Surfing the Mountains

Ozzie free-ride surfer Rachel Bonhote-Mead tells us why she loves Switzerland and how she gets her surf fix living in a landlocked country

Interview by Vanessa Judd

When I met Rachel Bonhote-Mead the first thing she did, in her bubbly, friendly manner, was apologise for bringing the interview forward a day. “I hope you don’t mind, I really want to go surfing tomorrow in Italy, there is swell in Levanto” After chatting with her I realise that surfing is still a huge part of her life, despite now living over 300 kilometers from the sea.

Rachel grew up in Australia but is half Australian half Swiss; she made the decision to move to Switzerland in 2008. She is now 29-years-old and has been sponsored by the surf brand Roxy for the past year. Rachel splits her time between Geneva – where she works as an accountant for the Australian Embassy – and the mountain resort of Verbier, which she thinks of as her second home. However, she is soon finishing work to go travelling and surfing for six months, starting with the Swiss Surfing Championships in Spain, in September.

Rachel started surfing at the age of seven with her twin sister Anne. Their Dad took them both out on boogie boards, and he quickly bought them surfboards. “We lived half an hour from the coast so I was only surfing on the weekends, it wasn’t until I was 17 that I moved closer to the surf and joined an all girls surf club.” Although she did not become a professional surfer, she explains how surfing became a huge part of her life and she went on surf trips to Samoa and Fiji and began coaching and competing in local competitions. One of her biggest achievements to-date is coming fifth in the Australian surfing titles.

It might seem strange to think that a landlocked country like Switzerland would even have a surf following. But when Rachel moved here, she quickly discovered and signed up to the Swiss Surf Association. “There are around 100 members and they hold a championships once a year in Spain, me and my sister went down when we first joined, we thought it would be fun to meet other Swiss surfers.” The Swiss Championships are held to select the national surf team for the World Surfing Games, which is considered the Olympics of surfing. There are approximately 250 competitors in total, and the team to be selected consists of two open women, five open men and two long boarders. Rachel has been lucky enough to compete and be part of the Swiss team for the last two years.

On asking Rachel about whether she misses living by the sea she lets out a loud infectious laugh, “if someone had told me five years ago that I’d be living in a landlocked country I would’ve laughed at them and said no way,” she trails off and shrugs, “I don’t know if it wasn’t for the mountains.” Rachel describes how she really enjoys living in Switzerland, she is a natural sports woman who loves keeping fit and she has appreciated how it has opened her eyes to many other sports. “The great thing about living in Switzerland is I’ve learnt all these different sports, mountain biking, downhill biking, lots of random sports, and I swim and go to the gym more.” She also snowboards and skis in the winter, “I’m skiing more now because I like to go ski touring, in Australia all I did was surf, I was just a surf nut I didn’t do anything else.”

The training seems to be the most difficult aspect to not living near the sea. “It is hard, but I do a lot of swimming and running, I also go wake surfing on Lake Geneva but with my surf board – it is the closest I can get to the feeling of surfing” Then she adds “Some day I am determined to surf lake Geneva – there are waves, maybe once a year.”

Rachel explains how she’s making the most of her time in Europe, “from Geneva in an hour you can be in Spain, France and Portugal, and in three hours you can be in Morocco – all these amazing world class surf breaks just a few hours from Geneva.” She tells me how she still wants to explore and take advantage of the shorter distances between surf breaks in Europe, compared to the vast distances in Australia. Her Australian twang has an excited ring to it as she tells me: “I’d Love to go to Norway, it would be so cold – or Northern Ireland, there’s lots of random spots I still want to go to.”

She tells me how she is looking forward to go to Italy tomorrow, “it’s an eight hour round trip, It’s a mission but it’s worth it.” She has to be back at work on Monday so she has to go and come back in a day. “People think you’re mad in Switzerland, because I suppose for them that’s quite far, but in Australia four hours each way is not long at all.”

On asking Rachel what she wants to do next, she tells me how she is looking forward to travelling and surfing in new places. She also wants to compete more and also do more women’s events. After the Swiss Surfing Championships in September, she plans to travel along the Cote Basque in Spain. Rachel’s trip will then take her further afield to Sumatra, the Mentawi Islands, Bali and finishing in Australia before coming back to Switzerland for the winter ski season.

Does she want to stay in Europe in the future? She plans to stay in Switzerland for the next few years “I would love to do 50/50 with the mountains and the sea – skiing and surfing is a pretty good life, but I’m sure the waves or at least the ocean will call me back eventually…”

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