Mauritania - Surfing from a Sinking Ship

The burning blue tubes peel hypnotically between shipwrecks off the coast of the land that is never on the map. In this disputed territory of rust and sand, tradition and post-colonial scars, we dutifully surf extended sessions at the demands of a local Comandante’s filmmaking experiments.

Herman Melville said that no true place is ever on the map. I take this to mean that the soul of a place cannot be contained by the political boundary of a country.

Like many African countries that skirt the Atlantic, Mauritania is scarred by post-colonialism, and searching for an identity by trying to link tradition with progress. These giant forces—pulling opposites—give places a twist, a hump, a sense of discomfort.

Pier waves in Nouakchott

Beached freighter at Cap Blanc, since cut up for scrap metal

Fishing boats on the beach in La Guera, in the Comandante's territory

Mauritania is like a docked ship awaiting repairs, one side gathering industrial rust and sinking into the deeply cold Atlantic, the other, sand-swamped. While cherishing its nomadic roots, such tradition is broken on the steaming wheel of the lucrative iron ore trade.

The tailor of Nouakchott

The derelict wharf at Nouakchott, now used as a fishing platform

Brahim in traditional desert costume

While respecting that the very land itself shifts with time as mountainous dunes are reshaped by ceaseless wind, people attempt to lay down political boundaries, these western-Sahara markers no longer moving with the wind, but with the decisions of bureaucrats who no longer live in the heart of the desert but in run-down cities at the rim.
And there simply is no map for the location of landmines that litter the access routes to a wealth of incredible waves on Mauritania’s Ras Nouadhibou peninsula in the north.

Grounded ship at Cap Blanc

Ras Nouadhibou is disputed territory. Territory of old colonial Spain, abandoned in typical post-colonial style in 1975, then claimed by Morocco, Mauritania and the Polisario Front—a nationalist organisation fighting for control of the land.
Battling for what appears to be one of the most sparsely populated areas in the world may seem strange to the outsider, but of course this is homeland to its champions, albeit a disputed place littered with mines, shipwrecks and brilliant pointbreaks.

Sam Bleakley, dodging shipwrecks on the edge of the Sahara Desert

The first time we came to this spot, the wind was wrong. We took notes, when the wind changed we came back to find long, clean point break waves between the sunken ships.

When we finally get the necessary government permit to pass through the town of La Agüera (also Lagouira or La Güera) onto Ras Nouadhibou peninsula, and the local Comandante (general) escorts us to the coast, guiding us safely through the minefields. Flocks of black winged seagulls wheel in great clamouring rings, then our jaws drop as we see sandstone points and slabs packing into both directions.
The best right reels off between the hulls of three wrecked ships. The faces are burning blue, and the smoking, deep sets have hypnotically long tubes, ultimately biting into the ship’s stern.

Emiliano Cataldi, surfing in the Atlantic ocean

Sam Bleakley, surfing in the Atlantic ocean

Erwan Simon, surfing in the Atlantic ocean

The Comandante is hostile at first, but changes his tone dramatically as we paddle out and surf. Tristan Jenkin throws huge fans of spray, Erwan Simon launches an air, Emi Cataldi whacks lips, and Raul Garcia slips behind the curtain. There is a long wait between sets that follows a desert rhythm, slow time. But the waves are consistently good when they arrive.
Then, to our total amazement, the Comandante attempts a coup on John Callahan’s camera work, demanding that he takes all the shots. He fails, then disappears. Thirty minutes later he reappears with his own video camera and starts dictating the session:
“Catch the wave all together. All five of you,” he demands.
“Go further,” he shouts when we fall or kick out.
“NO!” he yells when we decide to paddle in for a well-earned lunch break.
This no-man’s land, and if the Comandante doesn’t like you, you won’t be allowed to surf again. So we obey local orders, up the ante and stay in until the Comandante eventually tires of filming.

Traditional mint tea in the tent with Brahim and his tea kit

Emiliano Cataldi, clean afternoon waves at the Wharf in Nouakchott

Eaves breaking at The Castelo, one of the best big wave spots in North Africa

The Comandante is desperate to have a go, but he cannot swim, and the waves are grinding. Wind-chapped and hungry we share baguettes filled with tinned tuna as the Comandante interrogates about every single aspect of surfing.
“How much is a board?”
“How long does it take to learn?”
“How good are these local waves?”

Erwan Simon, point break waves in the desert of North Africa

Refuelled, we surf an evening session under the Comandante’s dictatorship, John standing behind his own lens. Unlike the flies, which continue to bug John while he is shooting, the Comandante’s intensity lessens and he turns out to be genuinely friendly and thrilled by surfing.

A marabout is a Muslim religious leader and usually, a scholar of the Koran who gives advice for a fee

After a lifetime the desert, Brahim was a master driver of the sands and dodging the land mines

The fishing harbour at Nouadhibou

The following day the Comandante shows us around La Agüera. This once beautiful colonial Spanish town, high up and over looking a bay and natural harbour, is now bullet-holed, burned-out, abandoned and blown over with sand, another legacy of ‘border mentality’. In the ruins there is a well-manned Mauritanian army post. In 1973 an independence movement called the Polisario Front formed against the Spanish colonisation in the Sahara. Facing this armed uprising by the Sahrawi locals, Spain gave in.
In 1975 they rapidly and chaotically split from their colonial possessions, even repatriating Spanish corpses from cemeteries. Morocco and Mauritania moved to annex the territory, meeting staunch opposition from the Polisario Front, who demanded full independence. Supported by Algeria, the movement grew tremendously as Sahrawi refugees flocked to the camps in Tindouf, Algeria, and the well-organised guerrilla army swelled to thousands.

Woman walking past the offices of the defunct Air Mauritanie, in Nouadhibou

Fishing boats on the beach in Nouakchott

Walking thru ankle-deep rubbish on the fishing harbour beach in Nouadhibou

In 1979, after repeated strikes at vital iron ore mines, Mauritania withdrew all its forces from the disputed territory. Morocco extended its claim, but Mauritania would not recognise the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara. Morocco built a huge sand wall enclosing the economically useful parts of Western Sahara and gradually contained the guerrilla fighters of the Polisario Front.
In 1991 the two sides signed a UN peace agreement. But the mission failed, and the area is still paradoxically defined as a ‘Non-Self-Governing Territory’. Only the east is Polisario-controlled, but barren and heavily mined, with just small numbers of Sahrawis herding camels back and forth to Tindouf. At the core of the dispute lies the question of who qualifies to be registered to participate in the referendum. Internationally there is a generally neutral position on each side’s claims.

The cold morning offshore wind out of the Sahara Desert

La Agüera formed part of an area administered by Mauritania before it gave up claims to Western Sahara. It is an anomaly, a place left behind, outside the Moroccan wall, abandoned by both Moroccan and Polisario forces in 2002.
It has become a political symbol for Mauritania, which does not recognise Morocco’s claim to the Western Sahara. So it is guarded by the Comandante and his Mauritanian military outpost, although not formally Mauritanian territory.
Welcome to Melville’s ‘true place’ that is never on the map.

Surfers hiking in the Sahara Desert in Mauritania

Morning surfing at a beach break north of Nouadhibou

Words: Sam Bleakley / Photographs: John Seaton Callahan
A surfEXPLORE story

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