An hour north of Ericeira lies the fishing village of Nazaré. In the last ten years, since Hawaiian Garrett McNamara broke the world record for the largest wave ever surfed (23.8m) there in 2011, Nazaré has become the ultimate proving ground for big waves surfers from the world over.
Although Ericeira cannot rival the waves of Nazaré in terms of size, it has plenty of world-class waves of its own, including some ‘big wave spots’. In this article, we interview well-known local surf instructor Antonio Neto about his newfound love for surfing some of the local giants.
Tell us about Ericeira’s Big and Not-So-Big Waves…
What is your favourite wave?
My absolute favorite wave is Coxos. This really is the best wave in the area and everybody knows it: the ideal wave with perfect shape and plenty of barrels. No secret there. It’s probably among the best waves in the whole of Europe.
Having said that, I do enjoy surfing all of the waves in Ericeira. I am what is called a regular footed surfer, which means that I surf with my left foot forward. This also means that my favorite waves will be the ones that go right – the “right-handers” – where I surf facing the waves. And guess what: Ericeira is the land of perfect right-handers!
However, now that I have started surfing big waves, I am hooked on São Lourenço.
Both Coxos and São Lourenço are great. A good session in Coxos will make me happy for the maneuvers I can do there. Whereas in São Lourenço, I love how alive all that raw ocean power makes me feel. And this makes me want to keep as healthy as I possibly can because it will pay off.
Which is the most challenging wave in Ericeira?
Pico do Futuro and the big waves in São Lourenço.
Pico do Futuro is a big, tubular wave that breaks in front of rocks. This is technically demanding.
Whereas São Lourenço has a much larger volume of water in the waves but, pound-for-pound, it’s softer than Pico do Futuro.
Which wave is more fun?
I can’t say one wave is more fun than another. It all depends on the situation, on the moment, on the conditions, on the surfer, and above all on the attitude. Having fun is the goal of surfing anywhere. I’ve had amazing fun surfing two foot waves with my friends, getting perfect barrels in Supertubos, and surfing five-meter waves in São Lourenço. But they are all totally different experiences. Surf is not about the performance or surfing the biggest and best waves unless you are actually competing.
All the Brazilians complain about how cold the water is in Ericeira. Have you surfed in England?
I come from the extreme south of Brazil next to Uruguay, where the water is really cold. It can be like needles poking into your head at times! So, I am used to cold water and I never wear gloves or boots here. Having said that, I did go to the Wavepark in Bristol when I was in England. And that was cold! Partly because it is freshwater.
What is your surf style?
I aim to be a good all-round surfer. That way I can have fun in all different conditions!
Tell us about Big Waves…
Are you or are you not a big waves rider?
Surf has been my life since I was 8 years old. It’s all about the surf. Only recently did I start to get into surfing big waves. So, I want to keep humble about it.
How did you start surfing big waves?
Due to the pandemic, I could not go to Supertubos. So I stayed in Ericeira and started thinking that I would like to try surfing big waves. Since here we were getting loads of big swells!
My boss, Joana, is a big waves rider. She was the one who allowed me to try it.
I arrived in São Lourenço as her team was just finishing a session. Joana said to me that it was a perfect chance for me to try if I wanted to, as the conditions were perfect. She offered to lend me her equipment.
And from that moment, I was hooked. I did my best to be there every single time there were waves. Then, I ended up buying my own board, second-hand.
What makes big waves surfing a different category?
Everything is different: The equipment, the technique, and even the feeling.
The typical surfer, who surfers normal waves regularly, will have 3 to 5 boards.
Then, to surf the big waves you will need a bigger board. My board for big waves has 3 times more volume than my usual board. The leash is also much stronger.
Why does the board have to be bigger? For gaining speed when catching the wave; and for stability when going down the wave. Also, the impact is high and so it needs a heavier coating not just for stability, but also for strength.
Also to protect you from the high impact, you need to wear a special jacket. And, because you are wearing this jacket underneath, you will need a bigger wetsuit.
