The waves race up the shore submerging my feet, and I shudder in surprise. I’m not going in there! I wasn’t expecting the water to be so painfully cold… Bruno, our Portugese surf instructor reassures me that with my wetsuit on, I’ll be just fine. I think he doesn’t understand how much I detest freezing cold water. But I see the other women going in, and can’t help but think, “If they can deal with it, then so can I!”
Entering the cold water isn’t as bad as I was expecting, or perhaps my feet have just gone numb and I can’t feel them anymore? I wade out into the oncoming waves and get shoved back a step. You can’t enter the sea without a fight. Getting past the “white water” with your surfboard is the first step. Its a matter of timing… wait for a lull in the waves and then run for it. Push the surfboard as far out as you can and when the water reaches your chest, jump on and paddle fast to avoid being submerged and tossed around in a breaking wave. Once you are past the crashing white water, everything is a lot calmer. Paddling out further into the sea, the waves are bigger, but gentler, bobbing me up and down in a relaxing rhythm.
I take a rest to catch my breath before deciding on which wave to try for. Bruno is close-by and advises me where to position myself to ‘catch’ a wave. The wave will generally break at a certain point along the shore. Apparently “waves are like men, you don’t have to catch each one, be picky!” I sit up on my board and observe the oncoming waves, trying to decide which will be the right one…
I see a big curve of water coming my way, and with nervous excitement begin to paddle fast. Instead of me catching the wave, its more like the wave catching me. My board is shoved forward and I struggle to maintain my balance. I ride along for a few seconds on my stomach, unable to make it to my feet. By the time I am up and balanced, the wave has lost its power and my board sinks into the water. Bummer. I now have to paddle all the way back out again to catch another wave. Its tiring work!
I lug my pink surfboard out of the cold water and take a break on the warm sand, peeling off my clammy wetsuit. My companions, German Andreas and his 9 year old son Noah are getting ready to go in. This is Andreas’ fifth time to the Surfivor camp. He comes here every year and has reached a pretty good level of surfing. Andreas leads his son down to the shallower water and Noah skips along keenly behind him, looking like a tadpole in his small green wetsuit. Bruno gets Noah into position to catch a small wave. gently shoving him forward as the wave approaches. Noah is an absolute natural. He is straight up on his board without hesitation. His stance is strong, knees bent, and body low with arms outstretched and chin up. Andreas watches proudly with a broad grin. He runs to the shore and gives Noah a big high-five shouting ‘pachen-handen’ in German.
The sun and wind do their work to dry me and my wetsuit, while I snack on some gorgeous little pasties from the local bakery. They come in a variety of shapes and fillings. One sausage shaped croquette is made with the national favourite ‘bacalhau’ salted cod fish. The other is half moon shaped, covered in breadcrumbs and filled with beef. The last is a triangle and looks like a mini samosa, but is filled with what tastes like a mix of spicy tuna and chicken. Each one tastes completely different to the others but they are all super delicious.
Its time to go back into the water, this time I decide I will try out the new waterproof case I bought for my DSLR. It says you can take it 5m underwater, but at 60 quid, I think I’ll just keep it above the water to protect from splashes! The case fits my Canon 6D and 24-70mm lens combo like a glove. The only issue is some fogging on the front lens from condensation, but the pictures come out nice and clear! Noah is happy to be my model as he shows off his newly acquired skills.
Luckily for me, Porto has very safe beaches where robberies are rare and I can leave my equipment without worrying. We head back to camp to shower and change. The surf camp is right on the beachfront and from the front room, I can watch the sun go down. Local fishermen line the shore and keep fishing right into the night. Andreas and Noah head outside on longboards (like a skateboard but longer – hence the name!). The wide parade next to the beach is perfect for skating, although dodging the never-ending stream of runners keeps you on your toes. I see Noah has a big plaster on his knee from a fall the previous day. This hasn’t deterred him!
Its dinner time and I’ve been advised to try the ‘Francesinha’ a local dish which comprises a meaty sandwich, layered with steak, ham, sausage, and bacon, topped with cheese, covered in a tomato stew and baked until the cheese and tomato are bubbling furiously! Being mostly vegetarian, I wouldn’t generally go for this type of dish, but always like to try local dishes. I have to say its not my cup of tea.. but my brother and dad would love this dish. Needless to say I slept like a log that night.
This morning at breakfast, Andreas looks like he is recording something on his phone, when I inquire, it turns out he is timing his teabag (a perfectly normal German precision ritual). Today, we are off to Esmoriz, a town further south, where the Surfivors have another surf camp. We arrive at a long windswept coast lined with tall straight pine trees where the other camp, comprising a group of Germans and Italians and one Ethiopian guy, are warming up in a circle. This beach is called Cortegaca and its where the Surfivor camp began many moons ago. The beach is home to a large flock of seagulls, picking off the glimmering silver sardines left on the sand by fishermen. The waves here are bigger than I’ve experienced before. That’s the thing with the sea, every day its different and it can be difficult to predict, so we always perform a wave-check before disembarking from the van with our gear. Instead of surfing today, little Noah decides to build an elaborate fortress in the sand with seashell walls and pinecone towers, while his dad takes the opportunity to ride the green waves further out into the sea. Andreas is a tall, slim, middle aged man, but has the enthusiasm and energy of a teenager. The only break he takes is to rub down little Noah with more factor 50 sunblock.
I don’t get off so easy and fasten the leash to my sun-burnt ankle to join the others. The current is strong today and paddling into the right spot is a workout in itself. Thankfully, the water feels a little warmer, or maybe I have become acclimatised. I watch the others, some catching waves and some wiping out. In the distance I can see one of the younger instructors, Eduardo (who has the typical blonde surfer look – and which can incidentally be re-created with salt-spray from Boots if you don’t fancy surfing!), has taken little Noah on his board right out into the green waves and both of them are gliding along effortlessly towards the shore! He makes it look so easy… Eduardo has been with the Surfivors since he was a teenager and I’m sure somebody once popped him on the front of their board as a small boy in a similar manner, giving him a taste of the joy of surfing and a hunger to learn.