The waves at Hendaye are tiny and onshore when I first meet this group of nine boys, and it’s immediately clear that they’re no angels. When they’re not swearing, smoking, or calling out abuse to passers by, these groms refuse to even put on their wetsuits.
That is until they realise that, not only is the water freezing, but by being in the ocean they’ll be free of the detention centre guards’ 24/7 surveillance. So with typical bravado these boys throw themselves into the sea, expecting this whole experience to be a walk in the park.
But their excitement quickly turns to fear when the ocean chews them up and the shore break spits them out. They begin to understand that they are at nature’s mercy – and she’s not that impressed by macho posturing.
For instructor Mathieu, this is precisely the moment when students begin to listen, as they are forced to trust in something bigger than themselves. “It’s easy to give up and scream at your board, but it’s not going to get you anywhere out in the ocean,” he says.
Each week, when they arrived at the beach the boys would be going at 100 miles an hour, talking shit, snapping at each other, posturing and being aggressive. They’re used to running on adrenalin all the time, but in a very negative way. When they paddled back in at the end of the session they were different people – everyone was ultra-chilled and genuinely stoked.
After a particularly good session one afternoon, Jonathan asked me to take his picture as he stood proudly beside his surfboard. He didn’t own any photos of himself. “I want to be in the army,” he tells me. “I’ll take this photo with me, as a reminder, to put next to my bed.”
As well as the respect these boys developed for the ocean, it was also obvious that they had learned to respect Mathieu too. He earned their trust, took time to help them and treated them equally and fairly. Many of the boys come from abusive backgrounds, and this was the first time that they had a positive male role model. They wanted to make sure that Mat had seen their waves, and know what he thought about it.Over the months I saw the barriers these boys had constructed in their self-defence break down, and as they achieved real progress in the ocean, they developed pride in themselves and their abilities.
“Considering how difficult the boys acted at the start, it was rewarding to eventually see eager faces every week asking if there was any swell, and some worried faces when there were actually waves!” says Mathieu. “I think they realised that surfing was also a good chance to impress the ladies without acting tough!”
For those two hours a week, these kids got to experience freedom, trust, some good vibes, and connect with Mother Nature, who will even send you a peeling left hander if you treat her right. Over a lifetime this may not seem like much. But who knows? Next time they get the urge to be a bad ass, they might just pick up a 7ft gun instead of a 9mm.
Carly Lorente has lived between France and Australia for the last eight years. You can contact her here.