Portugal’s Surf Essence

Sandra Tinari is an Australian photojournalist who’s been traveling the world surfing and writing about cultures she finds. For more, check out her website.

As the diesel engine spluttered silent its trailing haze cleared to reveal sandy white beaches picket fenced by dry, scrub-laden cliffs. De ja vu settled on my shoulders with the fine red dust…Australia?

Nope. Welcome to Portugal’s Algarve. The end of Europe, the last stopping point before Africa, where vast Atlantic swells pummel the coastline, carving rocky bays and endless set-ups. It looked like home but the ramshackle beach shacks and rustic fishing towns gave it away, so too did the empty surf line-up playing host to long glassy lines below.

With 900kms of coastline, football mad, sea faring Portugal is a surfer’s paradise. Nazaré in the north introduced the small nation to the big wave surfing world and Supertubos in the small fishing town of Peniche reminds Hawaiian surf pros of home. The Algarve in the south meanwhile, moves at a slower pace (if that’s possible); a juxtaposition of glittering tourist resorts in the east and laidback beach towns in the west, which attract hippies in campervans and sun-loving surfers.

It is a special country, says shaper, Octavio Lourenco of Ferox Surfboards, whose teamrider is the 21-year-old Nazaré and Mavericks free surfer, Alex Botelho.

“I think Portugal is such a beautiful place. In many ways we are very Mediterranean but it’s still very different from Italy or Spain. We have a different heritage; the Moroccans when they left the Algarve also left behind much of their culture and architecture.”

For surf coach, Ricardo Goncalves, Portugal reflects the surf lifestyle; “We have a perfectly balanced culture, somewhere between a Central European organized and responsible country and a relaxed, laidback South American country, which means organized but not that much, relaxed but not too much. I think for a small country you can really have the best of both worlds here if you are patient enough…”

The country has a rich and patriotic heritage. The battled scarred castles are a reminder of the wars fought against invading Spanish and Moors and the interior can be as if time stood still, with weathered farmers tinkering with ancient tractors, while shepherds silently pass by. 

And it is a country of contrasts. Portugal’s agricultural and ocean roots heavily influence daily life. Thriving farmers’ markets, selling the catch of the day, figs, olives and seasonal fruits, battle it out against large supermarket chains. A bottle of agua costs 16c and a post-surf beer or glass of wine only €1 but imported new-world winemaking techniques blend with old-world traditions to produce world-class vintages. Jobless rates are also climbing as the Euro burns but surfing here has modernized and grown against a backdrop of increasing globalization.

And the future looks bright. Ricardo, who through his Future Surfing School coaches emerging Algarve surf talent and tourists with former Portuguese surf champion, Guga Gouveia, says surfing’s transition here has been transformational in the past 20 years.

“The future is amazingly promising; we will breathe surfing on every corner of Portugal. If we pay close attention, we are following the same social influence that California, France, Brazil, South Africa and Australia had 20 or 30 years before. But as we are not so populated and smaller sized our society will feel it stronger and will be even more influenced by surf culture,” he says.

Octavio agrees, adding that when he started building surfboards in 1995 it was difficult to buy a wetsuit in Portugal, let alone a surfboard or the tools needed to shape one. But that has all changed.

“With the publicity surrounding pro surfers it is changing fast. You can see the huge jump from old fashioned to modern with the growth of the internet. Before, the boards we had were mostly those left behind by travelling Australians or South Africans. Surfing here is very competitive now, technically they are doing some crazy stuff but although it depends on which place and beach you go to, as each has a different vibe, I think overall in Portugal we still embrace the essence of riding the wave, the creativity and the enjoyment of going into the water,” he says. 

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