AKA The Nono
Aurélien Jacob, or Nono to his friends, is one of the most prominent surfers in Bretagne (Brittany, a region in Western France). Although he’s not originally from there, he’s been the ambassador of surfing from the Bay of Biscay (Golf de Gascogne) to the Côtes-d’Armor. Extreme-sensation chaser, accomplished surfer, mover and shaker, and international hero, he’s also a surfing instructor.
Aurel spends his time in the water, be it calm or rough. He went to Indonesia with his friends Ronan and Ewen for the making of an action-packed production: Des Iles Usions [translator’s note: play on words that spells out disillusion, “des iles” meaning “islands”].
He tells us about the movie and reveals the new project he’s working on. Here is the first part of a long phone call… *BREAKING NEWS, we have just received a text message: “2 sessions and about 125 miles in, and we’re not done. The swell is crazy!”*
* Could you rapidly introduce yourself?
Well, I come from the Eastern part of France, and thanks to my dad who was in the army, i got to travel a lot. We lived in Guyane and La Réunion among others. I started surfing there when I was 8. Then we moved to Bretagne in 1995, when I was just starting 6th grade. I’ve traveled quite a bit since then but this is my home. I lived in the four different départements (counties) of Bretagne. I’ve been surfing for 22 years, mostly here.
* How did you start surfing?
My dad is a tri-athlete, so he would take us (my brother and me) to the pool when we were kids. In Guyane, we spent a lot of time on the beach, and in La Réunion, we lived right next to a surfing spot. I quickly noticed a group of blond-haired kids in primary school who would hang out together all the time. They surfed. They were already part of a club, so it was easy for me to get to know them and start initiation lessons.
We used to play in the waves with small body-boards and one day, my instructor gave me a surf board and taught me how to ride waves lying on my stomach; it was a revelation. After that moment, I begged my parents to let me go every Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Once you’ve tried surfing, there’s no turning back.
Then, my father was sent to Bretagne and even if surfing isn’t as popular there (media and infrastructure wise), there are loads of surfing schools and clubs. Despite the cold and the wetsuit you have to wear, it was easy to continue living my passion.
* Is surfing in Bretagne different? What does the region look like?
Bretagne is made of 1750 miles of indented coastlines, its northern coast is bordered by the Channel, the western by the Atlantic ocean and the southern by the Bay of Biscay. Because it’s quite high up in the Atlantic, it is a very low pressure area. Surfing is as hard as fishing and boating because you have to take into account tides, currents and rocks. Surfing there is as fun as surfing elsewhere on the French coastline, which is generally much more linear; but because of its shape, there are spots that are always exposed, or spots that clog up when the swell is too big, and when the wind isn’t blowing in the right direction, the waves get too messy.
Bretagne is different from the rest of France, namely because you can surf there all year round mostly, if you know the spots well: you have to know the depth of the water, the tides, the currents, and the direction of the swell and of the wind. The more you go down south, the more the coastline of France looks like a nice highway, which means that if the wind and the weather conditions aren’t optimal you can’t surf and you have to do something else. I’m exaggerating a bit but I’m trying to get you to understand the difference.
In Bretagne, if you don’t mind driving a little while, you will always find a wave to ride or a spot to swim in.
* Looking for waves to ride is a daily activity then…
Exactly… Unfortunately I can’t say that Breton surfers’ carbon footprint is positive (he smiles). If you look at me for instance, today I’m in Lorient and I’ll be driving two hours to get to Loquirec, and back; then in the morning I’ll be driving to the same area again because there’s a secret spot where I like to take pictures… I spend more time on the road that on the board, but once you are surfing, it’s worth it because the quality of the waves is amazing.
* Has being able to ride different types of waves helped you better adapt to the places where you travel to?
Definitely. I don’t like comparing places but the Basque country has reef waves, whereas the Landes area is mostly made up of sandy spots, like the rest of the Atlantic coast. In Bretagne you find sandy areas, we call them beach breaks, but we have many rocky headlands and reef spots; numerous spots are classic, with normal and long waves; but we also have a lot of slab waves, they’re a bit rougher and more dangerous, they barely cover the rocks with water; they are difficult waves to master.
So when you’re traveling and you get to waves rolling on corals, you don’t freak out because you’ve been surfing on reef waves, so you know what to expect. I started surfing on both types of waves, rocks and corals, so when I got to Bretagne and started competing, I was much more at ease and less scared to ride the hollow and powerful waves.
* With your friends Ewen and Ronan, you took a unique trip. You filmed a feature called Des Îles Usions, which, by the way, is very impressive. Can you tell us a bit more about that project?
