Published in TNT magazine on 10th May 2015
Beaches are usually associated with relaxation, sunbathing and families. But this beach is different. Nobody is lying down. As far as the eye can see, wetsuit-clad figures wiggle around like tadpoles on the wide stretch of soft, spongy sand, warming up for a day of riding waves. At the far end of the 3km-long beach an impressive block of rugged cliff shelters a small huddle of white houses from the ceaseless trade winds. This is Famara. A small fishing village on the north-eastern coast of Lanzarote, 125km off the coast of Africa. I’ve come to learn to surf and escape the November rain in London. Lanzarote may not be everyone’s idea of a surfing paradise but it’s earned itself the nickname of “European Hawaii” because you can surf all year round, with the biggest swells from September–December. It’s most famous wave is El Quemao, one of the most powerful in the world.
Surfing day one has arrived, and it’s filled with nervous anticipation, excitement and the fear of looking an idiot. We’re in good hands though, as our instructor Carlos expertly takes us through the motions and assures us we will all be able to at least stand on the board by the end of the day. Our group gathers into a circle to warm-up and he takes us through a series of stretching, running sideways and backwards, lunges and hip thrusting gyrations, which has us in fits of giggles. We are shown the steps of going from lying down flat on the board, to standing up in one swift move. This is achieved by placing the hands under the chest to lift the torso and then quickly tucking the legs under, so your feet are standing where your chest was, with the leading foot forward. I am right handed so my right foot is the leading foot. My rental wetsuit is uncomfortable, and with the sea a pleasant 15 degrees, I decide to ditch it, although Carlos warns me that my bare legs might now get scratched on the board.
We all carry our boards down to the water’s edge, and enter to waist height. Looking out into the Atlantic ocean, we cautiously watch the endless rolls of water spilling towards us. As instructed, I start by turning my surfboard round to face the beach. I check to make sure the board leash is securely tied to my ankle, then lie belly down on the board, and wait for a small wave to take me right down to the shore, like body-boarding. This helps you get a feel for the wave, and if your weight is not centered, your board will either nose dive (you are too far forward) or flip up in front of you (you are too far back). Once I got the hang of this, the next step is to then bring myself up onto my hands and knees (like a dog) while the wave carries me forward – again fairly simple, since its relatively easy to keep balance on all fours. Next, is the real deal, coming right up to standing. This time, I wade out a little further, decide which oncoming swell might turn into a clean, crisp wave, then quickly lie on the board and begin paddling furiously with my arms. The wave catches my board, it shoves me forward with a strong gust of energy. This is the cue to push myself up onto my hands and tuck my feet under my body to standing, all the time looking ahead to see where I’m going. The board rushes forward faster than I had imagined, and my first few attempts end with an awkward topple into the shallow, salty water. Ankle slightly twisted and eyes stinging, I persist. Lo and behold, by lunchtime, most of us have managed to wobble through a few seconds of riding a wave. The feeling is exhilarating and I couldn’t stop smiling all day. It’s a truly epic experience. Surfing seems to be a mixture of balance and staying relaxed, with an element of sensing the ocean and trusting your instincts.
After class I investigate the entire length of the beach and spot some beautiful, swirly sand formations, caused by the black sand mixing continuously with the yellow sand. Walking back, the setting sun has created silhouettes of people against the shimmering, flat expanse of wet sand. The waves gently glaze over the very flat beach, creating a natural mirror, which reflects the sky and the people walking on it. Couples walk romantically hand-in-hand with the wind filling their clothes like sails on a boat. Some die-hard surfers squeeze a few more rides out of the final drops of daylight.
Day two is filled with a little more drama. I decide to go down early in the morning before class to photograph those sand formations. The rising sun lights up the sea-foam like a primordial steam. As I’m admiring the scene, I fall hard on a slippery black rock, injuring my knee, hip and hand. I might have broken my little finger, but I’ve saved my expensive camera!
I decide I don’t need my little finger for surfing anyway, so go ahead with class. Standing in the sea, I take some time to observe the other students techniques. The Swiss stoners are into their second week of lessons and are catching pretty much every wave they attempt. Then out of nowhere, BAFFF… a new student introduces himself by crashing his board into the back of my head. The pain is so severe I feel like I should be unconscious. I wade slowly back to shore and sit for an hour while the throbbing subsides. The beach is littered with beginner surfers and its not hard to see how this could happen if you aren’t mindful to look behind and in-front before catching a wave. Luckily, I haven’t sustained any real damage, and after eating an omelette baguette, I feel well enough to carry on. I even go for a run after the session. Famara beach is perfect for running. The spongy sand absorbs the impact on your legs at the same time as providing resistance making it harder on your muscles.
Today my body has taken an absolute battering – I feel like I’ve been in a boxing match! My ankle has seized up and so a couple of days rest is needed. With no surfing planned for the morning, the Swiss stoners and the Scottsman decide to hit up the local Sunset Bar and I hobble along with them. There is a decent live band on Friday nights and they make a mean Mojito for just €5. The following night, we take a taxi to the Old Town, and end up dancing with the locals to Latin rhythms at the Heineken Bar.
Its Monday morning and class resumes. The sea is seriously choppy. There was a storm last night and the surf-house flooded. Standing in front of the rough sea, his eyes squinting against the wind, our instructor Carlos admits in his Spanish accent: “If it were down to me, we probably wouldn’t be doing class today,” but nevertheless, we continue. They probably don’t want to lose the day’s takings. He insists on a very long safety talk about keeping our surfboards down in the strong wind and only a couple of hours later there is a serious injury not far down the beach. A flying surfboard has slashed a girl’s forehead open and the paramedics are on the scene… insurance is a must for this type of activity. You never really understand the power, majesty, beauty and fear the ocean can inspire until a huge wave is coming your way ready to submerge you. This morning, I fell off my board so many times. One particularly powerful wave sucked me right under, the sea spinning me like a tumble dryer. I wondered when my next breath would be, and hoped the board wasn’t going to wallop me or anyone else close enough. Wave after salty wave slapped me in the face, daring me to have another go. We all did our best, but it’s so much harder work battling against the wind. Carlos is always there supervising us, with his Go-Pro ready to take pictures of us wonkily falling into the sea, and emerging looking bedraggled, which of course he posts straight to Facebook. A gorgeous 16yr old German girl in our group somehow always manages to look graceful. At lunchtime, we have to sit in the car to stop the wind blowing sand into our sarnies!
Famara is without a doubt one of the most stunning places I have experienced, full of warm locals and international visitors there to connect with nature. On top of the beauty of the island, and the chance to brush up on my Spanish, I returned home a lot slimmer and fitter, if a little bruised!