There are no maneuvers. You just choose your wave, the bigger the better, and then go all the way down as steady as you can.
You feel incredibly alive! And all the effort you have made to keep yourself fit and healthy pays off at that moment. You really rely on it.
Tell me about the feelings. Are you not scared of surfing big waves? How do you overcome fear?
There will always be an element of fear. It’s an instinct that is there to help keep you safe. The fear factor in a way helps to drive you to push your limits. It motivates you to train hard, to prepare well, and to keep healthy.
The equipment sounds expensive. What type of sponsorship are you looking for?
I make a living as a surf instructor. The job has been hugely affected by the pandemic. If in normal conditions, buying equipment would have been difficult, nowadays it is impossible.
The other day, when my big board broke, I had no alternative other than to ask for help, to replace it. So, a friend of mine, Rodrigo Mattos from Miyabi Sushi here in Ericeira, stepped in and made a contribution to help with the board. In return, I will help him with marketing his restaurant as much as I can. If you’ve not been, you should definitely go!
I am aiming to find mutually beneficial partnerships. You help me to get the equipment I need and I help you with marketing. I am doing my best to learn, this is something new to me.
Do you have a team? How do you keep safe surfing big waves?
I have a group of friends locally who are really into surfing big waves. My boss, Joana, an Italian, a Hawaiian, a Portuguese, and a guy from the Chech Republic. When it’s on, most of the group will be there. We look out for each other. There’s a Whatsapp group we use to exchange information and to let each other know when we’re going. Nobody likes to surf these waves alone.
How to keep safe? I practice my breathing technique. Also, before I head in I assess the water and ask myself whether I’d be able to swim in if I had to. Equipment is an important safety factor. Especially having a buoyancy jacket and a strong leash. These are my next investments. Also, I’d like to do some rescue training. Other than that, I keep practicing, spending as much time as I can in the water. After all, the best training for surfing is surfing!
Everybody talks about the big waves in Nazaré. What are the possibilities for big waves in Ericeira? And what is the difference between them?
Ericeira does have big waves, consistently. Besides, we are close enough to Nazaré to head up there when there is a swell. I mean, most people are coming from Hawaii or Brazil for it!
Of course, Nazaré is the biggest wave in the world. But before that, big waves surf already existed. It was only in the recent 5 or 10 years that the world and the surf community discovered Nazaré as a surfable wave, with the tow-in surfing.
What makes Nazaré so special?
Nazaré is special because it is the biggest, scariest surfable wave in the world. This wave is another level altogether. The surf spot there, at Praia do Norte, can hold 30-plus meter waves.
There is a long, deep underwater canyon that runs from way out to sea all the way to the shore at Praia do Norte, where it suddenly becomes much shallower. This unique topography creates gigantic waves in the right conditions.
Waves travel much faster and retain their energy when traveling through deep water. The waves at Nazaré are generated by huge low-pressure systems in the North Atlantic. The energy from these lows travels outwards in concentric rings of waves until it hits the shore. Most of the time much of the energy has been lost when the sea becomes shallower far out to sea, and the wave slows down. That’s not the case in Nazaré because the waves maintain their power when traveling up the canyon. All that power energy gets unloaded right on Praia do Norte!
In the last 10 years or so surfers have discovered that, with the right equipment and support, they can ride these giants. But it’s certainly not without risk. There is so much water moving around at great speed, with massive rocks in front, and a huge canyon underneath!
Life in Town, Big Waves Apart
How did you end up in Ericeira?
Back in 2013, I came to Portugal to teach at a surf camp in Peniche for three months. The job was arranged by a couple of friends back in Brazil. This couple used to spend six months in Brazil and six months here. They were the ones who told me about having a career as a surf instructor. I was thrilled to find out that such a job existed!
In Peniche, the work was going well. So I decided to stay a bit longer and watch the WSL championship that was about to happen in Peniche. Little did I know, that would be my last week with work. After deciding to miss my flight to watch the competition, I discovered the surf camp was closing for the season!
