Surfing for the First Time

While in Europe, I heard that Portugal is one of the world’s best locations for surfing. This surprised me at first (I guess I had never considered Europe as a surfing destination like South Africa or Hawaii) but as I enjoy trying local past times that are unique to my destinations, I decided that while I was in Portugal, I would try my luck riding the waves.

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After a bit of searching I found Filipe, a local professional surfer in Lisbon and the owner/operator of Get Stoked. We met outside the Lisbon Zoo along with two others before loading into what Filipe affectionately called the Surf Van. I knew that I had made a good choice when I saw all of the wetsuits, surfboards and sand in the back of the Van. Filipe explained that he constantly cleans out the van, but the very next day, the desert returns. It didn’t bother me any – rather, I felt like it guaranteed my experience would be the most authentic Lisbon had to offer.

Filipe drove us only about 25 minutes south of Lisbon to Fonte de Telha, but it didn’t feel like we were anywhere near Lisbon at all. It was located deep in a natural park of green trees and blue sky. There was a long sandy beach sandwiched between the turquoise ocean and a steep cliffside. Filipe explained all of the visible layers on the cliffs were from sedimentary rock formed over centuries of rest. There were also a handful of fishermen’s houses huddled together in clumps. Apparently, the law was that if you could build a house and squat there long enough, you owned the place.

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Aside from a handful of sunbathers and a group of kite surfers, the beach was empty – I could see down the shore there were clumps of tourists that didn’t seem to venture out to where we were.

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After some stretching and practice on the beach, Filipe determined that I was ready to try it all in the water. Now, I can swim, but I am by no means the strongest swimmer. By that, I mean I cannot dive and the doggie paddle is my only paddle. Therefore, even though I am extremely active, I didn’t have any expectations for how this was going to go. If I managed to get onto the board just once, I would have been very pleased with myself.

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The good news for me was, I had immense success! The first attempt to stand up resulted in a tumble, but on the second try, I was standing on the board. I thank my many years of figure skating for my good balance and flexibility – it definitely helped me out!

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Filipe helped me time the waves and we slowly went out further and further. I even switched to a smaller board about an hour in, which in surfing, the smaller the board, the easier it is to tip and thus the harder it is to control. I eventually went back to the original board as I got more and more physically tired, and my reaction times slowed down a bit.

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What was the most exhausting part of surfing for me?

Actually getting out to the waves! You are fighting the tides, big waves (do you want to jump over them, or dive under them?), and the boards are a lot heavier than I anticipated! I’m a pretty petite person, and the surf board was definitely both taller and wider than I was. Towards the end, Filipe went in the water again just to help tow me out there, heehee!

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What did I find was the most difficult part of surfing?

Honestly, it was all very hard to coordinate (like almost any sport), but the most difficult part for me was adjusting the board once I was standing on it. I found myself tending to tip the nose of the board forward – not a good idea. I found it really hard to stay balanced, move your weight around and not go ass-over-tea-kettle.

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Did I ever wipe out really badly?

Yes! It was all because I never mastered the skill of timing when I needed to stand up. This involves looking behind you at the wave coming at you, paddling longer than your instinct says to and getting up just as the wave broke and the foam reached me. I messed up once and had a huge tumble. Apparently, the surfing community would say I went “over the falls”. Filipe had already warned me that if I fell in, I needed to cover my head, with my upper arms in front of my face, my elbows up by my forehead, my forearms on the top of my head and my hands covering the back of my head. This was to protect my head in case the board shot into the water after me. Because the board was attached to my ankle with a long cord, it being yanked under with me was a potential issue. Thankfully, the board didn’t follow me (as far as I know) but I did quite a few somersaults underwater. I didn’t know for a second which was up and which was down but I followed the cord and my natural buoyancy, and I had only been underwater for a matter of seconds. I tried to come up in between the waves, but it didn’t end up that way, and I got a mouthful of seawater. A second try and I was back on the surface again. In the end, I was more surprised than anything: nothing was hurt, not even my confidence. Filipe offered me a break if I needed one (apparently I had really had quite the fall) but if there was one thing I learned from years of sports, it was that I needed to get back in the saddle, er, on the board. So I took the next wave I could and everything went well.

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After having tried surfing, do I like it?

YES! Oh my goodness, I was NOT expecting that I would love surfing this much! Yes, the salt water made my eyes red; yes, I was a little stiff the next day; yes, I found sand in my sneakers for the next 3 days; but I loved every minute of it! I can see how people can change their entire lifestyle in order to surf every day. For a Canadian who was raised with the snow, I think I enjoyed the surf way more than I could have expected.

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What would I recommend for anyone who wants to try surfing as well!

Three things: stretch, keep your expectations low, and find a good coach. I am active, but every sport has muscles you haven’t used before. So definitely stretch yourself out before you even get your toe in the water. Keep your expectations low so that you aren’t so demanding and impatient with yourself. I expected very little, and was so surprised with how far I actually came. I am glad I didn’t put too much pressure on myself (and Filipe) on only my first day. And lastly, I couldn’t have learned anything without Filipe. He was obviously passionate about surfing, and that made me passionate about my attempts at the sport. He also knew exactly what he was doing, was very experienced and could easily communicate what I needed to change about my trials. The teacher can make all the difference.

What is my final impression of surfing?

I would recommend any adventure-seekers to give surfing a try! I definitely want to try it again, but there aren’t too many places to surf in Paris. It is something I will look out for in the future, and something I hope I can do again in Portugal. Until then, shaka, and hang loose!

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Are you interested in booking a session with Filipe Ferreira as well? Get in touch with him through his website, by email (getstokedportugal@gmail.com) or if you are already in Portugal, try giving him a call at +35 19 18 58 67 69. All photos of my first time surfing were taken by Filipe.

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