Words: Jack Copeland
Photos: Sebastian Schieren
Now that we’re all locked away in isolation, a bit of reminiscence and voyeurism is the only way some of us can manage to get our fix of surfing. Even without a global pandemic starving us all of waves, those of us who are not quite fortunate enough to live near the coast have grown accustomed to using other people’s stories to remain stoked.
One surfer and filmmaker whose stories never fail to stir up a hint of nostalgia is Sebastian Schieren, a German student who makes regular excursions from his university in Innsbruck to various European coastlines. Whether it be surfing, snowboarding, or mountain-climbing, Sebastian’s day-to-day life is filled with adrenaline which thousands of people now share in, after his videos went viral on the new social media platform TikTok.
One of his more infamous social media posts features a 2003 Iveco Daily transit van which he, his brother George, and his girlfriend Aicha converted into a homemade campervan for their intrepid surfing adventures. Their initial plan was to spend a total sum of 6,000€ on materials as well as two weeks of time on converting the van but, after a few hiccups, ended up spending 14,000€ and an eye-rolling four months on the project.
However, in spite of the problems that cropped up along the way, the results of the mammoth task are beyond questioning. The plucky little campervan boasts enough room for three people to sleep, has a kitchen area, and even a computer desk where Sebastian can sit and edit his travel videos.
Adding to the charm of the van which, from the outside, would appear just like any normal white transit, are decorative paintings of waves, mountains, and forests to complete this image of a millennial Mystery Machine.
Kitted-out with the van, Sebastian, George, and their friend Matthias can now escape from Innsbruck, sequestered within the breath-taking Austrian Alps, and search for that perfect wave all over the continent, frequenting the coasts of France, Spain, and Portugal.
Speaking to Sebastian from afar (courtesy of quarantine), I asked him if he had always been a keen traveller. To this, he replied: “I’m not that drawn to travelling really. I’m way too impatient to sit on a plane for hours. Plus, it leaves me with a bad conscience because it’s bad for the environment.
“To be honest, I see travelling as a waste of time because going around and looking at places for the sake of it just bores me and doesn’t get me anywhere on a personal level. I only enjoy travelling when it’s part of a bigger project, like filming, surfing, or building something new like my van.
“That being said, I’m always drawn to lonely, wild places. For that reason, my favourite surf spots probably don’t even have names. A lot of the more famous spots are too crowded for my taste. I prefer to surf on my own or, even better, share a break with only a few good friends.”
Two years ago, before acquiring the Iveco, Sebastian bought a Volkswagen campervan for 2,000€ and embarked upon a month-long surfing expedition to the Spanish coast with George and Matthias.
Starting their journey in the snow-capped mountains around Innsbruck, the trio set off on the first leg of their journey across the Alps and to a stretch of coast where Spain meets the Atlantic. Although this might not seem ‘daunting’ to the three explorers in question, taking on a mountain range in a 22-year-old van with almost half-a-million miles on it, before purchase, would give anyone else a sense of unease.
Our three wave-chasers were greeted by the verdant headlands of Zarautz after traversing the rolling fields of Southern France and the Basque region of Northern Spain. Here they stayed for two days, making adjustments to the Volkswagen using tools from the Stoke Surf Camp, where Matthias had worked over the summer.
While knocking back free beer from the surf camp, they managed to build a convenient little closet for the van as well as a fold-out kitchen, where they planned to cook copious amounts of pasta to live off of for the next month.
Hearing this story of the first van conversion, after already learning about the second (and arguably more successful) attempt, I asked Sebastian where his attraction to homemade campervans came from. He said: “I always feel as though my problems are gone the moment I set off in my van. Unsurprisingly, this isn’t the case. But, for me, it’s the most adventurous way to see the world.
“Owning a car is quite expensive for a student and I’m happy to share the van with my brother.
“When I calculate the costs, it would be cheaper to rent a campervan for one month each year. But the feeling of having your own van is worth it. Especially when you want to live in it and save on rent.”
Once all of the necessary upgrades had been made to the Volkswagen, Sebastian, George, and Matthias headed west to a break called Playa de Oyambre, jamming away to a mishmash of ABBA and Vance Joy en route. When they arrived, they wasted no time in paddling out. The surf, although a mere three feet in height, was in abundance that day and the trio took on as many waves as the gently peeling right-hander could offer them.
When I asked Sebastian what board he surfed with he admitted: “To be honest, I don’t care as long as it floats. I’ve surfed the same board for the past six years after I bought it used and broken in some surf shop. I know that most people will hate me for saying that though, because a lot of sports are really gear obsessed.
