Article originally published in 2005
Back in November last year Sandskater Matt showed me a video on Oleronskim that blew my mind. The island it was filmed on was only a days drive away (I'd visited it a number of times on holiday) and seemed to be the most diverse and plentiful skimboarding spot ever.
So thanks to a lot of groundwork by Chinky Mark, the road trip was planned using the Sandskater message boards and preparations made for the Easter weekend.
Matt and Fireman Dan would catch the overnight channel ferry from Plymouth to Roscoff in northern France on the Wednesday night and drive down to Oleron on Thursday. Mark and seven others would load up his Chevy truck and catch the ferry from Dover to Calais then make the 8-hour drive to the island on the Friday. The 10 of us would then meet up with the local skimmers for three days of skimming, baguettes and bad French accents. Or that was the plan.
Everything was going well for Matt and Dan on the Wednesday/Thursday apart from Matt's breakfast re-visiting him a number of times on the Channel crossing. They arrived on time to find the skim firing and in some spots a little too hot for them. Having met with some local French skimmers, Matt and Dan were shown some of the local spots and had their first taste of French skim.
Meanwhile, the Boscombe crew in the Chevy, queued for over an hour going into Dover ferry port. Mark managed to sweet talk his way out of being searched by customs, and the crew settled down to tuck into double sausage, beans and chips costing anything from £2.50 to £4.75 (nobody could work out how the price was decided) aboard the Pride Of Calais.
An hour after docking in France, they had visited 4 petrol stations and tried about 15 different credit cards in the auto-pay machines with no luck. Fifth time was a charm as Nick managed to convince possibly the most stoned man in France and his girlfriend, who was sparking up a cigarette whilst filling their car, to pay for our fuel on their card in exchange for 50 Euros. Having cheated a fiery death we continued back to the motorway and what we thought would be a long, boring drive resulting in skimming paradise. We couldn't have been more wrong.
15 minutes after leaving the petrol station, and at 75 MPH, the left rear tyre of the Chevy blew-out. After swerving across both lanes Chinky brought the truck to a stop and 8 startled skimboarders jumped out. Phone calls to the AA assistance provided no assistance, and resulted in advice to find the SOS phone and bother them. So we did.
After avoiding the 6 foot drainage holes and the passing trucks, the worst phone in all France was found and the call was made. The woman on the other end seemed unimpressed by our call and a little annoyed to be woken up from her sleep to do her job. Originally agreeing to speak in English she spoke French, it wasn't really that easy to tell because of the passing traffic and a speaker that sounded like it was taken from a 1930's gramophone. After 4 repetitions of the vehicle type, accident and registration number a tow truck was dispatched. A twenty minute game of 'is this our tow truck or just another lorry' and two shits by the side of the road (one in fully view of oncoming motorists) we were on our way to the garage. Only one person stopped to ask if we were alright. He left looking confused after a conversation with me in half forgotten GCSE grade C French.
The tow truck driver was also the owner of the garage-come-scrapyard that we spent the night parked in, sleeping in the Chevy (apart from Postman Matt who just sat, wedged into his seat shaking his head).
In the morning the damage became apparent, clearly the AA's attempts at finding a replacement tyre anywhere in France and getting it to us to be fitted in time for a 12 hour late arrival at Oleron was slim to none. After gentle persuasion, a little white lie or two, and three hours spent in a deserted car park over looking a recently ploughed field, a hire car was promised and a taxi arrived to take us to the pick-up point. Postman Matt later added that he thought the French truck driver had said: 'we pump the tyre back up, you drive 20 minutes up the road, the tyre goes poof, not our problem!'. Nothing like the prospect of 8 skimmers hanging around your garage for a weekend to focus the problem-solving mind!
After the arrival of the minivan, the journey to Oleron passed off uneventfully, apart from 2 hours stuck in a Paris gridlock with only French chav's and crazy moped drivers for entertainment. John Hickman's farts at this time were particularly nauseating.
