LONG READ: Who Is Benjamin Sanchis?

Seamus Mc Goldrick

by on

Updated 1072d ago

Benjamin Sanchis is a pro surfer from France. Everyone knows that. What you might not know is that from humble beginnings in Hossegor, Benjamin Sanchis (or Sancho as he is affectionately known worldwide) later became European Male Athlete of the Year in 2015.

Benjamin Sanchis has distinguished himself as one of the hardest charging Frenchmen of all-time, winning a Billabong XXL Award for Biggest Wave of the Year and for Wipeout of the Year in the process.

And if you want to know more about that experience, hell, Sancho's experiences in general then check out Billabong's new feature film Vague a l'Ame, documenting Sancho's wipe and eventual return to Nazare. Go HERE.

I first met Sancho on the hill at Mullaghmore, about an hour before I went out and towed the wave for the first time on a bodyboard. I had been watching Benjamin surfing in Ireland for years, riding some balls out waves each time he arrived over with his partner in crime Francois Liets.

Watching Sancho over the years and I have always been inspired by his commitment to heavy waves. Sancho doesn't mess around. He is not out there in order to go for the smaller inside ones. He takes it by the balls goes for bombs. Consequently, I have seen him get some of the biggest Irish tubes as well as some of the worst Irish beatdowns.

Back on the hill that day at Mully, myself Benjamin, Francois and Eric Riberie were checking the sets coming in and we all agreed it was pumping. So, Shane Meehan and I decided to go out. We jumped in the water and Barry Mottershead came in and picked us up on the ski. Twenty minutes later, the worst case scenario kicks in. I saw Shane nose dive at the top of a twenty-foot bomb. He bodysurfed top to bottom and got creamed.

Everyone went nuts when they saw that and I remember Francois driving past me on the ski telling me that was the craziest thing anyone had ever seen. Everyone was buzzing. Shane paddled back out, even though he lost the bodyboard I had lent him forever, he was stoked.

No Sleep 'Til Hammersmith
When the Billabong Adventure Division arrived, we could see that they were on a different mission. It wasn't a van load of faceless pros coming over to do a couple of turns at Easkey Right and go home and write about it in all the usual mags. No.

When the Adventure Division came to Ireland, you knew they weren't chasing another lame surf trip, these guys were over to surf something seriously off the scale and that is exactly what went down.

I shared a good Mullaghmore session with Sancho late last year. As we were catching up over a pint of Guinness at the Pier Head Hotel, the idea came to me to do an article on this hard charging Frenchman. In reality, Benjamin Sanchis is quite a rare and unique European athlete and, in my opinion, he has been one of the best surfers ever out at Mully

Ben now lives in the Canary Islands on Fuerteventura. His Spanish is improving but he still has a strong French accent. Sancho flies all over the world, surfing the planet's most heavy and amazing waves, which are, generally, pretty large.

As the people at Carlsberg would say, Sancho has probably the best job in the world. But, as far as jobs go in Billabong, it is not for everybody – as it's certainly one of the toughest.

To go ride the scariest waves in the world, you have to factor in all the car journeys, missed flights, broken leashes, snapped boards, missed bombs, waves on the head and stitches that are all part of making your dream happen. I think the guys modeling the clothes chose a safer way to make a living.

In reality, Benjamin Sanchis is quite a rare and unique European athlete and, in my opinion, he has been one of the best surfers ever out at Mully along with Fergal, Tom, Barry, Dylan, Conroy, Conor, Will, Noah and Ryan. These guys have charged hard and pushed the boundaries in the heaviest of conditions, a handful of people who have charged into a new domain of cold water surfing and essentially made history. But it was tough.

“Ireland is heavy.” says Sancho. ”It is heavy with the waves and it is as heavy with the preparation. You need to be really in tune with your equipment, for example, the wetsuit you have and the safety equipment you put on.

“You have to be in tune with your equipment more than most places. Some places - Jaws or Tahiti - you wake up and grab your shorts and just put a vest on. It is way easier. In Ireland it is different.

“You know, it is hard to paddle with a 6 mm wetsuit and not feel too compressed. You need gloves. You need to eat good in the morning because normally you are only gonna get one session.

“Sometimes the tide is too low at Mully and it makes the wave too raw and dangerous. There is so much water moving and the wave gets so mutant. There are side waves and backwash. Mully is radical. It's heavy, no?”