After that, to cut a long story short, I contacted a friend of mine from Brazil, who was living in Ericeira and got a job in the restaurant where he worked. And that is where I learnt to make sushi.
But in the end, food was not my passion. So, I got a job at the surf shop in Foz do Lizandro, where I worked for four years before I got my surf instructor license.
You arrived quite a while ago, why have you never left Ericeira?
Life quality. Ericeira is the most complete place. In the end, this is what really matters. Because, there are other places with great waves – although maybe not consistently as good. Nevertheless, this is the place where I feel the happiest.
I have to admit, the waves are a big part of this life quality. Being able to go on a surf trip every day, without having to travel anywhere, is priceless.
But there is more to this place. I also identify with the local values. People will like you for who you are, not for what you have, wear, or drive. This is exactly how it should be in my opinion.
Besides, Ericeira is super civilised – being so close to Lisbon; it is well organised and has great food. On top of that, when the surf is too big in the winter, you are halfway between Peniche and Carcavelos. And these are the two places where you will want to surf in these conditions. So, the town is also strategically located, surf-wise.
Background – Before the Big Waves
Tell us more about your Surf Instructor career…
Last Summer was the first time I could support myself in teaching alone. It was fun and, financially, we could get by. This did not allow for any extras though. No equipment. But now during the pandemic, there is no work of course.
How did you and your partner Sarah meet?
We met in Peniche when Sarah was on holiday at the camp where I was a surf instructor at the time. I did not speak English back then, nor did Sarah speak Portuguese. Only the language of love, kiss kiss kiss.
Then, the following year, I saw on Facebook that Sarah was in Portugal, in the Algarve. So I sent her a message saying that I could speak English already, especially with the help of Google Translate! I was already living in Ericeira and I asked her if she would like to visit. Not too long after that, we started a life together.
Soon after, I had to go back to Brazil to visit my family for the first time since I had left, one and a half years earlier. This trip was overdue, considering that the original plan was to spend three months in Portugal and then go back home. Luckily, Sarah came to Brazil with me and we had a wonderful time there, until I had a surf accident, in our last week.
Tell us about your surf accident?
The accident was really bad, to the point that the doctors said I would not be able to surf again. I was devastated. On the other hand, this was when it was clear to me that Sarah and I had a really special connection. The journey back was not easy, but Sarah was a huge support. In the end, this accident brought us even closer together. And since then, we have been life partners.
How was it coming back and not being able to surf?
Coming back and not being able to surf, having a dislocated femur, no place to live and very little money wasn’t that easy. Luckily, everything turned out well. My friends helped me a lot, first of all by giving me a place to live.
I could not surf for eight months. But I was confident that I would be able to again before long. So I waited. As patiently as I could!
The next thing I knew, we were hosting after-surf sushi parties at the surf school shop where I worked after leaving the restaurant! This was when I met and became friends with the sushi chef Rodrigo Mattos.
Then, when I was fully recovered and could finally go back to surfing full-time, I decided to apply for the surf instructor license. And since then I have been making a living as a surf instructor.
What does it take to be a surf-instructor?
There are lots of things.
Patience, you have to keep calm.
Experience in the sea. To be able to keep calm, transmit calm, and say the right things.
The right equipment is often the key. With the right equipment, everybody can surf. There is a board big enough to get anyone on their feet!
Good conditions. Know when and where you can go.
Make sure to teach what to do on dry land, before getting in the water.
Around here, you have to be able to speak English to relay to students what they need to do.
Be charismatic, a team player, and manage expectations. Keep calm. Did I say that already?! I guess it’s really important.
You are selling a service above all. People must be happy, have fun. Ericeira has powerful waves, rocks, and cold water. These are extreme conditions in the eyes of people who have never been in the sea. You need to make them feel confident.
I can imagine that you are very good at motivating people and making them feel happy. My partner rented a board from you when you were working at Na Onda years ago. He remembered you when we moved here and commented on how friendly you were in the sea.
I believe that if you are good, treat people well, the best you can, you will be surrounded by good people too. What goes round comes round.