By Andy Davis, pics Greg Ewing
You know Peniche, right? Stop number nine on the ASP Surfing World Tour. Home to the intense A-frame beach break around which an entire pageant of neoprene, big buck sponsors, groupies in bikinis, prefab beach cubicles and a growing number of Portuguese surfing enthusiasts congregate each year, while the world’s Top 34 do battle, all broadcast live over a global network of connected computers called the internet.
That’s the one. What you probably don’t know is that back in around 1902 about 190 Afrikaans families lived here as exiles during the Boer War. Who knows what effect they had on the local culture? Maybe the Portuguese national pastry, pastel de nata, is really just a small melktert?
111 years later, four other South Africans arrive in Peniche. One of them has an Afrikaans surname, but that's where the comparisons end. This is no exile. This is a surf trip. The waves on this day at Supertubos are crap, big and stormy with a howling sideshore. Luckily the beach bar is open. The coffee is good, the Portuguese snacks delicious and the four South Africans are already trading Peniche jokes. Filthy Peniche, riding Peniche, stroking into a couple of round ones at Peniche, Peniche spits, they should call this spot Viagra because Peniche is so hard… The only thing that even hints to those boere 111 years ago is a small paragraph on a plaque on the wall of the old castle detailing its history.
Rewind three weeks. The phone rings. "Andy. Good news." It's Big Willy Bendix, the man driving this ocean leisure propaganda pamphlet you're currently clutching in your big greasy claws. "You're going on a surf trip,” he breathes hot ‘n heavy down the line. My mind immediately flips through the stored Rolodex of tropical reef breaks I've yet to ride. "Sounds good man." I answer "Where to?"
Surely this is some kind of joke. I live in Cape Town, Africa's own little Europe. I wear a wetsuit every time I get in the water. For me, the three little syllables that make up the term 'surf travel' are forever synonymous with exotic tropical locations, the smell of coconut flavoured suncream, warm, clear salt water, board shorts and outboard motor fumes. Portugal is, at this stage in my mind, the refuge of that whole phoney European surfing scene where everyone claims too much and you never know if they actually ride kites, SUPs or skateboards. Portugal is Europe's J-Bay. Just crapper. Only slightly more exotic than France. But shame, it's their closest bit of quality. Let 'em have it, I say. It's Europe. Old money. Played out. We're from the new world. Ours is an as yet unwritten script, a slowly unfolding, unravelling destiny. We don't go backwards!
But surf trips for the surf hack are rare and special free lunches, entire buffets of leisure and good times, to be seized wholeheartedly. The destination is rarely a consideration. Surf journos will jump instantly into foolish schemes like investigating river bores in Devon, or wave parks in Abu Dhabi just because they're offered. There was never any doubt that I was going to Portugal. I just wasn't entirely convinced of the destination's pedigree.
Now let's look to the talent assembled on this little tour. Ricky Basnett and Chad du Toit. I haven't spent much time with either, but we need to string a narrative together. Ricky's had a bumpy ride through the impact zone of professional surfing. From the highly rated and innovative Bluff grom that we all pinned our hopes on, to the ignominy of his final year on tour. Unlucky number 33.
Perhaps the average South African surf fan doesn't appreciate the old Buddhist maxim that expectation is the root of all suffering. Either way, Ricky's had to weather the storm of not reaching the lofty heights of our expectations. And largely, as a human being, he's come out alright. If you can get past his 'not giving a shit', and his propensity to look like a latter day surfing Axl Rose, you'll find that Ricky is actually just a freaky libertine who loves romantic comedies and has a natural talent and flair for… cooking. True story. Ricky even admitted to me, in one of his more vulnerable (beery) moments, that he wished he could have been on Australian Masterchef instead of the WCT. Obviously he still knows how to ride a surfboard. And when he finds his rhythm in old mama ocean, he turns on the kind of powerful rail-to-rail surfing and air game that wins heats at the business end of today's tour. The world's loss is the Bluff's gain. At the tender age of 27, Ricky's had a good mauling by the industry and is busy figuring out what he wants to do with his career and the rest of his life. Travelling to interesting locations, sampling the cuisine and nailing the odd photograph is a good baseline to work from. And although it's not fair and says nothing about his talent or his ambition or the unplundered pearl of success snuggled in the moist, fleshy oyster of his future, for the purpose of this article and because we need a simple archetype to string our story along, we're going to call Ricky ‘the has been'.