Sancho's hard-charging ethos has landed him the star role in Billabong's latest docu.

Yes Sancho, it sure is heavy and especially when you paddle. You see a wave and it looks so perfect and you go for it, are about to go down it and you see a side wave or a boil or something that stops you in your tracks. Before, it looked so perfect and now it looks too crazy.

Benjamin told me: “You have to be super prepared physically and mentally. It is heavy here and you have to show commitment. You have shown commitment and Fergal, Connor, Barry.

“Mullaghmore is never mastered, it is always open. There is always a good mix of people here. I would just be stoked to see Fergal [Smith] surf a bit again in the big waves, he was really mastering the wave at Mullaghmore.

“Every trip to Ireland is insane. And when you see Paul [O Kane] and Peter [Conroy] doing safety, nobody is more prepared with security than Peter and Paul. If something happens they know how to use the defibrillator.”

Safety First

While researching this article about Sancho I called up Peter Conroy – Irish tow legend – to ask about his memories of the Adventure Division.

“I first met Sancho and Francois the day before the Billabong tow-in contest [2011],” he said. “They were the only pros that were allowed into the tow-in competition because Billabong was paying for some of the prizes. I never got to tow with him at Mully but I did safety at the Cliffs with him and Francois a few times. I ended up picking Sancho up a couple times on the inside [laughs] he was delighted to see me.

“I have met him a load of times at Mully now. He is another one of the faces at Mully when it breaks.

“What really stands out for me is his style at Mully, just the way he actually manhandles the wave. When he pulls in and stands up straight just like just like the pictures on some of walls of the cafes in Bundoran. You try all your life to get one of those shots and he just manhandles it and gets the shot and then out of there every time. When you are getting double barrels out at Mully you must be doing something right.”

So, what does Mullaghmore mean to Benjamin O' Sanchis?

Sancho has been all around the world but there is a special place in his heart for Ireland. Mullaghmore in particular.

“I have a good relationship with the wave,” he says. “I have had a few bad wipeouts at Mullaghmore but it is never been that bad, never bad memories. I never had a two-wave hold down or anything crazy.

“It is crazy because sometimes you can touch the rocks, or slam on the rocks a little bit, and sometimes you go so deep you feel your eardrums are gonna explode. It is insane. Every time I come to Mullaghmore there is a crazy, classic memory. It is never disappointing

“Every time you take the barrel you have to feel you are too deep. You cannot believe it, the wave gives you so much speed. Every barrel you make or you don't make here is crazy.

“My best memory from Mullaghmore was the morning of the [tow-in] contest.” says Benjamin. “The session we had with Eric Rebiere and Fergal [Smith] and Tom [Lowe]. Just two ski out before the contest started, a two-hour session. It was like a two-wave set with two tow teams so we were just sharing. We would catch one wave each in each set, either Fergal or Tom or me and Eric.

“Eric was ripping, Tom was ripping, Fergal was ripping. It was out of control. I think it was maybe the most perfect Mullaghmore I ever saw: glassy and big and offshore.

“Every time I come to Mullaghmore there is a crazy, classic memory. It is never disappointing.”

Paul O Kane's Spin on Sancho

Paul O Kane is a man who has shared some amazing sessions with Sancho. When we were talking about Sancho recently, Paul reckons he was blowing up this year - referring to his giant wave at Nazare on January 18.

“As regards guys coming in from outside,” says Paul, “the two most impressive guys I have ever seen at Mullaghmore have got to be Sancho and Michel Bourez.”

Both Sancho and Paul are also big fans of Fergal Smith's surfing out at Mullaghmore. “Fergal's lines at Aileens and Mullaghmore are just incredible. There is just a little bit of magic about some people. Ferg has got it completely. And Conor [Maguire], he is willing to bleed to get barrelled out there. They are all the same. Just Conor took it on at a younger age than most. He has a chance to really grow into that wave, it is his backyard.

“With Sancho, paddle or tow, it doesn't matter what it is. Sancho will take up the rope but he is just as good at the paddle, it is kinda crazy.”