Des Îles Usions is a project that was carried by three city guys who lived in perfect harmony with society and all the comfort that society has to offer. Let me give you an example, having a car, surfing, going to the store to buy bread, they’re all things that we easily do.
What I mean is that you can easily find something to eat, have a good night’s rest and wake up refreshed in the morning. And even if surfing is viewed as a cool people’s sport, it remains highly physical. Being able to lead a quality life makes it possible to get up in the morning and to go surfing.
In Des Iles Usions, our goal was to find out if all three of us could, outside the boundaries of our comfort zone, feel as well on a deserted island, surviving with our own means while surfing. We went ahead with the project, we asked our sponsors to help us get to Indonesia with 260 pounds of material, solar panels, underwater hunting guns, surfboards, etc. (we are thankful to them, their names are mentioned on the website).
It took us a month to find a deserted island; it was tough trying to find an island that had decent waves and no one living on it. Locals don’t usually care about the waves; it’s the tourists who do. We found an island which had a left wave and a right wave, and our goal was to survive as long as possible. Hence the title. We wanted to stay 40 days and 40 nights.
We asked a fisherman located 2 hours away from the island to take us there. But after 23 days, we were done. We did find some time to surf, but mostly we spent our time looking for wood, trying to get the fire not to die, digging to find water and purifying it, fighting against the elements (rain, storms), finding food and preparing it, and trying to stay healthy.
That’s also one of the reasons we chose this title, we realized that when you’re in front of a computer, your head is full of dreams and you think you have what it takes to go on such an adventure, like Robinson Crusoe. But once you’re there, even when you have some tools and material like we did, you quickly realize that trying to take care of all your basic and most urgent needs (i.e. food and water) is a full time job. “Disillusion” because we didn’t live up to our expectations, but we did learn a lot about ourselves.
“Disillusion” also because we realized that surfing, except for a few professionals who can live from it, remains a recreational pastime. Twenty-three days, that’s not much, but it was a good slap in the face…
* It’s a very intense movie, but you guys stayed positive even in the most difficult situations…
Ronan, Ewen and I have been working together for a few years, and I’ll admit that in Brest or anywhere in Bretagne, when we’re within our comfort zone we tend to argue about stupid stuff. When we were on the island, and had no means of communication, even in case of emergencies, I felt that we were tighter than ever.
We needed one another and we shared the chores: when it was one’s turn to get wood, the other would be fishing. Ronan was busy trying to capture images and managing the battery situation, so that was stressful. But in the hazardous and sometimes dangerous moments, we stood together, like brothers, patient with one another.
* What was the scariest moment for you?
One morning we woke up and the waves were huge; we were dead tired, the vitamin deficiency was hitting us hard. You get quite scared when you realize that your body isn’t responding like it used to. You get tiny wounds from falling on coral or little cuts from using the machete to open up a coconut, and your body isn’t healing itself anymore. And when you’re on the other side of the planet, in the bush, any little detail takes on a life of its own. If you’re riding a high wave and you fall and hit a rock, in France you would go to the E.R.
On the island, if one of us had sustained an open wound from hitting the coral reef, he wouldn’t have made it. So after 23 days, we felt we couldn’t play with fire any longer without jeopardizing our safety. Plus, we had accomplished what we had come for. The adventure in itself was sufficiently troubling and striking.
* What is the thing you’ll remember most from this adventure?
I would say finding oneself at the mercy of Mother Nature, even if in Bretagne we look forward to winter’s big storms and sometimes go to dangerous spots. Doing the same thing on a post-card worthy beach with coconut trees and white sand, doesn’t take the danger out of the equation. Having to fetch your own food and water, living outside social boundaries, it’s not something everyone gets to experience. I believe that everyone dreams of encountering Mother Nature in one form or the other.
For me, it was a great experience, it’s made me psychologically stronger; everyone should have an experience of that sort and try to assess oneself and see how one reacts in situations that are outside one’s comfort zone and that are unheard of in our countries. Every day in the world, some people either die of hunger or fight to survive, but we have no idea what that means.
The trip helped me take a step back and changed my perspective on myself and life in general. The feeling you get when you’re starving but haven’t caught anything to eat, is pure torture, you are left to fend for yourself against life’s perils, and you can’t hope to be rescued by a nearby ambulance; we definitely take those things for granted. But when you are on the deserted island, faced with all the potential dangers, your vision of life changes, you become much more aware of your needs and of Nature.
* The movie is great, it completely captured my attention, it deserves a wider distribution…
You’re right. Once it was finished, we laughed because it seemed that selling the video, making something of the images was a harder task than making the movie itself. We filmed it in April/May/June 2009 and premieres took place at the end of 2011.