“When I surfed in Indonesia, I saw a tourist with a 900€ board, which spent most its time hanging on a wall for showing off. He couldn’t surf at all. Then there were these Indonesian kids with old planks of wood. They had so much fun, and surfed better than I ever will.”
The next morning, the three surfers abandoned Oyambre to explore the coast further west, surveying every break they stumbled across among the steep cliffs, littered with patches of woodland and rocky outcrops. Eventually, they discovered a picturesque bay with a rugged eastern headland and an expanse of golden sand where they chose to surf for the evening, carving their way through choppy right-handers in four-foot surf and gorging on yet more pasta.
Two days disappeared into a haze of surfing and drinking coffee at this break, named Playa de Cueva, as our bold explorers lost themselves in a Spanish coastal oasis. But, as they say, all good things must come to an end, and the search for the perfect wave continued.
Many miles to the west, our explorers reached a break called Playa de Esteiro where they hoped that the shelter of the bay would dampen a western swell and create some surfable waves. It was at this rugged location that the trio found the most stunning view of the trip, parking the trusty Volkswagen on the cliffs where the rising winds and sharpening weather had turned the vegetation to an earthy shade of auburn.
Talking about why he loved to travel in this way, Sebastian explained: “The further you travel down the Atlantic Coast, the easier it is to sleep with an ocean-view and no one around. Especially during off-season, before the winter comes, when the Atlantic produces endless perfect waves.”
Unfortunately, the bay did little to subdue the colossal waves which came barrelling in, reaching heights of almost nine feet. And so, in the absence of a death wish by either of the three parties, Sebastian, George, and Matthias decided against paddling out for the first night, instead opting to knock back as much cider as they could possibly handle.
In the early morning hours of the next day, astonishingly unimpeded by a hangover, Sebastian and Matthias paddled out early, before the surf became too small, catching waves whilst George slept in the van. In the lowlight of dawn, the dark rock of the eastern cliffs and the charcoal grey sea made the landscape reminiscent of Dragonstone, from Game of Thrones, until the sun climbed high enough to reveal the lush woodland further inland.
The waves themselves measured around four to five feet and came charging in to meet the beach at breakneck speed, allowing the surfers to briefly carve their way through the slopes before bailing out when the white-water got near. Taking care to avoid the various rocky outcrops, which littered the water near the cliffs, Sebastian would drop in to the steep waves and hack the nose of his board up towards the crest of each wave, sending a spray of salt water from the rails as he did so.
Over the days which followed, the gentle sea breeze became a howling gale, forcing our happy campers to throw up their tent extension on the Volkswagen. Adding to the growing list of hiccups, the trio’s water supply then ran out, leading them to experiment with cooking pasta in sea water. According to their thorough reports, it was “disgusting”.
True to form, the nomad surfers soon packed up and moved on, this time doubling back to the east, copying their current pattern for another week until they discovered an unnamed spot which I can only guess at being somewhere between San Cibrao and Burela.
During our quarantine chat, yet again, Sebastian described his attitude towards surfing expeditions by saying: “I wouldn’t consider myself a good surfer. I just have a lot of fun exploring new spots and trying to catch waves.”
Reaching the secluded little break involved a chancy descent down a steep hill in the Volkswagen, made all the more nerve-racking by the zig-zagging road (and when I say road, I really mean beaten dirt track). Although, as all surfers know, a touch of risk makes a beautiful beach all the more worthwhile.
A quick surfing session, plenty of cider, and a minor apocalyptic scenario involving a horde of sand fleas saw to the end of the month-long journey, with the three students heading back to Austria the very next morning. And so concluded this typical, but nevertheless epic, surf trip.
It’s funny how Sebastian’s surf trip isn’t quite as adrenaline-fuelled or as eye-opening as some other stories I’ve read in Wavelength or Carve, yet it’s exactly the type of story that’s been getting me through lockdown. Don’t get me wrong, it’s more action-packed than any surf trip I’ve ever been on, but what makes it nostalgic is that he was on a trip with his best mates.
The thought of lockdown, one day, being eased enough to be able to paddle out with your friends is a thought that must be keeping every surfer in the world going right now. However, in the meantime, I’ve been living vicariously through stories like Sebastian’s, and thus keeping my sanity in the process.
Now that restrictions have been eased in Austria, I asked Sebastian where his first stop for another surfing adventure would be, he replied: “I can’t decide between surfing in Portugal and Morocco or doing some cold-water surfing in Norway. In Scandinavia, surfing’s a much bigger adventure because the scene there is still in its infancy.”
Having heard about his adventures in Spain, I can’t wait to hear about the Scandi shenanigans he’ll get up to in the not-too-distant future. But for now, I’ll have to satisfy myself by writing about his other adventures in the ‘millennial Mystery Machine’.