Fortysomething surf virgins in Portugal - Is it ever too late to learn to ride the waves?
by Paul Simon, The Observer, Sunday 7 February 2010
Right to left: Paul Simon and friends Martin and Stephen prepare to tackle the surf in Portugal.
Our surf trip to Portugal is only a few minutes old but our happy band has already decided on a nickname. We are three men, joined in youthful vigour... youngish vigour... all right, we're all over 40. We have left our wives and children behind to go in search of adventure. We are os trÃªs amigos. But these amigos have issues: Stephen doesn't like going underwater because of his ears; Martin is worried about his wetsuit chafing after forgetting his Speedos, and me? Well, I'm cross. I'm cross that I didn't take surfing lessons 20-odd years ago, when I was young and living in Australia with muscles that worked. My time in Sydney wasn't all wasted, though: I did buy a pair of Hot Tuna boardshorts – they were crash-hot (authentic mid-80s Aussie slang).
Our appointment with the sea is still a night away so, like any band of surf dudes, we retire to our shack. But this is no ordinary hut; we are staying at the Ecolodges, the most fashionable address in the resort of Ericeira, an attractive fishing town on Portugal's Atlantic coast, only 25 miles, less than an hour's drive, northwest of Lisbon.
We are met by our surf school's co-owner, Alvaro, who shows us round. Six enticing wooden cabins are arranged in a cluster around a pool (or is it a pond?), with waterlilies topped by basking frogs and edged with reeds to keep it clean naturally. Each cabin is compact, with a kitchen/diner area, TV and sofa, shower room, two twin bedrooms, a balcony and a comfortable hammock. The site is mostly solar-powered and the host of green touches include LED lighting and fitments made from recycled materials.
Best of all, though, running underneath three of the lodges is a communal games room, bar and wine cellar. The bar operates an honesty system – what you drink during your stay you replace, unless you honestly can't remember. The games room has sofas, a TV, a pool table and a fantastic table football set decked out in the colours of Portugal's biggest teams, Benfica and Sporting Lisbon (a slight slope benefits the red shirts of Benfica). The communal ethos extends to a barbecue area by the pool, and a small kitchen garden from which you can pick tomatoes, olives and peppers to augment your meals. (We're only here for a long weekend, though, so don't plan to cater for more than breakfasts).
The lodges sit among quiet residential roads only five minutes' walk from the centre of Ericeira. We begin our pre-surf preparations with seafood platters and a bottle of wine in a restaurant in town. While lobsters on the display counter eye us suspiciously, we debate the stuff I learned on a surf weather website before leaving home: October in Ericeira offers a 91% swell consistency (57% wind, 34% ground) and in the morning the forecast is for a swell of 4ft @ 11 seconds. Nodding sagely over our goose barnacles, we decide to forgo an early night for a quick fussball tournament back at the lodge.
So we find ourselves at 9.30 next morning at Na:Onda surf school on Foz do Lizandro beach, a mile south of Ericeira town. Our instructor, Flavio, lean and handsome, sizes us up and hands us wetsuits: medium for me, extra large for Stephen, and what appears to be one shaped for a pregnant woman for Martin. We are given boards and head for the shore together with the rest of the class – an Irishwoman and three Portuguese teenagers – where we do a few stretching exercises and, with boards laid out on the sand, are shown how to lie flat, paddle to catch the wave, cock a leg forward and spring up onto our feet in the upright surfing position.
Flavio has some helpful advice for Stephen about the position of his leg: "You look like Charlie Chaplin." We practise for about two minutes more, then it's off into the waves.
The sea is a lovely 20C, not much below the air temperature, so it's a pleasure to receive the first splash of wave. The surf is as forecast – about 4ft @ 11 seconds – which means that as we wade out to waist depth, the breakers are crashing above head height. Flavio passes an eye over the class before fixing on me. "You," he commands, "you are the Chosen One. You go first."
