While walking with her surfboard from the beach through the streets of Spanish San Sebastian, the 35 year old Belgian journalist Veerle Helsen started dreaming of a sabbatical..
Not just a time out but a jump into the unknown all by herself. Veerle bought a camper van, packed her surf gear, her drone and travelled for more than half a year along the coast from Spain to Portugal. Luckily for us, she documented all the surf spots, secret camper sites, authentic beach restaurants, architectural gems and turned it into a beautiful travel guide called Surf & Stay. Guess what.. Veerle just won a A Henry Van De Velde Award, the most prestigious design award of Belgium, in the category Graphic design!
Congratulations Veerle, did you ever imagine your book to win this prize?
Thank you! In Belgium it’s a great honour to win it. Before this adventure I was an architecture and design journalist, so I used to write articles about the awards. Now I am an Award winner myself, which makes me very proud! Combining surfing and design in a book wasn’t an obvious choice. Surf & Stay talks about coastal culture. Besides, the graphic design is different from other surf guides. When I started this project, I had this idea: graphic poetry on paper. I wanted to offer a more feminine view on a sport that has been dominated by men for years. Surfing is often represented in the same way, with competitive images of tricks in the water and aggressive layout or typography.
What made you decide to write Surf & Stay?
At first I only wanted to improve my level of surfing. I was frustrated by endless vacations and not improving a bit. So that’s where it all started: I planned a surf sabbatical. And while I was doing that, I came up with the idea of Surf & Stay. I’d been working almost 15 years for magazines and newspapers in Belgium (De Morgen, De Tijd, Knack Weekend), but somehow I wasn’t happy and I wanted my own project. I felt like I was stuck on the treadmill of life, on autopilot in an everyday traffic jam. I bought a camper and started chasing dreams. No more working for big media companies, but creating something with a soul of salt.
What is it like to live in a camper for 6 months?
Living in a camper is something you have to learn. My 20-year-old camper Connor, a Fiat Riviera, is about 15m² on the inside – that’s not a royal living space. It takes just two steps to get from one end to the other. Although it’s small, it does have everything I need. A bathroom (toilet with a shower), stove (2 hobs), fridge (complete with a little freezer) and storage in the back. My bedroom was a small alcove above the front seats. I couldn’t even sit up straight there but loved waking up with a beautiful view over the sea.
Living in a camper isn’t always that great. I did experience the downside of the camper life. To name a few .. 2 men broke into my camper, the roof was partly blown away by a heavy storm, the breaks broke right at the moment I drove off a hill and the steering wheel got stuck. I also wrote about these moments in the book, because #vanlife is not pinterest perfect every day. But apart from the bad experiences, I still loved my camper and it was all worth it.
Would you recommend camping all by yourself to other women?
I won’t lie, there were some frightening moments. But I’m still here, right? That moment when burglars entered my van, I chased them away with a baseball bat. You do need some courage. But there will always be barriers if you want to live your dream. I overcame my fears and now I am super proud of my journey! We need more women on the road. Often, especially in the lesser known areas, I was the only woman traveling in a camper on her own. More women on the road will make it more safe out there. And also more ‘normal’. People always think it’s kind of strange. They were always assuming I was running away from something or somebody, such a stupid cliché idea.
“For more than half a year, I traveled alone through Spain and Portugal in my camper, Connor. I spent the first night at Praia da Bordeira, at the end of the world, thirty metres above the sea, surrounded by shifting colours. The Algarve was dressed to impress. It was the start of a journey that would change my life.”
Did you ever feel lonely or did you always find people to hang out with?
I met the loveliest and sweetest of people! Whenever you are in trouble, there’s always somebody to help you. In São Pedro de Moel (Portugal) Connor got stuck in the sand. One man stopped first, before going to get help and coming back with five friends. But you need more hands for a job like that. Five phone calls and twenty text messages later, the whole village pushed Connor out of the hole. And me? I was crying with gratitude. Strangers find each other: that’s the way it goes, especially when you’re travelling by yourself. The American author Kio Stark wrote a book about it: When Strangers Meet. It was in the glove compartment of the campervan for six months. She writes about the value of talking to strangers, an interesting book.
What surf spots would you say are really worth a visit if you are a:
Great for a beginner: Arrifana (Algarve), Lanzada (Galicia), Razo (Galicia), Oyambre (Cantabria)
A step up: Consolaçao (Peniche), Capela (Porto), As Furnas (Galicia), Bayas (Asturias)
If you really know what you are doing: Porto das Barcas (Alentejo), Buarcos (central Portugal), Mundaka (Pais Vasco)
“Living to the rhythm of the sea. The waves, the flowing shapes, the poetry of the sea: surfing is in fact a distinctly female sport.”
When you think back on this trip, what would you say was the coolest thing you experienced?
When I wrote the book, I was asking myself the same question. Obviously, I couldn’t choose, so I made a list of 15 moments. Most of them are connected to people. Looking back, the coolest thing is the way the journey changed my life. It turned out to be the best decision ever. Apart from the unforgettable adventures, I feel liberated from the preconceived paths in society. Traveling on your own makes you wonder and wander. I have a different view of life now, for instance, I don’t just buy stuff anymore. I know now I can live a minimalistic life and before a purchase I think by myself, ‘do I really need this’? The less I buy, the more I can spend on traveling. The journey broke down my wall of bottled-up stress, haste and indecisiveness. A few months after I returned, I also quit my job. I am working as a freelance journalist now, another decision I had been dreaming about for years. The trip gave me the courage to just do it. Now I can schedule my work around the waves, because the sea doesn’t know it’s Tuesday morning.
What’s next? Planning a new trip with Connor?
In my dreams: yes. But my bank account doesn’t agree . I would love to go and explore an area that is very much undiscovered: West-Africa. I have started the research, not sure if I will ever start the strip. But I do know: dreams are like surf wax, they stick around.