And so 26 hours and one Chevy truck later we arrived to find Sandskater Matt and Fireman Dan tucking into pizza with the French skimmers and in no hurry to meet us at the 'Electric' shop. Stories and pictures of the last days events were swapped, the tent was put up after a lot of confusion and we hit the sack.
As I was lying on the front row of the minivan trying to get the seatbelt clips out of my back and making a decent pillow out of my jacket I started thinking about why we were here, and what we were doing.
Skimboarding in the UK is small by anyone's standards. There are about 35 regular skim boarders at our four main spots. What we were doing was a first for UK skim culture. Where in the surfing community could 10 guys who barely knew each other organise a trip to another country, to visit other surfers, without it going tits-up and meeting a severe bout of localism?
And that's what's so great about skim boarding in the UK. No hassles, no ego's, no localism, just people who want the same thing as each other; to skim. And I think that's true for most skimmers across the world. Why else would French Eric and his crew show us around their island and guide us to their hidden spots? Because he was psyched to see other people enjoying skimming.
Anyway back to the story: The tent was woken on Saturday morning by a massive fart from Postman Matt. During breakfast, tales were told of Fireman Dan's sleep talking. It turns out Dan sleep walks and talks, and Sandskater Matt (who was sharing a tent with Dan) had a full conversation with Dan while he was asleep. That night Dan was mostly concerned that he and Sandskater Matt were not camped on the runway. Which runway, and why, I guess we'll never know!
A shopping trip for supplies of bread, cheese, ham, sweets, beer and, in Chinky's case, oysters (grown on the island) preceded a drive around the island to check out the east coast. Although the tide was out it was obvious that there were possibilities of big shore-break, side-wash and three or four amazing liners. The thing about the island is that whatever the wind and swell direction there'll always be a spot that works.
After the traditional bread and cheese lunch and a lesson in ding repair from Postman Matt, we were off to meet French Eric and his mates. At the first stop we were greeted by liners sweeping past into a wide sandy bay. This place had been transformed from the rock strewn mess that we'd seen that morning and looked perfect, even though the locals said the tide was too high and it was not rideable. We moved on round into the next bay and were greeted with head high shore-break and steep slopes on the beach that had recently claimed 3 skimboards in one day.
The race was on to change into your wetsuit, grab your boards and run over the dunes to catch the first sight of a French barrel. The look on John's face said it all as we collected at the top of the slope, he'd found heaven. For UK skimmers, mostly who had never ridden anything over 3 Oleron shorebreak feet with that much power or steepness of slope this was going to be a challenge. Jon, who had just got back from a month in Laguna was straight in, finding the range of his gorilla drop and milking the power of the waves for all they were worth. The rest of us sat back and watched the locals for a while.
All apart from Postman Matt who was possessed by the Kamikaze spirit as he pushed himself into wave, after pit, after barrel, after suck back. He was the dark horse of the day, never normally showing his unhealthy disregard for his body or board back in the UK. And so the day went on until low tide hit. Gradually about 20 skimmers were in the line-up, most of who were going for some pretty meaty waves and, more often than not, paying the price for it. The waves were so good not one of us got the camera out to record the quality of skim we'd had. Ain't that always the way thou?
After spending the Saturday afternoon getting a fair beating we were all looking forward to a hot shower and hot dinner. One out of two can't be bad can it? It was low season at the campsite and I can only guess that they hadn't bothered turning on the water heater as we were all treated to freezing showers colder than the Atlantic we'd just been skimming on. After warming up we wandered into the next town and searched for a restaurant. Many of us were up for the local seafood and tucked into mussels and chips or seafood platter. Those who didn't chance seafood poisoning got what they deserved; rock hard undercooked beef medallions.
