Some things you just can't plan. When we prep for a photo shoot or a trip, we carefully consider every detail - from what we pack, to where we're going, to who we're going with. But occasionally, a trip will throw up a little piece of magic that no-one could have anticipated.
Our trip to Senegal, back in the spring of 2019, provided one such moment - a moment so special, we're still talking about it now...
We travelled north as twelve wave sets marched down the coastline at colossal force. Everywhere was closed out, until one particular bend in the beach revealed a heaving close-to-shore muddy-water barrel that caused Noah Lane and Jack Johns to panic with excitement. Photographer Jack didn’t come on the trip to surf, but he is one of the best bodyboarders in the world, his slab riding documented from The Canaries to Ireland. The knowledge Jack has of the inner most limits of the tube translate easily to standing up, so when I loaned him my six-six egg, he joined Noah in a flash as the crowd gathered in awe at the bravery of the two surfers.
This was an active fishing community, the day’s work prevented by huge swell, so they immediately recognised the danger. And West Africa also has a rich history of ocean savvy coastal culture. While we think of pre-colonial surfing as a Polynesian pursuit, look at the earliest European reports from West Africa from the 1600s, and you’ll find descriptions of locals ‘swimming like fish’ and riding prone with expertise on small pieces of wood and in canoes. The rest of us watched from the beach, cameras at the ready, as kids gathered in huge wheeling groups, eager to witness the first ride, the anticipation building like an electric storm.
Noah was deepest as a set rose up violently, and he dropped into a bomb, the take-off appearing in slow motion as he angled back up into the boiling cauldron mid face and placed himself in the ominous shadow of a huge barrel. For a moment time stood even slower as he stood tall, and we ran further down the beach to look back up into the barrel, and he then flexed his knees working his twin fin channel bottom to perfection, snaking deep inside the pit, then emerging underneath a furious blast of spit, to straighten out in front of the now thunderous closeout.
The entire beach erupted with joy. As Noah walked back up the sand to avoid the longer paddle and brutal current, he was mobbed by the kids and fishing families, who heralded him as a hero and a troubadour. And after that tube ride, it was worthy praise. We’ve come to know the skillset of Noah surfing in Ireland at sledgehammer sections in Mullaghmore and behind the curtain ledges at Aliens, but this was magnified by the joy of riding in front of kids who had never seen stand-up surfing before, possibly at a never-before-surfed-spot (because all the locals and travellers are based up in Dakar, and on big swells like this they have some go-to spots currently not crowded enough to inspire anyone to need to venture elsewhere).
Jack waited patiently for the next set, which came minutes later with full velocity. He leaned into a high, tight line, disappearing behind a daunting brown-water curtain, re-appearing, dropping down low, carving up high again, then trimming through a far more menacing barrel than the first, skating onto the shoulder, kicking out and collapsing with joy as the beach once again exploded as if Senegal had won the World Cup.
And the show went on. The duo clawed into more elevator-drops, followed by precise bottom-turns where timing was essential. Lips engulfed them whole and they sat in the eye of the storm, in a still patch of ocean, the screen gone white, sometimes getting swallowed, and safely coming up for air, and a few more times emerging into the brutal shore break where sheets of sand were raked by a foam-salt apron that rushed up and sucked back. Every single ride was operating like a pressure cooker, trapping air and spitting it back out.
That night, exhausted, the Harmattan wind blew at gale force, and the next morning we travelled south to refresh in a landscape of low baobab studded hills close to Popenguine.
Finisterre's Senegal Surf Gallery