April 7, 2003, Monday Late Edition - Final

Section A Page 12 Column 1 Desk: National Desk Length: 1119 words

This French New Wave Finds Few U.S. Fans


NEWPORT BEACH, Calif., April 4

Extreme big-wave surfing, a fairly new twist on an ancient sport,is possible wherever monstrous storm swells and lunatic surfersconverge. This generally happens in only two places on earth: Hawaiiand California.

That is why jaws dropped from Maui to Monterey last month when thesponsors of a contest promising $60,000 for the rider of the surfingseason's tallest wave received a late challenge from out of leftfield.

Way left field.

That is, France.

Early last month, a French surfer, Fred Basse, and a handful ofhis countrymen tracked an immense low-pressure system as it swungeast from Newfoundland and out over the Atlantic. This storm sent a25-foot-plus swell marching ahead of it at 35 miles an hour towardthe coast of Europe.

It caught up with Mr. Basse and five fellow surfers on the sunnymorning of March 10, as they waited with surfboards and personalwatercraft at a relatively unknown reef two miles off the coast ofSt. Jean-de-Luz, in France's Basque country. Towed in by thewatercraft, the Frenchmen successfully rode waves that towered from60 to 80 feet. As the contest requires, they captured their triumphon film.

''Riding this wave, it was like going down a huge ski slope,'' Mr.Basse recalled. ''But with an avalanche behind you.''

That French new wave has instantly altered the geopoliticalsurfing landscape. Before this, most of the world's biggest knownwaves were ridden along the shores of Hawaii or California, mostly byAmericans. Judges of the contest, the Billabong-Surfline XXL GlobalBig Wave Awards, must now consider a wave that they have never seen,ridden by surfers they have never heard of.

And worst of all, in the midst of Franco-American wartimetensions, they also must deal with American accusations that theFrench wave is -- mon Dieu! -- too soft.

To Bill Sharp, organizer of the competition, it was a controversyhe never saw coming.

''I got an e-mail on March 11 and the header was: 'You're notgoing to believe this,' '' said Mr. Sharp in an interview in hisoffice in Newport Beach. ''When I downloaded the images, I spat outmy coffee.''

Down the road at Surfing magazine, a well-known big-wave surferand editor, Evan Slater, saw the French photos. ''I kind of freakedout,'' Mr. Slater said. ''To the naked eye, those are, I think, amongthe biggest waves I've ever seen.''

Most people had thought that the current competition, which ranfrom Nov. 1 to March 31, was locked up on Nov. 26.

On that day, a staggeringly large northwest swell hit the HawaiianIslands. At Peahi Reef, off Maui, surfers towed into the waves at asurf spot called Jaws. The waves, many over 60 feet, were widelyconsidered to be among the biggest and best ever ridden in thehistory of the sport.

Noah Johnson was out among the swells watching his friend MakuaRothman, 18, tow into one of the largest waves. ''Makua's wave -- Idon't even count that in the same realm as the others that day,''said Mr. Johnson, 29. ''It was so bumpy, so heavy and so gnarly, thatI just couldn't even believe it.''

Mr. Rothman and Mr. Johnson had rides that day that are among thefive finalists for the $60,000 prize, which will be awarded on April18. The other rides were by Cheyne Horan, an Australian who was alsoat Jaws that day, and by Mr. Basse and Sebastian St. Jean at BelharraReef.

Not long after the release of the French photos, however, came aseries of Webcast videos of the same waves, and that is when thecontroversy began. While the video clearly showed that the Frenchmenwere riding enormous waves, to many in the Hawaii and Californiacamps the waves were nowhere near as dangerous as those ridden onMaui.

''It's beautiful, but there's no trough on that wave,'' said EddieRothman, a Hawaiian surfing legend and the father of young Makua.''It's mushy.''

''I'd take my 9-year-old son out to tow into that French wave,''Mr. Rothman continued. ''I'm 55, and I want to ride that wave. But noway would you get me out at Jaws.''

Issues of machismo aside, the soft-shouldered French wave poses ameasuring problem.

In surfing, wave heights are typically measured from the trough,or the flat water in front of the breaking wave, to the highest pointbefore the wave starts to pitch forward. The judges in the XXLcompetition will try to calculate the height of the wave by comparingit with the height of the surfer in the photograph.

This would seem a fairly simple task, but the problem comes indeciding where, exactly, the wave begins. The face of a shallow-waterwave like the one at Jaws is spectacularly steep, and its height isthus reasonably easy to figure. The wave at Belharra, which breaks indeeper water, is easily as tall as Jaws, but it lacks the pronouncedtrough, vertical wall and gaping barrel that make Jaws so dangerous-- and easy to measure.

Figuring the height becomes an issue of where the eight contestjudges decide to start measuring. Mr. Slater, a judge, said he hadnot yet decided how he will do it.

Mr. Sharp said he had gotten a lot of lobbying over selection ofthe winner, particularly from the notoriously imposing Hawaiiansurfers.

''But there haven't been any death threats -- yet,'' he said.''They're just saying there is no way the prize can go to the French.Belharra is clearly one of the least dangerous big waves that'sentered our lexicon, and that kind of opens it up for ridicule.''

Mr. Basse and Mr. St. Jean were diplomatic, even humble, whenasked about the dispute. ''Just getting to surf waves like this,''Mr. St. Jean said, ''we're all winners.''

Mr. Basse added: ''I recognize that these Hawaiians are bettersurfers than us. They are professionals, and they have the skills.One day, I hope they will come to surf Belharra and to help us evolvebig wave riding further in our country. Surfing should unify people,not create politics.''

Images: Photos: Off the French coast, above, Fred Basse surfedwaves of 60 to 80 feet. The other finalists in a worldwide big-wavecontest are, from top right, Makua Rothman and Cheyne Horan inHawaii, Sebastian St. John in France and Noah Johnson in Hawaii.(Eric Chauche); (Eric Chauche); (Les Walker); (Tom Servais); (RobertBrown)


Map of France highlighting Belharra Reef: Big-wave surfers havebeen lured to the southwest coast of France.