The Europe leg, featuring stops 9 and 10 on the Championship Tour (CT) in France and Portugal, offers a unique set of opportunities and challenges for the world's best surfers. For one, it's length makes a difference. Most of the surfers fly into Europe at the start of October and with the MEO Rip Curl Pro waiting period finishing on October 31 it's a month of being non-stop in the competitive zone.
Being at the tail end of the year, the pressure has been ratcheted up, too. The World Title race is cooking on full gas and with seven surfers in contention, each one of them knows that every heat comes with the expectation of winning and severe penalties for losing. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there is up to 15 surfers battling for re-qualification. Their prize isn't a World Title, but their very surfing careers. They might only surf six heats or so over 30 days, but it is those heats that will determine whether they are still surfing on the CT next year.
Allied to the length and the pressure is the unpredictable nature of the conditions the surfers face. Here the moon plays a key role with both contests subject to the whims of the large Atlantic Ocean tides. As an example, for the start of the waiting period of the Quik Pro France the difference between the high and low tide is a vertical depth of 12 feet. Conditions literally change every half hour as the water moves up and down over the shifting sandbanks.
"In France especially if you are watching the surf when it's good, you've already missed it," says Ace Buchan, who won the event here in 2008. "Monitoring the conditions and banks is a full-time job, both in and out of competition. The more time you put in doing that the more success you should have. On the flip-side, there is so much to enjoy here outside of the surf. I really try to embrace the culture, the late nights and the great food but finding that balance is difficult."
Equipment is crucial, as well. With locations such as Fiji, J-Bay or Snapper the surfers can predict the type of waves and order their boards accordingly. Here the variety of waves means the surfers have to cover a lot more bases. At La Graviere for example, you could be surfing eight-foot slabs on the shorebreak during high tide and huge, walled 12-foot waves on the outside Le Nord banks during the low. Two days later, a shoulder-high rip bowl will require a complete change of quiver.
"I think it pays to try to get your hands on as many boards as you can," says local shaper Christian Bradley, who provides Leonardo Fioravanti with his craft, as well as shaping boards for the visiting pros. "We have at least 40 boards shaped for Leo for the next six weeks. He'll break loads, need a range of volume depending on the size and has time to refine what he needs to find the keepers."
Of course all the surfers aren't complaining about spending time in one of surfing's most magical playgrounds. The competition comes with challenges, but the ocean provides incredible waves, and the lifestyle, food and culture of France and Portugal is intoxicating.
"Personally I think the key to the leg is embracing all the crazy options that Europe has to offer," Mick Fanning tells the WSL, a man who has made a habit of winning on the continent. "I have made friends for life here and it's the connections with the people and place that help you deal with what is one of the longest legs on Tour."