We also launched a web series which is shorter than the original movie. The hardest part of the job was to sell the images, to communicate the intended message and make something of it. The feedback has been great but it was tough getting it to the right people and getting those people to watch it. In the end we spent more time trying to do something with the visuals than making them. The broadcasting sector is a funny one.
* You’re working on a new project, can you tell us about it?
It’s a movie called Lost In the Swell, in which we build an eco-friendly 23-foot long trimaran; eco-friendly because we tried using a maximum of organic alternatives to materials that are harmful to men and the environment. We also started building surf boards from the same materials. Our goal, once the boat is finished, is to navigate around the Breton islands this winter to identify the spots that haven’t been, or very little, surfed, and to test the boat’s resistance.
During the summer of 2013 we will buy a container and ship the boat to the Solomon Islands, just like we did in Des Iles Usions, except that, this time, we’re going to places that are unknown to the surfing world, and to the world in general. Those islands are not known at all and are hard to reach, which is how we got the idea of making a small sailboat, to be able to go from place to place and meet peoples that live secluded from our modern world.
The trip around the Breton islands will last about 2 or 3 months and the trip to the Solomon Islands about 3 months. We’ll have a bit more material, emergency phones and some connectivity to let people know how we’re doing. Our goal is to find waves that haven’t been surfed yet, the last ones, and to meet tribes with whom we can communicate, exchange and learn from, and hopefully teach them about surfing… The overall aim here is to show the world that we are capable of building boards and boats with eco-friendly materials.
In France, you find hundreds of old catamarans that are rotting away in sailing schools because no one has found the way to recycle them. It’s the same for surfboards, which use petroleum-derived materials, so when a board is broken, it gets tossed away. We want to change the building processes and raise the general public’s awareness in the meantime.
* Do you think it’s possible to make an eco-friendly board with the same level of performance?
For a surfboard to perform well, it needs a compact and light foam base. For a surfboard to be 100% organic, it would have to be made of wood, which is too heavy. In that respect, we have not been able to find an alternative and eco-responsible solution. However, we have been successful in using linen fiber instead of classic glass fiber. Plus, we use bio-based resin. But still, about 60% of the board is still environmentally irresponsible and non-recyclable.
But it’s better than nothing and it’s a step closer to getting to an eco-board that would be entirely recyclable once it’s reached the end of its life. We’re working on it! Since our goal is to ultimately democratize the making process and to find alternative components, why not make an eco-responsible sailboat? We turned to a company that builds boats, Tricat, and at the same time we came across Roland Jourdain and his company Kaïros, based in Concarneau. Roland is a famous skipper who has won the Route du Rhum twice and he’s been working on an eco-design charter.
They both got interested in our project and agreed to work together on building our boat. The catamaran, unfortunately, is not 100% eco-designed since there are mechanical components that are still very complex and require much research and test runs.
* You should be a politician!
We do support the environmentalists and are somewhat politically involved because we want things to change. We care about the state of our oceans and about being able to surf in clean waters. Some places are so polluted that when you surf there you can easily catch some kind of infection or bacteria.
Some places are even sealed off, although the waves there are perfect, because there is a power plant in the area. So we try to raise awareness, to get things moving. Surfers have a responsibility towards the environment and must do their best to protect nature.
* As in Asterix the Gaul, you are the indomitable Breton surfers?
Yes, exactly! We even filmed a short video entitled the Indomitable Breton Surfers. We are storm chasers, we love waves that need a strong swell, we love enduring the 46 degree F winds with our wetsuits and hand and head gear, knowing that a good cup of hot chocolate is waiting for us in the car and a good pint of beer at the bar. When you are Breton, it’s kind of mandatory to go have a beer at the local bar. The European capital of surfing is Hossegor, so most of the surfing industries are located between the Landes and the Basque country.
Therefore, the media is more interested in what is happening in the South of France. We are trying to focus their attention on Breton surfing, since the waves are excellent and the quality of the water is great; and we surf despite the cold. We’re proud of our region, of our waves, and of being able to weather the elements to get there!
"My drawing story is simple: when I was in school, I would sit at the back of the class and would spend the time drawing the characters I liked and my dad’s comics characters, like Bilal. I also spent a lot of time drawing characters from the books presenting the videogames Starcraft and Warcraft. I always wanted to draw as well as possible, and especially get the shading effects right. I was more influenced by comics than by graffiti, so when I decorate my boards I tend to use fine strokes. I use fine-tipped Poscas so it requires a lot of work... One day I thought to myself that boards that appear in pictures aren’t always pretty (except for the sponsors’ stickers).
When you take a picture, you’re always looking for the right light and the right frame. And a photographer friend of mine had the same thought, i.e. that boards are an empty space, like a blank page, that can add a visual plus to a picture if it’s well decorated."