Peter Conroy adds: “Sancho likes towing as much as I do, which is a rarity when people come to Ireland. But when he paddles he is doing the same thing. The last day we rocked out, myself and Dylan [Stott] towed because we knew everyone was coming out to paddle. Sancho came out late and was like, 'no tow?'.”

“At that stage, the boys were paddling and we had stopped and I could see he seemed pretty sad but he was like, 'alright, I'll go paddle'. That kind of put him up in our eyes. It proved that he can tow and paddle the wave no problem.” It was pretty intense because it was really raw and not really barreling but we didn't tow. So, then you have to put yourself into paddle mode for the session and it is completely different

Sancho recalled the session: “The wave was weird at the beginning. It was pretty intense because it was really raw and not really barreling but we didn't tow. So, then you have to put yourself into paddle mode for the session and it is completely different.

“It was really cool to paddle with everybody even though sometimes you are taking too much risk to go out in these conditions. It was too raw and too windy. I was riding a 9' 4''. It was pretty intense.”

We talk about Sancho switching between tow and paddle like it is no big deal. Like it is easy. I ask Paul O Kane to try and describe the difference between towing and paddling Mullaghmore for the uninitiated.

“With paddling, like, you have to sit in the zone. When you are out there on the ski you are a long way from where the waves break. When you are sitting out there to paddle it, to surf it, you are sitting in a zone where things can, you know, work out really different.

“Like hats off to any of the guys who are paddling out there. I am blown away at what those guys are doing. I have so much respect for them, every single guy who sits out there on a board under that thing. Surfboard/bodyboard: there is no differentiation.”

Paul O Kane has shared more than a few hectic Mullaghmore tow sessions and admits as soon as he is on the wave his mission is to get to the shoulder as fast as he can and not mess around with the barrel.

“When I let go of the rope at Mullaghmore I try and push the board and do turns to go as fast as I can. The thing about Mullaghmore is, it is readable to a point. When Sancho lets go of the rope he stands and waits to see what is going on and then reacts. He tries to surf what is presented to him. He is going to put himself deep and try and read the waves.

“If he makes a mistake he is going to be nailed. There is a magic to what he does in that way. There is a little bit of magic about some people. It is there with Fergal Smith. And Sancho has a little bit of magic there somewhere. He takes these original lines that is just a little bit different to what other people are doing. To me, it is inspiring.”

Luck of the Irish

Getting a good wave in Ireland is no mean feat. Speaking about the Irish waves in general, Sancho told me, “They are super raw and radical. I mean, you have to be super prepared and super engaged, but Mullaghmore and Aileens are as good as it gets in the world, I think.

“I think I lack a bit of experience at Aileens. I've only surfed it a few times. Fergal Smith was really calm at the Cliffs and giving good advice. I think, he was a really good ambassador for Ireland.

“At Aileens it is a beautiful wave, a beautiful place, the walk down. Those cliffs are crazy. I think it is the most crazy place I have surfed in Ireland. It is insane. When you go down those big cliffs as Aileens and there is a wave like this: it is really intense. I love Ireland.

“Rileys I only surfed once with Shane [Dorian] and the boys and I was shitting myself that day.

“We were looking at the spot from the cliff up top and, I don't know, Shane was super motivated and I said, 'Ah, fuck it. Let's go.' “From the top, Rileys looks more like a closeout or a shorebreak on the reef and you are like, what the fuck is going on? When you get down to the wave, you see it from the side and it looks better. You realise, well, if I don't make a mistake it is ok

“From the top, Rileys looks more like a closeout or a shorebreak on the reef and you are like, what the fuck is going on? When you get down to the wave, you see it from the side and it looks better. You realise, well, if I don't make a mistake it is ok.”

I asked Francois Liets about his and Sancho's first trip to Ireland chasing a giant swell when they both headed to Aileens but the swell was too big so they took the skis to another spot and ended up getting magical conditions.

“At the start, it was six foot and barely breaking. In the end it was fifteen to twenty feet and barreling for one kilometer. It ended up being one of the best session I have ever seen in my life. I saw Sancho get ten-second barrels in fifteen to twenty feet waves: it was completely out of control.”

Sancho agreed: “Yeah. We went to the spot but the swell didn't show up. We didn't know what to do and we almost went back to Aileen to surf but we said wait. Then, all of a sudden, the swell started to fill in and you can't believe what you are seeing. We had just rocked up there on the skis and we had no idea of the wave or where we were.

