Surf Club / Mehdia, Morocco / May 2016
On the universality of surf culture, the waves on the Atlantic Coast of Morocco, and a first surf lesson.
There is something universal about surf culture that transcends geographic, linguistic and ethnic borders. This universality means I can walk into a surf shop in tiny Mehdia, Morocco and meet a man who could easily be working in a similar shop in California, Wales, or Bali. He is kind and easygoing, smiles readily, and cannot be fazed by anything, including three Americans showing up in the off season on a random weekday morning to surf. The shop is half open-air, with a rack of wetsuits out front, surfboards lined up in the back, and a rusty foosball table aside an eclectic mix of tables and chairs to lounge around on in the shade. The changing rooms double as ATV storage, and around the corner are showers rigged between palms, guarded by a scruffy little dog with a surf leash for a collar. The tide of people speaking French or Darija ebbs and flows, everyone seeming to belong, because, as the man says to us, “This is your surf school. Stay as long as you like.”
In recent times, surfing in Morocco has become increasingly renowned, as the world’s surfers have begun to traverse the country’s 1835km of Atlantic coast boasting stretches of epic waves, particularly around Taghazout in the south. Perhaps this global popularity began back in the 50s, when surfing was taking off around the world and American servicemen posted in Morocco took their boards out to Mehdia, a relatively short drive from Casablanca. Today, a surf map of Morocco is an almost continuous line of beaches from Tangier south to the border, offering plenty of opportunities to dodge tourist crowds.
Tiny Mehdia Plage is largely empty in the off-season and on the weekdays. About 40 kilometers north of Rabat, we took an exit off the main road, drove straight to the coast, curved around, and suddenly the town materialized, one road with the beach on one side and restaurants on the other. Lines of multi-story villas faced the water, and about half a mile later the town ended abruptly in a half-finished condominium development and waterpark. The first day, we walked down the beach at sunset and saw only a few people and a forlorn man pulling a camel and a miniature pony along for beach rides. The tide line was marked with crushed shells and garbage, a reminder that what you throw in the water inevitably ends up on shore somewhere. By Sunday, though, the town had completely, improbably filled with Moroccans, all the restaurants packed with day-trippers, hundreds of families and groups of teenagers roaming the beach, and dozens of wetsuit-clad local surfers bobbing in the ocean. It was like someone had put a coin in a machine and the town had turned all its lights on and reconstituted and reanimated itself. In a way, I suppose that’s an accurate analogy given the town’s largely weekend and summer economy.
Beach life, though, is pretty perfect living. We rented a floor of one of the villas facing the water and spent the days surfing, eating and sleeping. All of the restaurants on the main road offered the same, expansive menu – sandwiches and platters and kebabs – and yet when we tried to order, the waiter would inevitably return to proffer a French apology: we only have fish, and you can only have this one dish. Dessert, however, is much easier to come by: a single perfect choice suffices and is ubiquitous. Vendors walk the beaches selling fresh donuts, sublime discs of fried dough covered in granulated sugar.
For my first surf lesson, I paddled in the sand for a bit until my instructor moved us to the water. He’d been surfing for five years, he said, but it looked to me like he’d been born in the water. The beach seemed well-suited to beginners; just after high tide there were some larger waves the experienced surfers could paddle out to, but mostly the waves broke gently a ways from shore and you could try to ride the foam in. Despite remaining a definitively safe distance from any major waves, it still felt slightly terrifying. I hadn’t faced the ocean this way before – like I was trying to conquer it rather than merely submit to being pulled along in its currents. My green longboard, which was so unwieldy on shore, was now being tossed around like a piece of floating detritus. In the beginning, every time I toppled off the board while trying desperately to stand, I would go underwater, my nose would fill with saltwater and I would think: I’m probably going to drown. And yet, each time I surfaced, my instructor was patiently waiting, his face showing no hint of alarm. When I managed a crouch before wiping out, he clapped. When I looked around us, I suddenly realized we were surrounded by a gang of sea children with bronzed skin and sun-bleached curls who were absolutely crushing it. Perhaps it’s because their center of gravity is lower, or perhaps it’s because they’ve been in the water since before they could walk. Either way, all of them were unflinchingly paddling into the waves and confidently riding them like little experts. I was like that too, I thought, before I learned to fear things. My brief reverie of childhood was interrupted as my instructor set me up for a wave and called, last one before we go in! And after an hour and a half of being pummeled by the waves, I balanced myself in the center of the board and stood up.
And . . .