Tunisia - Winter Waves in the Mediterranean Sea

Despite being much smaller than an ocean and often underestimated by surfers worldwide, the Mediterranean Sea can provide high-quality waves in season, mainly winter from October to March.

Despite being much smaller than an ocean and often underestimated by surfers worldwide, the Mediterranean Sea can provide high-quality waves in season, mainly winter from October to March.

The problem for many surfers in the Med is - they are on the wrong side. With prevailing winds from the northwest to the southeast, most of the wave energy is headed for the North African side of the Mediterranean, while most of the surfers are on the European side.

Erwan Simon, surfing stormy winter conditions in the Mediterranean Sea on the north coast of Tunisia.

Tunisia is a former French colony in North Africa, with a long coastline on the Mediterranean Sea.

The Med was not always culturally and politically divided. During the period of Roman domination of the Mediterranean basin, the territory on both the north and the south sides were part of the Roman Republic and later; the Roman Empire. 

Erwan Simon from France, surfing in the Mediterranean Sea on the north coast of Tunisia.

Centuries before the Romans, trade, commerce and migration flourished in the Mediterranean Basin. The Phonecians from Lebanon, the Greeks from Greece and the Carthaginians from Carthage founded ports and cities throughout the Mediterranean world from Marseilles to Malaga.

The Medina of Tunis is a tourist attraction, a huge marketplace and place of residence for thousands of Tunisians.

The Mediterranean was a highway for commercial activity in centuries past, the most convenient way to ship wine, grain, wood, metals and people from Point A to Point B at minimal expense, during a time when road travel was difficult and dangerous.

Sand dunes and pine forests on the north coast of Tunisia.

After the collapse of Roman rule and the arrival of the armies of Islam out of the Saudi desert who quickly conquered all of North Africa from Egypt to Morocco, the political and cultural separation of Europe and North Africa was complete and remains in place to this day.

Tunisia is a modern country with good roads, making driving to the north coast from Tunis an easy journey.

The Venetians exploited this religious and cultural divide, being one of the few Christian European republics willing to ignore orders from the Pope in Rome not to engage in  trade with the Muslims of North Africa and the Middle East.

Sam Bleakley, surfing in the Mediterranean Sea on the north coast of Tunisia.

The Venetians reaped enormous rewards by using their merchant fleet to trade in the markets of Alexandria, Gaza and Tyre, bringing many scarce and expensive luxury goods from Asia like spices and silk to the markets of Venice, where they were sold for a huge profit.

Tunis is an ancient city, built not far from the destroyed remnants of Carthage, once the great rival to Rome for control of the Mediterranean Sea.

The Venetian domination of the Mediterranean kept piracy in check, but with the decline of Venetian influence and control, piracy flourished.

Erwan Simon, surfing in the Mediterranean Sea on the north coast of Tunisia.

Emboldened Muslim freebooters and pirates ravaged the northern shores of the Mediterranean, bringing loot and slaves back to their safe havens on the coast of North Africa.

Emiliano Cataldi, surfing in the Mediterranean Sea on the north coast of Tunisia.

Many of the hill towns in Greece and Italy, so scenic and beloved by tourists in modern times, were built to give residents a good night’s sleep as the Barbary Pirates from North Africa took advantage of safe harbors in Muslim Algeria and Morocco to pillage  the Christian areas of the Med for centuries.

Emiliano Mazzoni from Italy, waves in the Mediterranean Sea on the north coast of Tunisia.

Their repeated raiding was an important source of revenue for the Sultans, as was selling Christians kidnapped during these raids into slavery. For more than 200 years, the raiding of the Barbary Pirates drove residents away from the coastlines of Christian nations for their own safety.

Tunis features the clear blue skies of the North African desert.

With the establishment of European colonies in North Africa and later, modern nation states, the pirate threat in Algeria and other nations was extinguished and the hill towns became tourist attractions rather than necessary  defensive positions.

Evening colours on the north coast of Tunisia.

Fortunately for surfers, while Algeria and Libya remain difficult and in the case of Libya; dangerous to visit, there is one nation in North Africa welcoming visitors and with excellent swell exposure to the winter waves of the Mediterranean Sea.

Surfers watching a rising swell in the Mediterranean Sea, with a fortress from the era of Genoan occupation guarding the harbour.

Tunisia is a former French colony that has long welcomed European visitors, the country has a large and well-established tourism industry and economic and cultural ties with Europe, particularly with their former colonial overlords in France. 

Emiliano Cataldi and Sam Bleakley, strapping boards on the van in Tunisia.

