On a cool winter’s day in 2008 I departed from my home in North Carolina and set off on a kayak surfing adventure to Morocco, seeking the most gratifying rewards of wave surfing. The Atlantic swell of North Africa awaited me.
The group I would join consisted of Welsh Surf Kayaker, Nathan Eades, US Surf Kayak Team Member, Joey Hall and English Kayaker, Tom Lill. These guys had already been in Morocco for nearly a month and would have sussed out all the good surf breaks by the time I arrived. Apart from the obvious fun to be had, our ulterior motive was in capturing video footage for Joey’s latest film production, Interference, which documents the kayak surfing culture and its people through Spain, Portugal, Morocco, USA & Ecuador.
Joey and I would be flying back home together, but because he left the US weeks earlier I traveled solo to Marrakech. Experiencing several trips like this over the years I have made a few keen observations, namely in regards to air travel. Flying has the ability to bring the oddest, moodiest and grumpiest emotions out of people. It has a utilitarian purpose but can unleash an unwelcome rash of aggravation and punishment. Where else would you literally rub elbows for six hours straight with an odorous, snoring man on one side and a mother with two screaming children on the other, without any means of escape? Hop on an airplane for several hours and you may just discover how much you really love (or loath) people. Irritable and tired, I made it through London and arrived in Marrakech after ten hours of flying.
Morocco is largely French speaking and I am largely not, which would prove to particularly not help me get anything, anywhere. That lesson came to me first as I arrived in Marrakech where Joey, Nathan and Tom greeted me in true prankster style. At baggage claim I was pleased to see my kayak in one piece, which I quickly shouldered and carried toward the nearest exit. Outside, a taxi driver began nagging me for a fare to my destination. Repeatedly I responded “no thanks” to his incessant solicitation. As he continued his sales pitch I tried to ignore him, that is until I heard him ask, “kayak?” Immediately I knew something was fishy and began scanning the area for familiar faces. Just ahead I noticed a video camera protruding from around a corner. As I suspected, there was one Joey Hall behind the camera, accompanied by Nathan Eades, both of them pleased with their mischievous act. Without my knowing, Tom Lill and I had already become acquainted. This I quickly realized as he dropped the French, cab-driver shtick and formally introduced himself in a genuine English accent.
Now that the wise guys were finished hazing me, at least for the moment, our adventure into Morocco’s surf was officially underway. Culture shocked, but enjoying every minute of it, I climbed into a big, silver, utility van with the boys and we began our westbound drive to the coast. The van is maybe as important a character as any of the people in the story. Seven months prior, Nathan had purchased the van specifically for a multinational surfing holiday, and it was to be sold straightaway when he finally returned back to Wales. Many paddlers can relate to living on a shoestring budget, and this vehicle was no exception to that lifestyle. Customized for sleeping, cooking, eating, napping and of course, storage, there was no real need to dine out or get hotels. Having traveled from England to Africa, security had been a concern, but was appeased by a custom deadbolt on the side and back doors, accompanied by electronic locks. Boats were stored below and above the bed, instead of outside on a rack. Three people filled the cab when traveling, so anyone in excess rode on the bed, in the dark. The advent of iPod Video was a savior to the person being jostled around for hours of travel in the back of the van. At camp a “barbie,” was produced from beneath the bed for cooking meals and keeping warm. Joey and I tent camped outside the van each night while Nathan and Tom assumed sleeping arrangements in the van. (Nathan’s girlfriend had been on the trip a few weeks earlier but was replaced by an equally lovable, but not nearly as spoonable Tom.)
We based ourselves at three primary surf breaks; Sidi Kauki, Trafadna & Immesouane. Ten years of surfing experience did not prepare me for my second day of the trip at Sidi Kauki. A fourteen-foot swell prediction could not have been more accurate, I realized as I reluctantly paddled past the point of questionable return. It wasn’t so much the size of the swell or how heavy the waves, but more so the wind direction. Nathan and I were blown deep into the clutches of this break within seconds of reaching the outside. And let this be a lesson to any kayaker paddling into surf (or a river rapid) that has been scouted from above or from a long distance: IT IS ALWAYS BIGGER THAN IT LOOKS, ALWAYS. This is a rule, not an exception, and may sometimes be to your benefit, perhaps when it looks small from the beach but turns out being quite nice once you get out into the waves. However, this particular day the set-waves were fourteen feet and in no way forgiving. In fear of my life I scrambled back to the beach and watched Nathan have an unbelievable surf session all by himself. This turned out to be one of the more spectacular segments in Joey’s film. Nathan surfs so beautifully and almost without flaw, all the while it is obvious these waves want to eat him alive. You see in his technique the art of style, timing, chance and survival.
The ten days following Sidi Kauki were spent further South at Trafadna and Immesouane on some of the best waves I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. Both places suited most any surfing style, offering steep beach breaks as well as rocky, point breaks. Most of the waves offered left and right rides, and we hardly ever had to compete for waves with other surfers. I’m not sure what more you could ask for.
Between surfing sessions the silver van carried us to the cities and towns alongside the coast – towns like Essouara, which Jimi Hendrix was said to have frequented during his life. Many of these places were full of street vendors, artisans, fish markets, cafes and eateries to which we were patrons. Based on my experiences in Morocco as a tourists and a surfer I would definitely visit there again, given the opportunity. The tastes, smells and sights stick with me; herbs and spices, fresh squeezed orange juice, fresh baked bread, visions of camels, donkeys and goats in the arid landscape – salt and sand in my hair, ears, sinuses, socks, shoes and pockets.
Back home I’m happy to be with my wife and son, but there’s a part of me trying to hold onto the experiences I had with the guys in the surf, on the road, in the van and at camp, watching a full moon set over a corduroy Atlantic, the sound of waves crashing.
- Written by Spencer Cooke