“It was like Mully on steroids plus mixed with J-Bay. Set after set was bigger: ten to twelve, twelve to fifteen, fifteen to twenty-five. That session was one of the craziest of my life. I don't think I will see that again in my lifetime.

Yeah, Dorian made the trip over too.

“It is forever in my mind that session. It was building all day long. Every wave was better and better and better. I got some really nice barrels, like not really, really big like Mullaghmore. But really perfect barrel, I remember I got one wave with a barrel and then another one and then another one then another one. So like Jbay or Snapper on steroids with the help of a jet ski.

“That session was maybe the most all-time session I ever had in Ireland. It was crazy. When I was looking at the waves from the shore after, it was like something surreal and I don't think it will ever happen again.”

Francois told me, “Paul got three barrels on the same wave and did not change his line for the whole wave.”

When I asked Paul about it he said it was incredible: “Francois picked me up out of the water and as he picked me up, we were looking out to sea and we see this shadow, like these three really big black shadows, and you just knew that they were bigger than anything that had come before.”

“He looked at me and I looked at him and I pointed out to sea, like you know, “Go!” I was in a tube for so long. And all I was doing were these micro-movements of the board, little touch of weight on my toes to slow down and climb up the wave and then take the pressure off to go down

“He started driving out to sea. We got over the first one, which was starting to feather and break. I think I had held up two fingers, which meant the second one, so he just turned and put me on to the second one.

“The first section was kinda reaching so I made a really big bottom turn, really low, pushing the board, really holding the rail in. I finally started coming off the bottom, coming up on to the face and the whole thing started tubing. It was all so readable because it happened so slowly. I didn't have to move the rail of the board. I managed to almost stand still in there.

“I was in a tube for so long. And all I was doing were these micro-movements of the board, little touch of weight on my toes to slow down and climb up the wave and then take the pressure off to go down: speed up a little, slow down. When it is that big you are not paying attention to the size, you are just dealing with what is in front of you. It is so funny, there is no real scale. ”

“And the third barrel, it had lost that glassiness it had on the outside and started to get ripple-influenced from that point. As I came up off the bottom the lip has gone straight square over my head. And you know the strings that are in the hood of the wetsuit? That had come out and it was a little bit loose on my face. When the lip went over my head it pulled the top of my wetsuit hood up and both sides of the hood slapped my face, like slap, slap, slap, slap on each side and then the top came down on my head and I came out of the tube and I felt like I got this big mega kiss on the top of my head from the wave.

“It was like God kissed me on the head when I was getting tubed. It was the weirdest feeling I have ever had in my life. Nothing like that has ever happened in my life, ever!

“It was such a weird feeling and that was the third section. That was the lip as it was going over my head. You know how you can hear the lip sometimes. That lip did that but to my wetsuit and it slapped my face, it was so weird. I was so tripping. I have never seen anything like it, it was the best wave of my life by far.”

“I feel like I've been chasing dragons ever since you know to get something like it again. I didn't have to do anything, I didn't have to think about anything. All I did was go surfing and it all worked out, except that all the cameras got a bit waterlogged at the start and we nearly lost a ski.”

“I think Francois was used to riding a jet ski on beach breaks where it gradually gets shallower or something because when they were coming in the whitewater sucked out on them and suddenly left the jet ski right on the reef. He had to wait for the next wave to come in and get some water under him so he could start the ski and drive off the reef. It was hectic really.”

“Looking back, it was probably a godsend the cameras went AWOL.”

Francois Liets recalls the incident: “We had some bad luck. Our video guy and photographer fell from the ski and broke their cameras before the first wave was ridden.” Later, Sancho was eating shit against a little cliff and I thought I better rescue him from that uncomfortable position. I started to drive towards him but I had never been to the surf spot before

“Later, Sancho was eating shit against a little cliff and I thought I better rescue him from that uncomfortable position. I started to drive towards him but I had never been to the surf spot before. All of a sudden, I was twenty meters in front of a dry shelf. When I looked behind me there was this eight-foot foamy wave. There was no chance I could try to go through. So, I figured out in the tenth of a second I had to make a decision that the best thing would be to jump onto these rocks. I just accelerated and tried to lift as much as possible the front of the ski by pulling on the wheel and hoped for the best.

