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Thomas Traversa, northwest winds with a monster swell and the famed French big wave spot of Île aux Vaches; put these four elements together and you know there will be a windsurf session worth documenting. John Carter, Timo Mullen and Thomas Traversa tell the tale of a manic Monday in December.

Photos: John Carter.

JOHN CARTER – “On December the 8th 2018, the Windsurf Project scored an epic session at the notorious big wave spot of Île aux Vaches in France. That very same weekend I was committed to shooting the APP SUP race finals in Paris and was gutted to miss out. Jamie Hancock later released an awesome clip of the session that went down with Thomas Traversa, Boujmaa Guilloul and a hardy local crew all ripping it up in double mast high waves. It was a ground-breaking big wave session and one for the history books, especially with two big wave gurus going head to head with mother nature in dramatic fashion. Fast forward exactly a year to December 8th 2019 and I was looking at exactly the same scenario. I had agreed to shoot the APP stand up finals on Dec 6th and 7th, while the forecast was looking extreme for Île aux Vaches the following day on the 8th, 600 km away. The swell was predicted to be a humungous 7 metres at 18 seconds combined with 30 knot northwest winds on Monday morning, which was already giving me massive FOMO (fear of missing out). I had heard through the grapevine Thomas Traversa was planning a repeat hit and run mission and that Jamie Hancock was going to join him to capture the session on film.

Logistically for me it was going to be almost impossible to make it to the very western tip of Brittany. I was committed to be at the Paris boat show until around 7 p.m. on Sunday night, but the good old French had planned the same weekend for massive rail strikes. To put it simply the French transport system was thrown into chaos, meaning the only way I could make it to Brittany would be catching a ride somehow.

After some fruitless enquiries I flew into Paris on Thursday afternoon and didn’t even bother packing my big lens or any of the equipment I would need to shoot the big wave session. I had pretty much thrown in the towel; it was just too much of a hassle to make it to Brittany. Even so, I kept a glimmer of hope alive that somehow the stars would line up for me.

At the Paris Nautic Paddle race registration, which would take place on Sunday, there were 1000 entrants, so I decided to make a poster and pin it to the wall begging for a lift to Île aux Vaches! By Sunday morning I had not received a single reply.

Ironically Thomas Traversa was driving to Île aux Vaches from Germany via Paris, but he would only be passing late morning on the Sunday. To be fair he was driving twelve hours alone so I could not expect him to hang on into the evening to wait for me. It looked like I was out of luck for the second year in succession. Jamie Hancock was originally aiming to get to Île aux Vaches the same time as Thomas but then there was a curveball thrown in that Timo Mullen was interested in coming and that they had decided to pair up for the drive. This didn’t really help me as I would still miss my any chance of a ride as they were catching a ferry from Portsmouth to Caen. As the clock ticked forward to mid-afternoon on Sunday, I received a message from Timo that they could not find a ferry and they were taking the channel tunnel via Calais in the evening about 10 p.m.


Suddenly I had a remote chance of getting to Calais 300 km from Paris and making a rendezvous. After frantically asking around, I found Arthur Arutkin was driving home to Wissant straight from the prize giving and he had room for me in the back of his car. Despite the fact I had no camera gear to shoot aside from smaller lenses I jumped at the chance. I decided I would rather be there with limited equipment than not at all!

Fast forward to 10 p.m. on Sunday night and we had now driven three hours to Arthur’s house in Wissant. I was even drinking a beer with Arthur’s dad while waiting for Timo and Jamie who were midway through the channel tunnel. Outside it was howling windy and the French weather was reporting 80 mile an hour winds in the English Channel. Our next issue was the fact we were still 8 hours from our destination and apparently the prime session would be at first light. Once we were hooked up and on our way, it was down to Timo the only one insured on the car to drive through the night and get us to Île aux Vaches. Midway through the night we hit some huge thunder, lightning and a torrential hailstorm making driving almost impossible, but we ploughed on through the night only stopping twice for two 30 minute power naps.


