Born - 1956 ; Location Anglet, Biarritz, SW France ; Sport - Surfer
Gilles Martin is ill. At the age of fourteen he caught a virus....
.....there’s no cure, and he’s not even looking for one. In fact he’s not even unhappy about the situation. Why? Because there is at least a treatment and he self-administers it as often as necessary. The treatment? The waves of his native South West France. And the Virus? He has the virus of surfing, at least that’s how he expresses it. And among the Silver Grey’s it’s not an uncommon way of feeling. Paulus Laurencin says that he caught the virus of the mountain when he first started skiing, Marty Heckleman says skiing is his heroin - and Gilles calls it “Le Virus”. Denise and I first heard him use the expression when we had gone back to Biarritz in October of 2003, for our third visit of the year and he told us we had caught The Virus. It was the second year we had been surfing with Gilles’ surf school Anglet Cap Glisse. And that is Gilles other passion, teaching people to surf especially kids - or, as he puts it, spreading “Le Virus.”
How did it all start? Well, surfing was brought to Europe in the 1950’s by American film producers Peter Viertel and Dick Zanuck who were filming in SW France, saw the waves, had a surfboard shipped over from the US, and voilà, surfing had hit Europe. The first French surfers were known as “Les Tontons Surfeurs” which would translate roughly as Uncle Surfers, the first generation. Gilles’ story doesn’t go back that far, quite, but hearing it now it does have the romantic quality of a fable…
“I started to surf in 1971; I was 14. In those days we used old surfboards, very heavy ones weighing 20 kilos and we didn’t have leashes to attach them to our ankles, so when we fell off, the boards would be washed right back to the beach and we’d have to go all the way back and get them. We used wetsuits that divers used to use, not like the specialised surf wetsuits of today. When we met Australians travelling, either going to or coming back from surfing in Morocco we’d buy all their equipment from them, that’s how we’d get more modern stuff, as there was only one surf shop in Biarritz and we didn’t have much money. Sometimes we even made our own boards, we were really proud when we used them. But by then I had “the virus” and I couldn’t get enough of surfing.
When we were older, we’d travel to different surf-spots on our mobylettes carrying our boards under our arms. We’d surf till the sun went down, and end up round a bonfire on the beach. It was the era of soul surfing; it was cool. A bit later, in the 80’s, when we had cars and camper vans, we’d do trips further afield, to Les Landes, Spain and Portugal.
At the same time, I was working in a secondary school as a supervisor, and in the summer I was a lifeguard on the beaches. That allowed me to keep the virus alive, and continue to surf. After 10 years as a lifeguard I decided to get my state diploma as a surf teacher, and began to work teaching surfing in the summer and as a schoolteacher in the winter, working with kids in the term time. That way I still had the school holidays in which to teach surfing, and spread the “virus”.
I started up my own surf school in 1998 and since then I have worked even harder at spreading the virus to as many people as possible. My 2 sons have had the virus since the age of 3, and maybe one day it will be them spreading it to other people.
Now, at 55 years old, I don’t surf in the winter any more (I surfed 12 months a year for 25 years, and am beginning to have problems with my ears and shoulders). But whenever we take family holidays, it’s more often than not somewhere we can surf, and I try to do several sessions in each holiday. We’ve been to the Canaries, the Seychelles, Brazil, Costa Rica, Madeira, Morocco, Senegal, Portugal and Bali.
I think I’ve always been able to combine working with The Virus, and that has been the most important thing to me."