“It actually went pretty ok. I climbed the rocks but then I got stuck on top of them and when that eight feet wave finally hit me it was while I was sitting on the ski on top of these rocks.

“As you can imagine, I got trashed but I was super lucky as I did not get really injured. I sat back on the ski and waited for the next wave to hit. It was a bit smaller but completely covered the reef and sent me into the water after the shelf. The was ski not damaged, just some kelp from the rocks got stuck in the propeller and that was slowing the ski. I went to pick up Sancho who was still against the little cliff. He had witnessed the whole scene and could not believe it. He jumped on the ski and we went as fast as possible, a good 15kms/hour, to avoid the next wave that was going to hit the cliff.

“I'm not too sure how, but we made it with no injuries and with the ski still in one piece. I think my legs kept shaking for a good hour after that.

Sancho remembers the magic and mayhem of that Irish afternoon. The swell has picked up endlessly from the start of the day. It was a crazy swell, I never seen that in my life, there were like twenty waves in the set. We even jumped some rocks, Francois jumped some rocks.”

“when I fell of this wave I came up and took twenty waves all on the face. After a while, Francois was thinking, 'It is about time I go pick him up', so Francois comes in to pick me up. Then, when we were facing towards the shore and he was thinking he was in Les Landes in France, you know, where there is no rocks in front. I saw a big amount of rocks and he jumped on the rocks.

“I never see that in my life. Ever. He jumped on the rock. I don't know how he did that and he managed not to destroy the jet ski. Actually, the jetski had nothing wrong. Both of us sat on the rocks with the jet ski and then another wave came and took us back on the water.

“It was like a scene from a movie, exactly like a comedy movie. It was unbelievable, pure magic. But it could have been the worst thing ever.”

I asked Sancho about his Billabong XXL Award Nomination and the party at the big event in Los Angeles. While his sponsors are happy and it is good for promotion or publicity, Benjamin admits an XXL Award is not his main focus. However, it was always good to go to the XXL Awards, “and to catch up with all the biggest wave guys on the plane.”

“Everyone deserve it, every one who is nominated. Everyone deserves a nomination at one stage. Andrew [Cotty]'s wipeout was nasty. I am actually glad he is okay now. And he is gonna be back on track soon because that is maybe the worst, when you break your back. Fuck, it is scary.”

“I think we will be 100 per cent soon. I think that is pretty gnarly.”

Sancho at Nazare...

Sancho at Nazare...

© 2021 - Helio Antonio

Much of the big wave loving audience love to see the highlight but they rarely get to see the lowlight, the arduous journey from injury to recovery, the pain and sweat, the months of physio and exercise. The last time I spoke to Sancho he was in Paris promoting his new movie, Vague a l'Ame. He is hoping to arrange a premiere of this exciting new film in Ireland as a fundraiser for the Irish Tow Surf Rescue club who help keep him and Francois safe when they are towing Mullaghmore.

“We worked on the movie for more than two years. We were doing lots of bad calls last year and wanted to finish it properly. So, it was cool at the end we finished it with Jaws and back to Nazare.

“It was great to make that wave and not to fall.”

I was working with Francois and Vincent Karadaski, editing the movie. I am really, really happy our documentary Vague de l'ame, sponsored by Monster Energy and Billabong, will finally see the light of day. Ireland is a huge part. You know, for us Ireland is maybe the place we like to go the most.

“The Irish section is maybe the best part. And I am gonna be really stoked to share that with the people of Ireland.”

Best of luck with the new movie Sancho and congratulations. I hear you are going to be a father.

“Yeah. I am going to be a daddy I think in the end of July or mid-August. I am 38 now. I think it was about time, maybe, and I need to man up a bit, no?

“It is going to be the biggest drop of my life by far, ha ha. I am stoked. I am really in love with my girlfriend. She is the woman of my life so I am really stoked to be the family.

“And my daughter, maybe she is going to something other than surf, but I would be stoked to share the passion I have for the ocean and the surfing with her.”

So I bid Benjamin Sanchis fair well as he waits to get on a plane in Paris and head back to Hossegor and I remind him that the next time he is Ireland he should bring his girlfriend and daughter he says: “Exactly, that is what I am gonna do for sure.”

Cover shot by Bastien Bonnarme.