We finally rolled into Audierne at 8.35 a.m. and after a quick stop for some snacks headed straight to Île aux Vaches. I am not quite sure how Timo was expecting to be able to sail double mast high waves after one hour of sleep and an eleven-hour drive from Poole via Calais. Not to mention this was a brand-new spot, cold water and having the likes of Thomas Traversa’s amazing big wave sailing to live up to; he was definitely up against it!

As we pulled up the local crew were all checking the conditions whilst Thomas, fresh from a solid night’s sleep was rigging up. Local photographer Pierre Bouras was also preparing his jet ski and very generously offered to lend me his Canon 600 mm lens to shoot with. Somehow, we had made it to the spot and were ready for a full day of action. With the wind and waves forecast to tail off in the afternoon it was possible that the morning was going to be the highlight of the day. Thomas reckoned the wave buoy off the coast was reporting up to 9 metre waves, so we were pretty sure swell was not going to be an issue.

Île aux Vaches is a very small peninsula where a right hander peels cleanly over a reef and into a deep-water channel. Traversa has been sailing this spot for over ten years but only a handful of times has it been epic. In the car park there were about four or five photographers and a few other guys who were filming; word had spread that a big session was going down! By 9 a.m. Thomas was first out on the water, wobbling out through the gusty inside section before hitting the wind line and heading upwind into the break.


Thomas started the session tentatively dropping into a few bombs but playing it kind of easy while he sussed out the setup. It did not take long before the fireworks started exploding though. By the time the rest of the crew were on the water Thomas had dramatically upped his game and was starting to hit huge mast high plus sections up and under the lip. This was a textbook display of big wave riding of the absolute highest level. Some of the sections he was hitting were ridiculous, clearing the pitching lip by flying 10 metres into the air, truly spectacular. On the rocky headland there was a consensus that something special was going down. The photographers were cheering after each aerial and then nervously checking their cameras to make sure they were in focus. The next two hours whizzed by in a blur as every rider scored amazing waves in this epic session. With the sun shining and everyone bagging memorable rides we were all smiling when we took a break after the session.

The wind seemed to be fading as predicted, but Thomas made it clear that the day was not over yet. After a quick forty-five minutes to regroup, Thomas sailed out alone in very light winds while Jamie jumped on the jet ski with Pierre to score some water footage. Once again, we were treated to another amazing Traversa show, this time riding Île aux Vaches alone while the rest of the crew watched in awe. At first it seemed there was only a breath of wind for a float and ride session, but after 30 minutes the wind picked up and Thomas had the break to himself to clock up his wave tally. With high tide cutting off the pathway to Île aux Vaches, I hiked upwind to a spot where my camera lens was pointing straight down the line of the wave. From this angle it was possible to see Thomas dropping into the pit and hitting the bowling sections at acute angles and launching into huge airs in the afternoon sunshine. By 4 p.m. the wind finally fizzled, and Thomas wobbled back to the shore after a full day on the water. He had driven 12 hours from Germany for this session and by the grin on his face back on the shore, it had been well worth every mile behind the wheel.


As for myself, Jamie and Timo, we had managed to book our return ferry from Cane a mere five hours away, which meant we would have to hit the road again by 5 p.m. The rest of the crew would be having their traditional après session beers and food in a local bar and I felt kind of envious to be missing out, especially with another drive looming. By midnight we were on board our Brittany ferry bound for Portsmouth with a cabin booked and I must say I think I had one of the best nights of sleep ever as that ferry crossed the Channel overnight. So personally, I had managed to make it to Île aux Vaches, witness this amazing wave and also experience Traversa at his best in his ideal conditions. Monday the 8th had lined up for everybody involved and I was happy to have been there, albeit without any sleep. Bearing in mind this was France in the midst of winter with freezing temperatures and huge waves there was no doubting that this was a session that would go down as one I will certainly never forget!”


“Driving all night was definitely not ideal preparation for windsurfing double mast high waves! Ideally I would like a quiet night, good food, and lots of sleep, which is completely the opposite of what we did. I had rubbish food, drank lots of coffee and I think we managed to get an hour of sleep in the car. Was it worth it? Well the conditions were probably as good as it gets. For me personally, I was totally exhausted, the most tired I’ve ever been and as unprepared as I’ve ever been for sailing big waves. So my session wasn’t the best, but to experience those conditions it was worth it!

