It’s stinking hot. Sitting super-glued to a tall bar stool in the back streets of Nusa Lembongan, Bali. Mosquitoes accelerate past my ear, sweat pours down my legs as we sip reluctantly on Bintang, Ben Howard’s guitar tickling the humid air. We’ve been surfing all afternoon and the energy is a juxtaposition of electricity and exhaustion. My friend, Nadia, nudges me, “Kates those dudes are kinda cute.”
The guys at the next table are fogged in a haze of Marlboro Reds, talking in a deep, muffled French. I shrug with a pained face. “Really?” I muster. I am spent and unimpassioned. She smiles, a ‘you have no chance’ kinda smile, and asks the boys for a light. “We’re gonna chase manta rays tomorrow morning…wanna come with?”
I giggle to myself. These fellas are goners.
“Ho nice,” they reply, “we have cameras.” My eyes instantly glimmer. I prise my aching body from the stool, tug the salt-drenched hair off my face, and tilt my head, questioning, “Who are you?”
“We are OuiSurf,” they reply.
“No, OuiSurf,” Jean-Michel laughs, drawing his strong, handsome face from the smoke and into the light, correcting me in a thick Quebecian accent.
I swallow, squint, and whisper to myself, Damn, we are goners.
Six months later, the chapter of my bohemian Balinese life concluded, I’m lying in my bed in New York, watching OuiSurf in Asia on WebTV. I look at the ceiling, shards of memories dancing in the flickering light, the essentialized fantasy of the lazy golden days and purple sun-kissed nights of Bali. I shake my head.
The boys made it!
Mention OuiSurf to a Quebecian and you’re likely to receive a big smile and a remark such as, “Those guys are cool.” From trips to Ecuador, Hawaii, and Morocco, the company started off producing sleek and beautiful surfing footage and interviews with pro surfers, local surf cats, and travelers. Landing sponsorship deals from the likes of KLM, Cushe, and Ripcurl, Ben, fellow host Jean-Michel, and director (and director of photography) Jean-Philippe embarked on a journey around Asia last year. The final product: a viral interactive travel surfing guide and TV show, OuiSurf in Asia, one of this year’s most talked about travel shows.
I grasp at my laptop and dial Montreal. Benjamin Rochette, entrepreneur and the creator of OuiSurf, answers.
“Chica, how’s it going?” The screen ignites, he smiles, and instantaneously I do too.
“Ben,” I say, “I need your story.”
Hearing the tale transports me to 2009 in El Salvador, where he owned a hotel for three years and ran the Quebec Surf Open.
“It was a simple concept,” he begins. “Normal dudes, average surfers going pro for a week. We filmed it every day and uploaded our footage onto the web, creating bios for each surfer in an attempt to get sponsorship. The competition became a cultural exchange, with local surfers judging the contest, leaving the final day free for them to rip it up and show us Quebecians how to ride their waves.
“The Open went viral in Quebec, the spike in traffic caught the eye of potential sponsors and producers back home. We were just making fun with it, you know,” Ben says, dancing his hands in the air, “but now it was serious, I thought, ho! I could make my own website. Then came the birth of OuiSurf.”
I flash back to our ‘lost in translation’ introduction and question Ben about the double entendre naming of his company. With the abruptness of a swiveling tragi-comedy mask, his face switches to a frown — actually, he remarks, this was the hardest part!
“I went back to Quebec and tossed around a few ideas — ‘Surf Therapy’ for example — but fuck,” he shoots his fist in the air, “this is terrible. Finally,” he exhales, “we landed OuiSurf. It is a mix of two languages, which means the brand can travel. Also oui, ‘yes,’ means yes to surf. It’s like a marriage commitment. Once you say yes to surf it is your life. And oui, pronounced ‘we’ in English, also holds the connotation that WE are all in this together. We surf; you surf, yes to surf, yes, yes, yes, to life, to travel.”
“Yes!” I proclaim, swimming against an overwhelming current of nostalgia. “You truly capture the essence of life.”
“We can’t take all the credit,” he professes. “With the new DSLR camera, you know, a new generation of filmmaker was born. The cameras are simple to use, small, light, and offer an incredible quality of image. And because it is a photo camera, I think that helps connect with people. Locals are not intimidated by the camera, so we can capture the truth about their nature and culture. And with the GoPro, everybody can make a good video. Now the question is how far and how hard you are willing to go to create a video that will inspire people to live life to the max.”
And inspire they do. OuiSurf has been called a game changer in travel and leisure television. Ben passionately recounts his battle to revolutionize the industry. “You know, from the beginning I was told, your site will die, no one in Quebec cares about the lives of average surfers. But what is missing in the TV industry is a program for normal travelers and everyday surfers. We are overthrowing the old ways of making travel shows. With a very small budget and little equipment, we have created something that is really beautiful. And now, it’s big, chica, real big — people from the industry are starting to talk about us!”
Ben is exhilarated, his words quicken: “These adventures were not easy; they would have been impossible to achieve without the help of the OuiSurf team.” I think back to the three boys in Bali, jaded but animated after months of filming and traveling together. Ben concludes: “We are so very proud of what we’ve done and to see all the comments and the love from people. That’s what drives us to go further.”
Returning from filming OuiSurf in Asia, Ben and Jean-Michel now find it hard to walk down the streets of Montreal without a flock of teenage girls wanting their autographs. Only last month, the boys were nominated for three awards at Prix Gémeaux — the Quebecian Golden Globes — for “Best Travel and Leisure Show,” “Best Editor,” and “Best Director.” With teasers for a second season next year, OuiSurf fans wait with bated breath.
“You’re fighting against the swell of reminiscence, I can see it in your eyes,” Ben beams, as our conversation draws to an end. I am happy to sink, I think to myself, overcome by feelings of mother-like pride, happiness, and gratitude that we all met on that sweltering evening in Bali.