Hollywood filmmakers have been drawn to Tunisia, as the country has been an oasis of political stability in a volatile neighborhood and has a wide variety of geography in a small area. There are bone-dry deserts in the south, offshore islands like Djerba and the temperate and forested areas of the north coast. 

Sidi bou Said, a town on the Tunisian coast north of Tunis, is popular with expatriates and visitors.

Portions of four of the Star Wars films were shot in Tunisia, with the scenes of the planet Tatooine, shot on location in the southern desert the most famous. All of the Star Wars locations in Tunisia can be visited today, either individually or on organized tours and are very popular with visitors.

Tunisia, a former French colony on the Mediterranean Sea in North Africa.

Less popular in Tunisia with visitors than the Star Wars film sets is winter surfing, taking place with favourable conditions on the east and north coasts of the country.

With exposure to the famous Mistral wind from the north, the Tunisian coast is not only quite consistent in the autumn and winter months, but the number of active surfers in Tunisia is small.

Surfers wandering in the maze-like Medina of Tunis.

Winter is relative in North Africa, certainly colder than summer but comparatively warm to the areas most European visitors are coming from. Winter in North Africa does feature snow falling occasionally, but usually only in the mountains of Morocco and Algeria and not at sea level. 

Surfers, walking to the Mediterranean Sea on the north coast of Tunisia.

Water temperatures are comfortable with a 4/3 mm wetsuit and a hood and gloves are rarely necessary, whereas no one surfs in the UK or the Netherlands in winter without a hood, booties and gloves, while Iceland and Norway are much colder still!

Erwan Simon, surfing in the Mediterranean Sea on the north coast of Tunisia.

The first surfers in Tunisia were unknown, but it is likely French people on holiday in autumn noticed the waves on the north or west coast and told their surfing friends, “If you are going to Tunisia for a vacation, bring a board - there are waves and there is no one surfing.” 

Erwan Simon, checking the waves in the Mediterranean Sea on the north coast of Tunisia.

Once surfers had access to graphical wind charts of the western half of the Mediterranean Sea, forecasting became much easier and more reliable and both French and Italian surfers simply followed the Mistral wind and swell past Sardinia to the coastline of North Africa in Tunisia.

Sidi Bou Said attracts both expatriates and visitors with its perfect Mediterranean climate and stunning architecture.

Forecasting for the coastline of North Africa is quite similar to forecasting for any other location in the Mediterranean - short swells, highly directional and frequently affected by storm winds, with usually only a few hours of high-quality waves with good conditions. 

A rock reef wave in a fishing village on in the Mediterranean Sea on the north coast of Tunisia.

As the Mediterranean is almost tideless, whether it is high tide or low tide is irrelevant. For surfers from highly tide-affected locations like the UK and the southwest of France, the lack of any tide fluctuation in the Mediterranean Sea is something peculiar and different from where they usually surf.

Emiliano Cataldi, making friends with a hunting falcon in Sidi Bou Said. Falconry has been practised in Tunisia for centuries.

Forecasting for any location in the Mediterranean is far more difficult than for a surfing location in a major ocean. Long-period groundswells and highly predictable seasonal winds for locations like Hawaii in the North Pacific and the Indian Ocean side of Indonesia make forecasting rather easy.

Emiliano Cataldi. surfing in the Mediterranean Sea on the north coast of Tunisia.

The Mediterranean has neither long-period groundswells nor predictable seasonal winds, so surfers from the Mediterranean region become expert forecasters or they simply do not surf very often!

Erwan Simon, surfing in the Mediterranean Sea at a beachbreak on the north coast of Tunisia.

The prime seasons for waves in the Mediterranean would be the October/November period and again in the springtime of March/April. During these periods there can be intense storm activity in the Med, with mixing of warm and cold air masses and strong storm winds. For surfers, what that means is wind blowing over water, transferring energy into the water that travels outward as swells.

Mistral winds in the Mediterranean Sea can bring winter swell to the north coast of Tunisia.

Unlike a major ocean basin, in the Mediterranean these swells do not have far to travel before encountering land. In the case of Tunisia, this would be a beachbreak, a point or rock reef on the north or east coastlines of the country, where with favorable local winds, there can be high-quality surfing waves and conditions for several hours.

Tristan Jenkin from the UK, surfing in the Mediterranean Sea on the north coast of Tunisia.

While no doubt foreign surfers from France and Italy were the first to surf extensively in Tunisia, there is a growing community of local Tunisian surfers, taking advantage of their prime location in the Mediterranean on the receiving end of swell from the Mistral, one of the common wind directions in the Mediterranean autumn and winter.

Afternoon waves in the Mediterranean Sea on the north coast of Tunisia.


Text and Images © John Seaton Callahan/surfEXPLORE

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