Grooving in the Algarve (Portugal) -- 2/8/97

I decided during the week that the best chance of me finding some waves around here (southern Spain) was to make the jaunt to the southwest coast of neighboring Portugal.

All I had to go on were a few hints from Portuguese surfers I'd conversed with on the Internet and Surfer magazine's Surf Report for the region. This would truly be a surfing safari for me.

Unlike Hawaii, there were no buoy reports or surf forecasts to call to ensure rideable surf. The only current information was from CNN International and Sky News weather, which showed an approaching cold front off the coast. Sometimes you just gotta throw the dice and pray.

I started my journey at 0400 in the morning, heading for the border in the cool, clear darkness. I had the necessary snack provisions, a full tank of gas, my travel bodyboard and gear, and a huge hunger for some real surf.

After getting lost a half dozen times, I finally made my way to the border. Man, just crossing that bridge was a spine-tingling moment, knowing that I was in another land, with a whole different set of customs, laws and lifestyle.

After finding a petrol station that took my Spanish pesetas, I got sticker shock from the price. It cost 165 escudos/liter--over USD $4.00/gallon! I thought we had it bad in Hawaii at $1.60/gallon.

I finally hit Lagos where I got all mixed up in one of those circle intersections. I landed on a winding country road which varied in quality from smoothly paved to borderline gravel.

The road was somewhat akin to the one going up to Kokee (Kauai), except it went through pastures and small villages with cobblestone roads. My Citroen car deftly maneuvered around horse-drawn wagons and small mopeds. Finally, I hooked up with the main road.

The countryside was beautiful with deep valleys veining the land, and little villages tucked away in nooks. Farming and livestock ruled, except during the tourist season, when hordes of Europeans headed south to the coastlines. I was glad it was off-season.

On the roadside, I found the sign I was looking for--Arri’s (not real name). The Surf Report for Southern Portugal described it as a "superb cove with outstanding waves,..." However, after driving for what seemed like miles upwards, I still couldn't even get a glimpse of the horizon. Was I in the right place? I was having some serious doubts.

All of a sudden, a crease opened up between plains, and I got my first glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean. It was a vision of pure awe--a surfer's wet dream, or nightmare. Lines of swell were stacked to the horizon. It was going off!

I raced forward and finally reached a vantage point for the surf. Arri’s is a tiny fishing village that is situated over a beautiful cove maybe a half mile across. Tall spires of rocks stood outside the breakers on the south end, a beach stretched across the center, and a cliffy point bordered the north side, with a little boat launch in the corner.

It looked like the swell was too big, with the left and center pretty much closing out. However, the right point beckoned to be surfed, with waves peeling along the edge. It would have been a perfect setup, except for the fact that several rocky outcroppings stuck out in the middle of the surfing zone. Boils could be seen forming from more rocks that were submeged. The water moved in weird ways.

I was told to be wary of ebb tides--what the hell are ebb tides? In Hawaii, the tidal change is relatively small--only about two feet--so we don't have to worry too much about it. However, in Portugal, it is more like ten feet. I guess a bigger tidal shift can create dangerous conditions.

There were no references to size up the surf, but it looked pretty big. By timing the falling lip, my guesstimate was that it was at least double-overhead.

Did I go out? Sorry to disappoint you, but I did NOT! There was no one out, and the place looked downright treacherous. I may be dumb, but I'm not stupid.

So I reluctantly backed away from the edge and drove off in search of more manageable (and people-infested) surf.

I decided to head south and check out Sagres, the city just around the corner from the southwestern peninsula. Hopefully it would catch a tapered-off version of the wrap.

Forty minutes later, I found a little cove called Iche’s (not real name). Miles outside from shore, you could see the swells wrapping around the far peninsula. The lines seemed to funnel into the cove in two distinct directions, creating an occasional nice bowly peak and barrel. Again, no one was out!

This time, I found a carload of local kids (late teens/early twenties) who were checking it out. Rather than use my charm to strike up a conversation, I decided to bribe them. I asked if this place was . They kinda were taken aback at first, but were a bit warmed when I passed them some Hawaiian H3O mags and mac nut chocolates.

After talking story a bit (in broken English), we all decided to make a go of it, changed, then walked down the "hundred steps" to the bottom of the sandy cove.

The waves were about head-high, with a few bigger ones. The clean water wasn't too cold in the 50's, and the wind was pretty light, being sheltered by the surrounding cliffs.

Paddling out, I knew my every move would be scrutinized since I was from Hawaii. Hey, not all of us rip in big waves! The guys stayed in the center, looking for the peaks. I was splitting my time between the center and the lefthand cliff.

Three of them were surfers, and one a bodyboarder. A couple of them were just beginners, but the other two were decent riders.

Everyone was a bit tentative at first, but once we started catching waves, we all were hooting, encouraging and teasing each other. I guess stoke is an universal language.

I was tripping on the sheer height of the black cliffs. It must've been 80 to 120 feet high, and get this, people were fishing off of the top. Man, I thought picking opihi in Hawaii was dangerous. Falling down here would almost certainly be fatal.

I caught some really good rides across the beach for maybe 50 yards on the swell coming in from the left. But the highlight of my session was this wedge that I took off on near the cliff. I stalled by pulling up on my bodyboard, and got a nice view from the green room, before a dry exit.

After a couple of hours, we headed back up the cliff. The boys wanted to check out a small cove further east, and they invited me along.

We got to this tiny, rocky cove that had great potential. Unfortunately the wind had picked up and turned onshore, all but blowing out the surf.

I still had a long drive back, so I told them I was leaving. We said our goodbyes, but before I left, they insisted that I take a couple things in return for my gifts. I proudly have a homemade cassette and a mini handmade surfboard from my Portuguese friends that I will cherish forever.

This country is not a rich country--some might even call it Third World. However, my impression is of a generous people living a simple lifestyle. Surfing is not too popular here, especially in the sparsely populated southern region of the Algarve. However, the water is clean and the waves rock!

Five hours later, I returned to my humble abode in Spain. I'd traveled over 1000 kilometers in about 12 hours of driving for two hours of surfing. Seeing a bit of Portugal, meeting some of the crew there, and catching some good surf made it well worth the drive.

I would like to go back there one day and explore the coast some more. There must be tons of uncharted coves and points just waiting to be surfed. It would be really cool if I could hook up with the crew again. But most of all, I want to go back and surf Arri’s. It's such a picturesque and alluring setup--a surf traveler's dream come true. Maybe one day...

Adios from the Algarve,