I guide my board towards him and he grips its front, positioning it perpendicular to the waves, while I clamber aboard. He checks my foot position and watches for a suitable wave. When it comes, he says, "Paddle now!" then yanks me and the board forward to give a crucial boost. No sooner have I felt the surge of the wave than from behind me I hear him call "Up!" I attempt to stand ... and immediately topple sideways into the sea. I gather myself up, pull on my ankle strap to retrieve the board, and turn and fight the breakers and the undertow to join the back of the class.
We get into a pattern for the next half-hour, waiting in line like ungainly second-world-war bombers taxiing for take-off. Flavio has the resigned expression of a squadron leader sending his men out on a doomed mission. Like The Dam Busters, except with Carry On dialogue: "You are messing about," he tells Stephen; "Bend ze knees" he says to Martin. But then something magical happens. I stand up: knees bent and arms outstretched, I glide not ungracefully for three or four seconds before crashing, and there is a whoop from the boys. By the end of the two-hour lesson we have all succeeded in standing. Not every time, but perhaps one in three attempts. We feel triumphant. I think Flavio is quite pleased with us. Why wouldn't he be? I am the Chosen One, after all.
The Ecolodges beckon, where our muscles are soothed by the cabin's solar-heated shower, and we all take a well-earned nap before gathering again in the games room. We meet some of the other guests, who are sightseers rather than surfers. The lodges would be a great place for a big group of mates, or families holidaying together, because there's so much space. There's a giant TV for a film night, too, if you bring some DVDs. Or you can read one of the books left by previous visitors.
However, the three amigos opt for a pool tournament and a few beers before heading to town for aperitifs, then dinner. The Portuguese are habitual late revellers, and it is not until past midnight that a big crowd of young locals starts to gather at the main drag's liveliest spot, Bar Pedro Pescadores. We people-watch and test the barman's ability to make caipirinhas. They must be quite strong because, on returning to the lodge in the small hours, we take a plunge with the frogs in the eco-pool before retiring.
Morning dawns. A cock crows from some nearby garden. It's an early start again because of the tides, though our physical readiness is not tip-top. Our beach warm-up involves a run along the sand, which the amigos attempt manfully. Once in the water though, the first slap of wave on head banishes hangovers instantly, and we settle into our rhythm of launching, standing, crashing and being talked to sarcastically: "Bend ze knees. Stop messing about."
Today, however, Flavio is anxious for us to do well because some special visitors are expected. Sure enough, right on cue, like a well-drilled battalion of supermodels, 43 Norwegian girls line up along the shore in front of us, lie down on their boards and practise their launch drills. Which, of course, is the three amigos' signal to go coy and forget how to stand up. Flavio turns this crisis into an opportunity, and selects bigger waves to launch us into, knowing we will crash spectacularly. "Good wipeout technique," he calls it. "You have to know how to fall off well."
The October weekend of our visit is officially the end of Na:Onda's summer season, and a party is planned for Sunday night. Sadly, Stephen and Martin have proper jobs to fly home to, so at the beach bar that evening it's just me and the Norwegians... and a select gathering of surfing friends and Ericeira locals. Tobi Ebner, Na:Onda's other co-owner, an Austrian who swapped a career as a ski instructor for the Atlantic waves, tells me Ericeira is the perfect surf spot because there are breaks nearby to suit all levels, from beginner to expert.
It's a point I ponder on my final morning, when I spend an hour or so paddling furiously and trying to catch waves under my own steam, without Flavio's guiding hand. I mostly fail, but once again I manage to stand for a fleeting moment. It is enough to convince me I should surf again another day. And so, as the sun glints on the waves and the Norwegian girls, I pick up my board and trudge up the beach for home.
Surfholidays.com (020 8144 9950; surfholidays.com) offers three nights at the Ecolodges in Ericeira from €112 (based on four sharing), including two days of surf lessons and board hire. A seven-night package costs from €268. From June to August bookings are from Saturday to Saturday. Easyjet (easyjet.com) flies from five UK airports to Lisbon from £32. Hire a car through auto-europe.co.uk, or the Ecolodges can arrange airport transfers for €75.
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