BAY OF DISMAY

posted by / News / January 31, 2003

Hossegor shouldn’t be this glassy — “oily smooth” is just a figure of speech. But since the first pellets of oil from the sunken oil tanker Prestige started arriving on southwest France’s beaches early January, the Bay of Biscay’s golden beaches have slowly become blackened with gobs of sticky goo.

The Prestige, which sank in November (click here for surfingthemag’s orginal story on the spill), split in two and is now sitting {{{200}}} miles off the coast of Spain, about 10,000 feet deep. After the original spill of 20,000 tons of oil, the hull has been leaking about {{{100}}} tons per day for the last two months. It was only a matter of time before currents and winds pushed the slicks across the northern coast of Spain and onto southwest France’s famed beaches.

“I’m afraid it’s tragic,” remarks Quiksilver Europe’s Simon Wootton, who works and surfs just south of Biarritz. “Last week a young boy went for a surf just north of Hossegor, duckdove a wave and surfaced with a blob of oil on his face resulting in a trip to hospital, third-degree burns to his face, plus a $1000 euro fine from police for surfing a closed beach.” Talk about adding insult to injury.

And the weather hasn’t helped, either. Prolonged southerly winds have been blowing the slicks north, while westerlies have blown it to shore, resulting in thousands of tiny blobs of oil washing up on the sand and rocks. Beaches from La Rochelle to Biarritz were closed last week, and beaches south to the Spanish border — including France’s best two reefbreaks, Guethary and Lafitenia — closed to surfers on January 27th. Cleanup crews have been thwarted by bad winds and pellets continue to wash up; officials don’t know when beaches will re-open.

After affecting over 650 beaches in Spain — not to mention over 13,000 (known) oiled birds and {{{90}}},000 livelihoods — the spill’s impacts are far from over. In case you weren’t aware, this is Surf City Europe. And this summer, southwest France is slated to host two WCT contests, three 6-star WQS contests, and hundreds of thousands of summertime beachgoers. What if June rolls around and Hossegor’s still covered in goo?

ASP’s Peter Whitaker says they’re “very aware” of the situation and are conducting “due diligence” as far as this summer’s European contest season. Derek O’Neill, former Billabong Europe’s CEO and current CEO of Billabong international, is going to work closely with the ASP in the coming weeks to monitor how the spill will affect potential contest sites. (In case this might seem premature, as the Euro season is still months away, think of this: oil from the Exxon Valdez spill, some 14 years ago, is still releasing toxins that affect sea life, according to a recently released US National Marine Fisheries Service report. Oil has a tendency to stick around a while.)

Beyond just ASP contests — which obviously only affect a limited number of people — the Prestige spill could end up affecting the entire surf industry. The global surf market has been increasingly looking to a booming European business to help bolster profits; if Europe’s best and most famous surfing beaches are closed for an entire summer, there’ll undoubtedly be fewer surfers (and “beach lifestyle” consumers) to purchase boardshorts and t-shirts, which could end up affecting all divisions of international surf companies.

As Wootton says, “I cannot imagine living here this summer and being unable to surf for fear of third degree burns from blobs of fuel — that’s sickening.” –Marcus Sanders and Nick Carroll

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