Thomas’s big aerial from the channel, which was straight in front of me, was one of those images I’ll never forget. I would consider myself pretty good at starboard tack, but after watching Thomas sail those waves, I do not think there would be anyone better than him in the world that day! He had just been in Cape Verde for two weeks, so no better training for sailing hollow cross-off. But I know Thomas, he doesn’t need training, he would have just gone right out and smacked the biggest lips anyway!”


“I have been coming to this spot almost every winter for the last 10 years, but you can’t be sure how the conditions are going to be until you turn up at the beach. This time the swell came in very clean, even though it was big, and the wind direction was perfect, with enough offshore in it for the waves to offer clean walls. It is always the same group of friends in the water when the waves get solid, Thierry, Philippe, Robin, Bruno André … it feels so nice to arrive there and meet your friends and then spend three to four hours riding sick waves with them! Timo came for this swell which was nice to see, Boujmaa also came and scored Ile aux Vaches last winter; the locals are happy to see them rip their spot!

Usually there are always people shooting pictures on big days, and when I come, I get the chance to have someone filming me pretty much every time. That is an extra motivation to sail my best I think. It can sometimes be frustrating when you have a bad session and start thinking about the people standing on the beach and waiting for you to do something nice. When the waves get bigger I need my focus to be 100% on the waves I am catching, that is the only way for me to find my rhythm with the sets and position myself on the right part of the reef. For this session on Monday the 8th of December it took me a while to find the right waves, especially with the tide constantly changing the conditions. I had some really good airs at one point! I think I sailed almost 6 hours; my hands were bleeding! After the session the atmosphere was great, you could feel that everyone was truly stoked!

I remember, the first time I went to Ile aux Vaches was in 2008. The weather forecast was for very big waves and northwest wind for this famous spot. I flew with my friend Erwan the next morning from Marseille, and as we approached Brest the pilot announced that due to the very strong west winds he was not sure if he could land. But he was going to try and if it turned out to be too dangerous, we would go to Paris and land there!

We landed unharmed, rented a car and drove to my friend’s parents house. The following morning we were up before sunrise; the swell had built overnight and the wind was supposed to drop during the day, so there was no time to waste. After having greeted the local legends Bruno André and Thierry Belbeoch at the parking lot of the spot I took a quick look at the waves, which seemed small from afar, before quickly preparing my equipment. Walking between the grasses and the bushes along the small path, getting closer to the sea by jumping from one rock to another, entering the icy water in the middle of the kelp stirred by a slow but powerful backwash. Letting yourself float a hundred metres by advancing a little faster with each gust, and finally passing through a channel between the waves winding around Ile aux Vaches, and those breaking on a shallow reef about fifty meters downwind.

It was only then that I realized that I was sailing an exceptional spot: waves of 5-6 metres rolling perfectly around this rocky peninsula, caressed by a 25-knot cross-off wind and the sun giving the water an almost turquoise colour. In the background the point of Lervily and its small lighthouse are like straight out of a postcard. Robin Goffinet, launched into the most beautiful wave of the set, hitting a masterful aerial worthy of Ho’okipa videos. Thierry, Bruno, Erwan, Robin, as well as Seb and Thomas, two pro sailors passionate about windsurfing; they all had incredible waves and had huge smiles on their faces. The session was magical and only ended in the early afternoon when the wind finally dropped, as expected. Afterwards we all met in a bistro, riders and photographers, to celebrate this moment of happiness around a beer and a good meal.

I think I can say that it was a real “love at the first sight” for me at Île aux Vaches! Over time I gradually learned to identify the right weather windows and for nothing in the world would I miss a trip to Audierne. The same good times shared at the peak with the local crew, the same after-session celebrations at the bar, the same warm welcome and the same disbelief at the sheer beauty of the waves and the place in general. It just doesn’t get old!”

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