And if Ricky Basnett is a 'has been', Chad du Toit, aka Duttels van Skoettels, the hard surfing, cage fighting, house DJ from Durban, is 'the upstart'. Chad's been through his own wobbly bottom turn on the South African surf industry. We all know he won the Billabong Pro Junior back in 2010 and then kind of meandered his way around the QS for a bit. In 2012 he came back to basics. He almost took out the Oakley One Wave Wonder this year and certainly would've won it had Twiggy not returned from Fiji with that footage. (I still reckon Twig shoulda given him his old jet ski, but I digress).
He was a standout in the heavy cyclone pits at New Pier and even came down to Cape Town to throw himself around at the Dungeon. When it's small and windy he likes to fly and when it's big and round, well he likes that too. Dude's fast becoming the epitome of a complete modern surfer. He's got board, wetsuit and deckgrip sponsors but he doesn't have the heavyweight surf co. support to fund a renewed attack on 2013's QS or a free surfing career. This trip is all about nailing some shots and building the media momentum to persuade one of the brands that Chad du Toit inc. is a worthy investment. I think he is. Did you bring your checkbook?
So if we met a Hollywood mogul in the lift at the Gateway parking lot, the 30 second pitch would go something like this: 'Two surfers, a washed-up has been and an enthusiastic upstart head to the old world in search of the spark that'll reignite their careers. Against a historical backdrop of a nation that once ruled the world through their mastery of the sea, the old dog teaches a cocky but immensely talented protégé the ropes which in turn inspires him to make an unlikely comeback.'
The rest is detail.
But we’re forgetting the real star of the show. Aah Portugal… you sweet little neglected gem. As far as European countries go, Portugal has kind of lost its shine since around 1700. Before that they basically discovered and, for a brief moment, ruled the whole world. That's a story that involves bacalhau, the salted codfish that is a staple of Portuguese cuisine. Back then, the ability to make salty fish biltong allowed the Portuguese to sail the world and conquer it. But that was then. These days the signs of Europe's little debt problem are everywhere, especially in the graffiti on the walls around the airport-industrial zone where we pick up our car, calling for a massive national strike and lamenting the misery of these latter days of advanced capitalist penury. Yet under the dust, you can’t miss the charm of the age-old European civilisation, except without the fat American tourists that clog the cobbled alleys of Tuscany, or pack out those quaint little cafés in Paris. Nah, Portugal remains blissfully unappreciated, and therefore pretty damn cheap!
We collect the hire car, a brand new six-gear diesel Ford Focus station wagon with a sketchy third gear that grinds like a nasty wet fart every time you shift. This is how we will explore Portugal. Two coffins strapped to the roof, one crammed in the back, Chad basically spooning with Ricky on the single backseat. The Sheriff rides shotgun, of course. We snake our way out of Lisbon on an impressive system of articulated highways. Most of the hills outside the city boast lines of wind turbines. Sustainable energy is cool, but it can sure piss on that old world ambience. Invariably we get lost, driving east instead of west, we stop in front of a café where a group of old men are loitering the afternoon away squabbling, drinking port, eating chorizo and olives and waiting to assist lost surf tourists. They point us back in the direction we came. We don't want to believe them, but they insist. Eventually, via many a quaint rural backroad, we find the beach and a dog called Putu.
The name sounds both rude and like home at the same time. Puta is the latin word for prostitute and putu is the white starchy substance that goes so well with chisa nyama, chakalaka and beer back home. As expected, Putu is one sick puppy; a boxer with that hideous upturned nose, the permanent snotty slobber and the laboured breathing. He's also got an unsightly, calloused growth on one of his nuts. You just can't help feeling sorry for the guy. But you don't want him too close either. Putu is the housedog at 3S Surf Camp in Santa Cruz, a comfy spot situated perfectly on the coast, halfway between Peniche and Ericeira, and our home for the next 10 days. Putu acts just like a normal, albeit slobbery dog, until he gets excited and catches you alone between the gate and the house, at which stage he barks aggressively, circles around you like a shark and tries to bite you, or mount you. Two words: Pink lipstick. It's disconcerting.
