world.
“It sounds sort of funny now, free cocaine!” reflects Carwyn. “But it was actually really bad, it wasn’t funny at all. A lot of friends got messed up, their relationships, their health. It was really bad, I hope it never happens again.”