It’s coming up to five years since I first set foot on a foam-board in Byron Bay, but the mix of being a late starter, with an already (too) well developed sense of mortality, and the intervening years being spent deep in the design mines of England’s south east – keeping me from surfing as regularly as I would like – means that a good surf has a fair prospect of being my best ever!
It didn’t look much from our van viewpoint on the cliffs above Praia Amado on Portugal’s southwest coast, perhaps similar to last night’s easy-going sunset session, but paddling toward the clique I could see that at this higher stage of the tide the now submerged rock, which breaks the wide open bay here, was producing a well overhead A-frame peak offering lefts and rights to the bold and well positioned.
A troupe of British kids were hoovering up everything going for the first half hour and I resigned myself to picking up the odd wave which swung wide of the take-off spot. But en-masse the Brits left the water, lured no doubt by elevenses, and there were more than enough waves to go round for those of us left. By my standards there were big sets pushing through, certainly well overhead, I might even call some double-over but then again it always looks bigger peering up from sea-level, but instead of just rearing up, faltering and closing out in unison across the bay, today a distinct peak feathered, tumbled and peeled. I had countless lefts and rights, making cavernous drops which spat me down the line at speeds my board hasn’t encountered before, trailing my hand in the smooth, shimmering, carved wall of water for stability, rising to the lip before turning and dropping back down the shear liquid face again, and again… and again, kicking up and launching myself head-over-heel over the brim before it dumps into the shallow sandbar. Every cell of my being was vibrating and alive, very much alive, reverent of the ocean’s grace for allowing me to catch those fleeting rides sharing her surging energy for a few seconds of Life.
This southwestern corner of Portugal feels like home, for two distinctly different reasons. To observe starched English families spending tense half-term days at some of the beaches we frequent has seemed bizarre, in a detached other-worldly way, and served as a reminder of the proximity of the British tourist colony that is The Algarve. Yet the wild, arid, red-earthed southwestern tip with its rugged undeveloped coastline, herbaceously pungent, sheltering herds of goats, leather-faced shepherds, packs of wild dogs and van-dwellers of all denominations feels like the place we’ve been looking for as we traced Europe’s Atlantic fringe. If only the British hadn’t invaded nearby, pushing prices of land beyond it’s natural level.
Footnote [after the second surf of the day]
Don’t do your surf check from the hill above the beach: the angle and distance distorts perspective rendering judgement calls hazy at best. Don’t ignore the Swiss duo you’ve been surfing with these last few days when they come back defeated, unable to get past the cascading walls of raging spume. And, most importantly, don’t take the sea for granted, don’t get complacent and don’t ever feel like you’re getting the hang of this surfing business!
I managed to get out back in a lull between sets using a rip at the north of the beach by the rocks, and when I did everything seemed more acute. The waves were not only taller, but more voluminous, more powerful, formidable. I found a position to sit out wide of the main peak in order to watch for a while, to analyse. But the peak had spread out across nearly the entire bay and this once quiet spot was in path of the relentless marching behemoths. I was in position to dig deep and go a few times but as I rose up the face, inertia giving way to gravity I pulled back as I saw the canyon-like drop beneath me, suddenly aware of the rocks scattered on the inside.
I paddled up the bay navigating my way precariously over the cresting waves, and through the swirling, churning waters between as huge masses of water heaved around, but what had been the ‘outside’, the safety zone, the non-breaking belt was quickly becoming the dangerous ‘inside’ as progressively bigger waves were breaking further from shore, the gaps between sets decreasing and the faces of the handful of surfers left out more determined. My mind turned to the book I had recently finished about Mark Foo and Ken Bradshaw’s 10-year tussle amongst the huge surf of Hawaii’s Waimea Bay and I began to get a sense of what genuinely big wave riding was about, whilst gaining a humbling perspective on my pickle as I visualised waves at the very least three times this size.
Walls of ferocious whitewater were unavoidable and on my buoyant fish un-duckdiveable. Numerous times I tried, only to have my board ripped from grasping hands and flung about thuggishly underwater. Once I turned and tried to ride the whitewater in on my belly, yet the boiling, seething mass was too turbulent sending me end over end, head over heels, inside and out. Edging closer to shore in any discernable hiatus I was reserved to an un-triumphant exit and looked for smaller waves to shuttle me back to dry sand. Choosing my moment, and wrapping my arms around my board I hugged her as I was shot gleefully onto the beach and trudged back up the hill to the welcoming arms of Sofie and Neil: bedraggled, defeated, but wildly exhilarated.
Two things were traced on my mind:
1. I loved the experience, the nowness of the situation, the sharpening of the senses, the vitality of being.
2. She’s the boss.