Putu is a timely reminder that, in Portugal, you need to man the fuck up. Are you going to get bullied by a sad, schizophrenic suburban dog with a growth on its nads? I didn’t think so. Portugal, much like Brazil - the country they discovered and owned until 1820 - has an abundance of macho. It's a Latin thing. You know the drill, friendly on land, stink-eyed hustlers in the ocean. Generally, you just got to roll with it, be respectful, wait your turn, don't kook out and you'll get waves. Surf like Ricky and Chad and you'll get plenty, along with people rushing you in the parking lot trying to swap emails, buy your boards or get you to autograph their girlfriend's tits. And while surfing is a popular pastime in coastal Portugal, the majority of these guys don't do jiu-jitsu. In fact, scoring great waves is not really a problem. The country's 943 kilometres of coastline is the most southwestern chunk of continental Europe and it collects almost all the swell offered up by the mighty Atlantic. It's not so much a question of swell, but weather. The summers are the best in terms of both conditions and party vibes, but you might not get the kind of swells that light up Supertubos or the reef slabs and pointbreaks around Ericeira, and you'll definitely have to contend with crowds at the more popular breaks around Lisbon. In Autumn, our time, the crowds shrink back to weekends but you have to put up with a bit of rain and some shifting winds. But the waves…sheez man, there are always waves. So much so that the local tourism authority is offering surfers their money back if they come to Portugal and don't get surf over three feet.
Over the next 10 days we explore the area between Peniche and Ericeira until the confused, serpentine roads that connect the villages and the waves become familiar. In Portugal surfing is embraced in much the same way as the Wine Route back home. Most of the breaks are well signposted and better yet, the good ones have beach bars serving coffee, tasty little pastries and free wi-fi. There's also an incredible variety of spots from small, crunchy river mouth wedges and heavy beach break cylinders to classic point breaks and a range of slabs ranging from heavy to deadly, like the one that nearly decapitated John John Florence on a free surf during the Peniche leg of the tour.
The difference between this and other surf trips, apart from the bewilderingly affordable European location, is that Portugal offers everything a surfer could want but then also throws in perks beyond the €1 beers and the delicious food. Like the fact that Bon Iver are playing in an old converted bullring in the middle of Lisbon one night. So after a full day dutifully pushing fibreglass, Chad, Ricky and myself head through to catch the show. Alas, Bon Iver is for lovers and it's pretty awkward watching slow, soft acoustic love songs with Ricky and Chad. It doesn't take long for the boys to start heckling and then giggling at their own heckles. Glassy-eyed Portuguese lovers are death staring over their shoulders and I'm shifting sideways like a crab towards the bar. Ricky decides to snore loudly during the rendition of their hit 'Skinny Love' which earns us one friend and about 9 000 enemies. The chirp of the evening goes to Chad who reckoned Bon Iver's older brother Bon Jovi would’ve rocked harder. It’s a sad night when acoustic indie gets trounced by 80s glam rock.
Then it's just beers, carapao (delicious whole fried anchovies) and the discovery that Ricky Bobby, veteran of many a Brazilian (I'm just gonna leave that open) actually speaks a passable Portuguese. The next day, as is to be expected, the Sheriff has us all up early, drinking coffee, before shepherding the team back into the car in pursuit of different waves.
As the days stack up and the trip winds down, the vibe has transformed from edgy frothing to sated confidence, the road between Ericeira and Peniche lies open like a picked pocket. We know this place and are now comfortable plundering its pearls. The car is still wet-farting every time we shift into third and both Ricky and Chad are saying 'Ayoo!' way too often. As usual we get into a long and heated debate about the kak state of South African surfing and who or what is to blame, but soon enough Ricky bows out saying, “Let's not talk about other people.”
“That's a cop out.” I shout as I swing the Focus through another rural s-bend.
“Nah man.” Ricky is lucid but quiet. “All this talking about other people and what they've done just gets us nowhere. We've all forgotten why we started surfing in the first place.”
“And why's that?” I tune, hoping for another soundbite.
Ricky’s looking out the window as he mumbles. “Because it just makes you feel good…”
And then there's no more argument. The sun is setting behind a medieval village on the hillside, spreading long orange shadows over the ploughed fields. A wind turbine spins, slow and lazy in the distance. A fresh swell is arriving in the night and the wind is switching to the northeast, meteorology that we welcome in a small backroad dive, with Superbok cervejas and a platter of grilled Portuguese chicken, eaten with our hands to the chagrin of the locals.
By the time Emirates Flight EK192 banks left providing a final view of the waves at Costa da Caparica, Portugal is just a pile of clean-picked chicken bones on a greasy silver tray.
Source: Zigzag Surfing Magazine