France and Peru Join In

Joel de Rosnay, Biarritz
Biarritz, France, 1966
Club Waikiki, Peru, 1955
Miraflores, Peru, 1956
Club Waikiki, Peru, late '50s

Surfing slowly caught on around the world during the 1950s. Apart from Australia, the typical non-American surfing community was small and static, located on or near a resort beach, with a dozen or so lifeguards and weekenders happily riding their outdated planks and hollows. Compared to the United States, surfers overseas tended to be older and more settled, and the sport was often taken up in an atmosphere of wealth and glamour. This was the case in both France and Peru.

In 1956, screenwriter Peter Vietrel, along with Richard Zanuck, a Malibu regular and son of Twentieth Century Fox studio head Darryl Zanuck, brought a Velzy-Jacobs surfboard along when they flew into Biarritz, France, to do location shots for The Sun Also Rises. A handful of locals picked up the sport right away. Not surprisingly, they took their cues from California and Hawaii—but a distinct Frenchness was there from the start. (In an obligatory bow to socialism, members of France’s first surf club duly paid into a group health insurance policy.) Joel de Rosnay, France’s first national surfing champion, wasn’t anywhere near the best surfer in the world, but as a teenage member of the Paris University ski team, surf instructor to Catherine Deneuve, and future PhD-holding director of applied research at the Pasteur Institute, he was without question the most debonair. From the sand-bottomed lineup at Grande Plage, France’s most popular break, surfers looked back to see the regal Hotel du Palais and the beachfront Art Deco splendor of the Casino Barriere de Biarritz, where Edith Piaf and Yves Montand performed for elegant Galois-smoking touristes. Apart from de Rosnay, other top first-wave French surfers included George Hennebutte, Michel Barland, Jacky Rott, Jo Moraiz, and Bruno Reinhardt.

Surfing had meanwhile become a new recreational favorite among the Peruvian elite, falling in just behind polo and yachting, and taken up with great enthusiasm by the well-bred playboy sons of industrialists, bankers, plantation owners, military officers, and political attaches. Carlos Dogny of Lima, son of a French Army colonel and a Peruvian sugarcane heiress, learned to surf during a 1938 visit to Waikiki, and returned home with a beautiful hollow surfboard given to him by Duke Kahanamoku. Dogny noted that his hometown beach at Miraflores had a long, easy, rolling surf. He rode his new board there and encouraged his friends to give it a try.

Within a year Dogny began building Club Waikiki, which evolved into grand split-level structure at the foot of the dusty brown Miraflores beachfront cliffs. This was an altogether different gathering place than the salt-encrusted hangouts favored by American and Australian surfers. Club Waikiki visitors were met by a bowing white-jacketed attendant, who waved them into a lobby with marble floors and huge glass trophy cases. Music was softly piped across the grounds, which included a pool, a squash court, and fully-staffed kitchen and dining room. Upon request, cabana boys earning $300 a year ran down to a storage locker and fetched out $600 imported surfboards, to which they would apply a fresh coat of wax and hand off at water’s edge to the waiting club members; extra tips were earned for retrieving lost boards before they bumped across the rocky beach. Queens and presidents were among the guests of honor at Club Waikiki’s black-tie events. Membership was by nomination only, and the initiation fee by the early sixties was $25,000. “They’d paddle out and catch a wave, just to show they still had the old animal prowess,” one visiting surfer said, describing the average club member. “Then a quick shower and lunch, followed by three or four cocktails on the terrace.”

Peru and France each had wave-filled coastlines—even the French Mediterranean was holding—and it would take another two or three generations before the surf potential in both countries was fully realized. With the passing of time, the sport became less elitist, more democratic.

Of the two countries, Peru was more competition-minded, and in 1956 Dogny invited members from the San Onofre Surf Club to fly in and compete against the best from Club Waikiki. Over the next few years, the contest evolved into the Peru International Surfing Championships, and was regarded by many surfers, locals and visitors alike, as the sport's best-run event. In 1965, the Peru International doubled as the World Surfing Championships—and a handsome hard-charging Lima-raised Club Waikiki stalwart named Felipe Pomar took home the title.

Joel de Rosnay, France’s first national surfing champion, wasn’t anywhere near the best surfer in the world, but as a teenage member of the Paris University ski team, surf instructor to Catherine Deneuve, and future PhD-holding director of applied research at the Pasteur Institute, he was without question the most debonair.