Sunday, 28 April 2013

Surfing The Algarve

After returning from Portugal and surfing a few times at my local beach, this seems like a good time to do a quick comparison between the two places from a surfers perspective. 

We've got into the habit of escaping the cold and rain of the U.K. every year for 3 or 4 weeks, around Easter.  This gives us something to look forward to on those cold dark winter evenings, and also a chance to hopefully top up our depleted Vitamin D levels after a typical British winter.  That's the idea in theory anyway.  Portugal has been the place we've chosen to go back to for the last 4 years, after travelling to a variety of different places over the previous years (California, New Zealand, India, Sri Lanka, to name a few).  Sometimes we've had great weather in the Algarve and other times we've endured weeks of non-stop rain, but we've yet to abandon our favourite campsite and head indoors.  It's still far too cold for "the locals" to be camping out so everywhere is still quiet, which suits us.  This means that it is about as warm as an average "good day" of camping in the U.K. at the height of the summer!  Every year we come up with new ways to deal with the variable weather, with humour being the most important of these. As long as we can find somewhere sheltered to cook a nice meal at the end of the day, we're happy!

One of the reasons we choose Portugal as a destination is the quality of the waves for surfing.  In the U.K. this is pretty much the coldest time of the year for the water temperatures (7.5 Degrees Celsius/46 degrees Fahrenheit), and the air temperatures can be equally as low.  There is usually no shortage of waves though, if you can brave the cold.  It is such a joy to go somewhere warmer and be able to surf in just a light wetsuit instead of the heavy 5mm winter suit with gloves, boots, and hood that makes surfing in the U.K. at this time of year possible.  The 16 Degree Celsius, crystal clear water is a joy to be in after a Cornish winter.  This is still cold, but not "freezing" (Scooby still won't go in though!).  Just like Cornwall, the Western Algarve has two coasts with surf, with the west coast having the biggest waves, and the south coast offering some shelter from the persistent northerly winds.  Just like back home, the swells on the south coast are short lived affairs, and you have to be "on it" to catch all the variables working together to get good waves.  This year was different though with many more days of waves on the south, and the west coast too big to surf on most days.  Finding somewhere sheltered from strong winds was a constant chore, and every day we'd drive from beach to beach slowly learning how all the factors come together at each spot. 

Being nearer the equator, the Algarve has smaller tides than the U.K., and this means that there is less variation in the waves as the tide moves in and out.  This can mean that some spots "work" for longer, offering a bigger window of opportunity for good surfing.  At many beaches there are places where the waves start to break along the edges of rocky cliffs, or from submerged rocks/rock shelves that suck the water back out off the beach along the edges.  This can be dangerous for beginners, but a real help if you know how to use them to your advantage for getting back out to "the lineup" quickly after each ride (where the waves first start to break).  Out to sea, there is deeper water off the coast of Portugal than the U.K. and this means that the swells roll in with more power than in Cornwall.  This means that the waves also break with more power causing them to be hollower and therefore more interesting for surfers, with a better chance of riding inside the breaking wave or "getting barrelled" in surfer-speak.  Learning how all the different spots work on swells from different directions, combined with differing wind directions, stages of tide, etc., can take some time, and some years I have got to surf places that never break properly during other trips.  This is a constant learning process and would take many years of living locally to master all the variables.  This is also the case in the U.K., but back home I've got 30 years of experience to draw on so usually know where the best waves will be.  One upside of this is that every time we go back to the Algarve we discover new places to surf.
So every day we'd set off in search of waves, bumping along dusty tracks for miles in the search for good waves.  At many of these more secluded beaches you'll find small communities of travellers from all over Europe, many of them living in their vans all winter and returning home for the summer.  At a few spots the vans and waggons are a lot older and the owners a lot more "alternative".  Loud German Techno music blasts out at all hours and dread locked youth mix with trendy surf types and laid back traveller dogs wander freely. 

If you were unfamiliar to scenes like this it could be a bit intimidating but "the vibe" is friendly and we've never seen any trouble.  We have heard that the police sometimes have a crack down on these places and move everyone on.  This year one of these out of the way spots has had a bit of a makeover and the traveller waggons now stand on a brand new car park instead of the hard packed mud of recent years.  In typical Portuguese road fashion though, the new road to this spot is only half completed, just like most of the road works that we've been seeing every year since we first went to the area!  It's actually good to see this lifestyle still in existence, as in the U.K. this way of life is vilified in the mainstream media, along with anything else that is outside "the norm".  

There's a good wave at this spot, but this year the sand banks have also had a makeover, probably from all the rain and floods of recent months.  The beach now offers more variety, but the main wave isn't as good as usual. 
Just like in Cornwall, there is a lot of variety to the beaches, cliffs, and waves of the Algarve and many similarities between the two.  Some spots remind us of beaches at home and some spots we'd like to "take home" with us!  On a good summers day in Cornwall, with the sun shining and clean waves breaking in clear water, there's nowhere we'd rather be.  It's just that these days are few and far between compared to the Algarve, especially with the poor summers of recent years.  We've never been to the area at the height of the holiday season and never experienced the extreme heat of the high summer, so maybe we'd have a different view of it if we did, but for us it brings "a taste of things to come" for us back in Cornwall with summer on the way. 

So we're back home and I've ventured out into the chilly Atlantic waters again and we've even had a few sunny days to cheer us up.  Only another month or so and I'll be able to surf without a hood, boots or gloves here and the water has finally started to slowly warm up again.  In another 3 or 4 months the water will be as warm as it was in the Algarve at Easter! 

Still, Cornwall is a beautiful place to live, with a wide variety of waves on offer for surfers of all abilities.  Yesterday I surfed my home break for 2 hours totally alone which is a rare delight these days.  The summer crowds will come soon enough, but for now it's "all good"..... surfing with a few friends and waiting expectantly for the "proper" summer we haven't had for a good many years. 

One essential quality necessary to keep surfing in the U.K. is a sense of optimism and at this time of year every surfer here is looking forward to the promise of warm water and clean waves.


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