The plan for Sunday morning was to wake up at half five to catch the early high tide then have some breakfast and sleep until the tide returned. We got up at 10:30. Once again the main tent was woken by Postman Matt's flatulence and Dan had reportedly tried to sleepwalk out of the tent, muttering something about the swell being okay and that we shouldn't worry. Chinky and me were woken by the van we were sleeping in rocking like an earthquake (thanks again for that guys).
We drove off to the west coast and checked out another couple of potential spots including another definite sidewash. It was back to the liner to have lunch and work out if it would work later that day. We sat there discussing the swell high, direction, where on the slope it would be best, how high the tide would go and the size of the rocks. As Mark said; 'its all conjecture until you're on your board'. And he was right, it didn't matter because after a quick skim at Plaisance and a renewed sense of self-destruction from Postie Matt the liners were firing.
I got my cameras and skim boards together, changed into my suit and climbed over the rocks to see Jon slide in to what turned out to be the best ride of the day. I dropped my camera gear and ran straight into one of Olerons' finest only for it to take my board 50 metres into the rocks I'd just climbed down. That was the end of that board on this trip, thankfully it was only my Victoria that got ripped.
We spent the next two hours trying to get the timing and wave selection right, taking tips from French Eric who was sliding between the surfers and football sized rocks perfectly. There didn't seem to be any sets, just constant big liners rolling in and peaking and breaking perfectly. This time I had to force myself to get the camera out. Which was pointless as I got water in the battery pack after three shots. So now I was one board and one camera down.
An hour and a half later the stones were getting bigger, the tide higher and we were getting cut off from the beach. Eric and I wandered down the bay to where the lines turned into shore-break only to find the liners rolling back to make beautiful wedges. The 12 of us moved down and scored a mix of liners and shore-dump until the rocks at the bottom of the beach started to show.
The two days of non-stop skimming was taking its toll and Sandskater Matt took the hardest fall of the trip disappearing into the rock filled pit headfirst. Chinky was regularly taking hits just skimming down the slope, some of which are on tape somewhere, and Postman Matt was his usual mental self running head first into the wedged peaks mixed with boulders. After the rocks appeared and we got changed we drove into town to get a pizza.
Monday morning came round too quick and once again our van rocking, tent farting alarm clock was on time. The van was packed, campsite cleaned up and we left for the shops to blow up another flat tyre and get some travel snacks. And so we embarked on the 8-hour drive back up to Calais, this time going nowhere near Paris and its dual-carriage car parks.
About 120 kilometres into the drive we were hitting the rev-limiter in sixth and knocking on 180 KPH as Chris woke-up and spotted a car flashing from the other carriageway. We tried slowing down but flew past the speed trap and were quickly joined by a grinning French copper. We tailed him to the services and were ordered to pay 90 Euros for being caught at 158 KPH (about 98 MPH) in a 130KPH zone. A bargain if you ask me! Fine paid and photos taken we were back on the road and arrived in Calais 6 hours later.
After unloading the kit and brushing out half of the sand in France from the van, we boarded the ferry as foot passengers with 12 boards and about 20 bags. We camped out in the bar and drank our way back to England, avoiding customs in Dover. Sandskater Matt and Dan had a different experience of French customs, as the Sandskater vangot pulled over and spent the next 15 minutes trying to explain what skimboarding was to the French customs officials.
The AA had provided two hire cars to get us back to Boscombe and we drove back enjoying English radio and cruise-control eventually getting home at 2am, 14 hours after leaving Oleron.
So was the cost, blow-out, night in a scrapyard, long drives, Jon and Postman Matts farts and too much French bread really worth it? Yes. Will we be going back? Hell Yes. Should Sandskater Matt buy that big house over looking the liners and Plaisance beach and turn it into the 'Sandskater Villa'? Its only a matter of time surely!?!
There's already a plan for the annual 'Sandskater Oleron Outing' over the Easter weekend next year, (why not join us on the trip next time!) but in the meantime, a trip to the European skimboarding championships may be in order.
Words: ©Copyright Nick Jones 2005
Adapted for the web by Matt Martin